Employees & Volunteers Return, but how?!
4th July 2020
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As a great many places of work return, there is still little guidance for the voluntary sector. 

Whilst some will view this area as almost secondary to main places of work, its important to note that voluntary businesses contribute a huge amount of revenue to the country and its economy.

Looking at the process of the ‘Big Return’ from a purely technical point of view, there will be a great many models for doing this safely, but all of these models will have some very common staging points, regardless of an individual or organisations capacity.

(Obviously, the points we raise later around ‘Redundancy’ won’t be relevant to volunteers!)

Think back to late March, when all of these places were ordered to close. In a great many cases, appliances were switched off, lights were extinguished and the doors were locked, and with the odd exception where a safety & security inspection has been made, they have been closed to everyone, including their employees, volunteers and customers.

So, what is the right way to re-open and keep your teams safe? Below is what we believe are some of the correct steps to a safe re-opening, we hope that the techniques described will also help increase team engagement and avoid confusion, conflict and a further loss of physical and mental wellbeing.

 

Okay, so essentially, we are talking about ‘places of work’ and regardless of the status of an individual within that location.

With this in mind, there will be a number of different scenarios.

How you manage a return to the workplace will depend on the type of closure arrangements you have been operating.

The 3 main types most likely are:

·        Business not trading at all (all staff furloughed)

·        Business trading on a limited basis (some staff furloughed, some working from home or in company premises) or where only ‘essential’ workers are currently in work

·        Business trading fully but all staff working from home.

Whichever of these is closest to your individual business, there are some common issues you will need to address:

All workplaces need to observe the Government's social distancing guidance which seems highly likely to continue for some time to come.

All staff who can work from home are expected to carry on doing so.

Where businesses are part of a sectoral return to the workplace, employers must consider detailed risk management approaches to safeguard employee & volunteer health and minimise the risk of infection.

It’s therefore essential that organisations continue to base any plans for returning to the workplace on up-to-date Government and public health guidance in relation to COVID-19.

The Health and Safety Executive will be conducting spot checks and has also published advice and guidance relating to COVID-19 on its website which may be useful when considering health and safety measures. The Society of Occupational Medicine, Mind, ACAS, CIPD, BITC and a great many other companies have produced a toolkit to help employers plan a return to the workplace in a way that manages risk alongside their legal obligations.

Given that the priority for every business is managing a safe return to the workplace for staff and volunteers, it’s crucial to work in close collaboration with your health and safety and occupational health teams. Communicate the practical measures you are taking to your teams on a regular basis to help reassure them that their health, well-being and safety is your top priority. Follow this up with regular briefings, ideally through a virtual platform.

Make sure employees & volunteers are clear about what rules and procedures they should follow both in the workplace and at home, especially if they begin to feel unwell. Don’t forget first aiders will need to be trained on the very latest advice in relation to their initial actions.

We’d suggest that you have a competent and trained individual on site all time in relation to Covid-19 and infection risk and control, that way if questions or a situation arises, you have qualified support on hand to advise you and your teams on what to do.

You will need to review your workplace and consider – can people maintain a 2meter physical distance between each other at all times? How will you manage meetings, interviews and other interactions? What about communal areas such as canteens, toilet or kitchen areas? A typical question relates to the prevention of cross infection in communal toilets. So, a cleaning strategy will need to be devised, implemented, and monitored.

How can you implement resourcing strategies to support physical distancing such as ‘cohorting’ (ie keeping teams of workers working together and as small as possible), or staggering working hours so that not all team members are in at the same time?

All of the key protection and hygiene measures will continue to apply to minimise the spread of infection, such as reminding team members about regular and effective hand washing and providing hand sanitiser. If your premises have been closed for a period of time, you should consider carrying out a deep-clean before reopening. You should therefore review your cleaning arrangements, for example ensuring all phones/keyboards etc are wiped daily with anti-viral cleaner and you have a safe disposal method for the cleaning materials afterwards. Again, this type of change will likely involve some training within your teams.

(You can refer to the Government guidance for more information.)

Depending on your working environment, you may need to consider providing additional PPE, including gloves, masks or anti-viral hand gel. If you want people to wear gloves or masks, then you will also need to think about training and briefing your people on their correct usage – since both can be ineffective if used inappropriately.

(Information is available on the Government website.)

It’s also likely that more large-scale testing for COVID-19 infection will form a key part of facilitating a safe return to the workplace for larger numbers of employees & volunteers. This could form an extension of the current framework for the testing of essential workers and members of their household, and will mean every employer implementing a systematic approach for their workforce.

Employers should continue to monitor the latest government guidance and be prepared to act upon any changes.

Team members who travel or visit other company premises may also need additional equipment or briefing. Remote meeting facilities and video-conferencing should be encouraged wherever possible to minimise the need for staff or volunteers to travel and/or use public transport.

The risks to people’s health from the pandemic are psychological as well as physical. These include anxiety about the ongoing health crisis and fear of infection, as well social isolation due to the lockdown. Many will have experienced challenging domestic situations, such as juggling childcare or caring for a vulnerable relative, as well as financial worries if their partner has had a reduction or a loss of income. Some will have experienced illness, or bereavement.

Even if your teams have carried on working and participating in video meetings, they will still need to adjust to working in a shared environment with colleagues. Some may take more time than others and it’s likely that most people will need a period of readjustment. Some members of your team may have concerns about travelling and socially distancing on public transport – or it may not be as readily available. Many may find that they are still coming to terms with the significant change which society has seen, and the familiar workplace routines could feel very different.

Organisations like Mind offer free support resources on their website.

It will be vital to have a re-orientation or re-induction process for returning team members. Encourage and support every manager to have a one to one return meetings with every employee, where a key focus is on health, safety and well-being. Managers need to have a sensitive and open discussion with every individual and discuss any adjustments and/or ongoing support to facilitate an effective return to the workplace. This is especially important for those who have been furloughed, and should cover topics such as changes in company services or procedures, how specific customer queries or issues are being addressed, or changes in supply arrangements, as well as any agreed changes to their work duties or tasks. Whilst employers should not attempt to unilaterally change previous terms and conditions, some people may require a phased return to their full role, or want to discuss a new working arrangement, especially if their domestic situation has changed because of the pandemic.

Finally, it will be important for every employer to ensure that the organisation culture is inclusive, and that every employee feels they are returning to a supportive and caring environment. The pandemic has had an unequalled impact across the workforce in many ways, as different groups of employees, volunteers, and other individuals, will have been affected in diverse ways according to their job role and individual circumstances. Some organisations will have people who have been furloughed on 80% or 100% pay, for example, while others may have continued to work or even had increased workloads. The uneven nature of people’s work and personal experiences and the challenging nature of the lockdown and ongoing situation, means there could be potential for some negative feelings creeping into the employment relations climate. Therefore, it’s important that the organisation fosters an inclusive working environment, and managers are sensitive to any underlying tensions and confident about nipping potential conflict in the bud.

Legal considerations

There will also be a number of employment law and administrative issues that need to be covered.

My advice throughout has been that you should seek written agreement with staff to be furloughed. The guidance on the flexible furlough scheme from 1 July 2020 says that adjusted working arrangements must be confirmed in writing; this is especially important if employees are having a phased return to work.

Please note, even if employers put in a clause allowing for an immediate recall, you should still give staff a reasonable period of notice of requiring them to return to the workplace. This is particularly important given that many people will have additional childcare or other responsibilities, which they may need to make arrangements to manage. Although some children may return to school from 1 June not all age groups will be covered initially. Parents in certain sectors may need to return to work before their child can return to school and relatives cannot undertake childcare due to social distancing rules still in place.

You’ll need to ensure that your payroll team or provider are aware that furlough has ended or been adjusted for these individuals  and they should return to full pay for time worked (taking into account the national minimum and living wage rates increases from April for any staff employed on those rates).

From 1 July to 31 October the employer and employee can agree working arrangements whereby the employee resumes work part-time whilst the Government will continue to fund a proportion of furlough pay for the non-working time.

Claim periods will need to be a minimum of one week after 1 July but can be longer to reflect the pay cycle. The grant claim will be based on hours not worked, compared to the employee’s normal working hours which should be paid by the employer as normal. The employer will need to report the hours that have been worked and the hours the employee has been furloughed when they would usually work.

As an example: an employer and employee agree that the previously furloughed employee returns to work half time, for 20 hours of a 40-hour working week. For the hours the employee is not working they will be covered by furlough pay, and for the hours worked will be paid salary as normal. If the employee normally earns £3,000 a month, they would have got full furlough pay of £2,400 a month. On returning to work half time the employee would earn £1,500 a month from the employer as normal monthly salary plus for the 20 weekly hours of furlough they would get half the monthly furlough pay of £1200. This means the employee would get a total of £2,700 a month for working half time compared to £300 less on full furlough.

Even if you can address the crucial health and safety aspects and are confident you can take steps to protect people’s health, is it sensible to want all staff and volunteers to return to work at your premises? Would it be more appropriate to continue with some people home working on a longer-term basis? If so, make sure you have a clear rationale as to why you need particular team members or roles to return physically. Everyone’s lives will have been severely disrupted by the pandemic. People’s expectations around work, and how they fulfil their role, and reconcile work and domestic responsibilities, could have changed dramatically.

This is an ideal time for employers to think more creatively about effective ways of working, and harness more agile and flexible working practices to meet individuals’ changing expectations. A more flexible approach could also help employers to develop more effective people management practices that are more productive for the organisation. This may require employees to review existing or produce new policies on flexible working.

What criteria will you use to recall your teams?

Will it be simply business need?

Will you consider individual personal circumstances?

Remember not to use discriminatory criteria; be fair and inclusive and keep in mind your organisational values and any diversity and inclusion aims.

Short term working/redundancy

The government furlough scheme has now been extended to October 2020 but when planning a return to the workplace your business may decide all of the existing workforce are not needed. In this case you have several options:

Agree reduced working hours with some or all staff.

Furlough staff for a further period, at the new grant rate or supplementing the grant at the organisation's expense by more than the required amounts

Consider strategies including natural wastage, recruitment freezes, stopping or reducing overtime, offering early retirement (subject to complying with age discrimination law), retraining or redeployment, sabbaticals and secondments, pay freezes, short-time working and other alternatives to redundancy.

Reduced working hours

If your business has work for all its staff, but not at the level before restrictions, you may want to consider asking staff to reduce their working hours on a temporary basis. This needs to be done by agreement and can be done under the flexible furlough scheme until October, with the Government paying partial furlough pay. Under normal employment law employers can also agree a temporary or permanent contractual change to part time working, although it may be more cost effective to wait until the furlough scheme ends. Employees will always need to agree in writing. It is legally possible to impose a change (for example by dismissal and re-engagement) but this is a complex, expensive and time-consuming approach which is also likely to destroy any goodwill with employees, so should only be considered as a last resort and following proper legal advice.

You’ll need to be clear about the reasons for reducing working hours and be prepared to respond to questions from staff. You also may need to consider how you ‘sell’ the idea when furloughed staff can receive 80% when not required to work - you may be asking them to do work and receive a smaller amount; and team members  who have been working normal hours may feel demotivated at being asked to take home less pay when they have kept the organisation running at a difficult time.

Further furlough

Although the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) has now been extended to October 2020, the grant available may not necessarily fit in with your own business timescale. It may be that you would prefer to keep some staff furloughed for a further period while you implement a phased return to normal working.

Employers will need to check their furlough letter to individual employees to see if it included a specific end date and a specific percentage salary payment. If employers wish to continue to keep staff furloughed on the same terms as the extended CJRS, businesses may need to reach further agreements with their teams to accept the continuance of furlough and the new payment structure.

With the reduced grants employers can supplement any reduced furlough payment but do not have to, unless there are problems with the wording of their original furlough agreements. It would be sensible to write to employees to explain that you are considering continuing furlough for them (with an estimate of how long) as many will expect the changes of government advice and amendments to the scheme to mean a return to more normal working.

If your furlough letter did include an end date or linked furlough to the original CJRS, you will need to seek further agreement from team  to continue being furloughed. It would be sensible to give an estimate of how long the further period is likely to be.

When the CRJS finally ends in October a minority of employers will have an unpaid ‘lay-off’ clause in their contract. If you do have such a clause, you will be able to use it provided staff are given correct notice (and there should be no reason why you cannot give people more notice than they contractually require). Remember, however, that unpaid lay-off still requires you to pay minimum guarantee payments for some of the period, and that an unpaid lay-off exceeding 4 weeks in length entitles an employee to consider themselves redundant and claim a redundancy payment from you, so this is only a short-term solution.

Redundancies

Your business may not be able to continue trading, or you may only have enough business to require significantly fewer staff. In such a situation, you may need to consider redundancy planning. You need to follow the correct legal process and take any steps you can to support employees through this process. Redundancy is a crushing blow to many people, at a time when they have been through a very challenging time – be very mindful of how you communicate, continue to support them and treat their health and welfare as a priority.

To get the very best out of what can be a nasty situation, its key to have open and friendly dialog throughout. Simply sending a letter telling a team member that their post is under consideration, is not a good plan. It also speaks volumes about the levels of communication within your organisation!

The Redundancy Process

You must explore alternatives and consult with staff – even if there is no option but to make redundancies – before formally giving notice. This should include the reasons why they are being made redundant.

Government guidance on redundancy consultation is available on the Gov.uk website.

If you are planning to make 20 or more people redundant (but less than 100 people) you must start collective consultation at least 30 days before giving notice of the first redundancy. If you want to make this number of redundancies as soon as the CJRS ends completely in October you will need to take the consultation requirements into account.

Similarly, if you planning to make 100 or more people redundant then consultation must begin at least 45 days.

Notice must also be given to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

While the relevant legislation does allow for these consultation periods to be reduced in ‘special circumstances’, it is unlikely that you would be able to use this argument when the difficulties are known well in advance.

Remember that redundant staff are entitled to receive notice (or payment in lieu); holidays and other contractual entitlements; and a redundancy payment if they qualify.

This is a cost your business will have to pay.

Shielding

Some of your staff/volunteers may still wish to shield (even though shielding is lifting) because they are ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ and at particular risk from COVID-19 infection.

Others may be very concerned because they live or care for someone who is classed as high risk. If individuals are still shielding as restrictions begin to be lifted, or the CJRS ends, you should:

 

·        allow them to continue to work from home

·        if this is not possible, look at other options to retain them such as a further furlough period.

 

More information on shielding can be found on the government website.

Staff or volunteers who develop symptoms of COVID-19 - or who live with someone who does – will still need to self-isolate for 14 days.

The rules around this have not changed and information can be found on the government website.

Bereavement

While deaths from COVID-19 are still comparatively rare, it is possible you may have employees who have suffered the bereavement of a partner or other family member. While there is no statutory right to bereavement leave, other than in the case of the death of a child, you should be sympathetic to requests for additional time off during this period, and if you can we recommend that you pay normal pay.

Remember that, while all deaths affect individuals, in the case of COVID-19 family members may have been unable to see their loved one for some time before death, and not been able to attend the funeral. Employees who have suffered a bereavement are likely to need ongoing flexibility and support to grieve. Make sure you make them aware of any mental health support (such as Employee Assistance Programmes) you offer, and that managers are able to have sensitive and supportive conversations with people.

In very rare cases, you may have an employee who has died from COVID-19. You will need to support their colleagues and again, signpost staff and volunteers to any mental health support you offer. You will also want to be in contact with their family to offer support, especially where you offer Death In Service benefits.

Holiday

Staff are now allowed to carry forward some of their statutory holidays if they are unable to take them in the current leave year.

Our advice remains the same:

Encourage staff to take previously agreed holiday dates – even if working from home, people still need time away from work.

Have a clear policy to allow as many people as possible to take leave this year while still maintaining key business services – perhaps relaxing normal rules around maximum numbers allowed off at once.

Other issues to consider

If your business operates internationally, you will need to plan based on the restrictions and/or guidance of different countries. Some may maintain stricter lockdown arrangements than the UK; others may lift restrictions sooner. Adopt a consistent approach while ensuring you are aware of local circumstances.

International travel is likely to remain disrupted even when other restrictions are lifted. People returning to or arriving in the UK will have supply their contact details and details of their accommodation, and self-isolate in their accommodation for 14 days. This regulation effectively rules most business travel, as returning employees & volunteers will also be affected.

If an employee travels to a destination that requires quarantine on arrival and then on return to the UK, businesses would be looking at the employee being away for a minimum of one month plus the number of days they were away as there would be 14 days’ quarantine at either end.

Other non-COVID-19 issues that may affect your business still need to be planned for. For example, the UK is due to end its Brexit transitional arrangement on 31 December 2020. This will have major implications for businesses that trade internationally, or who currently employ EU nationals, or who may need to recruit from outside the UK.

In addition to health and well-being, employers should bear in mind the importance of diversity and inclusion in any decisions or plans made. From ensuring that decisions don’t discriminate against certain groups of employees (eg decisions about flexible, home or part time working due to school closures where women could be disproportionately affected leading to sex discrimination claims) to fostering an inclusive working environment that takes account of the different experiences people have had during the pandemic. The EHRC has produced guidance for employers to make sure the decisions they’re making are not discriminatory, as well as guidance for employers on making reasonable adjustments.

Volunteers

Whilst volunteers are not technically employed, your business still has a duty of care towards them, this should be outlined pre-Covid-19 within your volunteer handbook.

Again, to operate responsibly you’ll be needing to look at possible re-training prior to using your voluntary teams.

Its important that as both paid and unpaid teams return to your workplace that they are equally protected and supported. It’s also hugely important that all of your documentation is up to date and uses the correct references in relation to voluntary team members. A failure to comply with this could be very costly if a volunteer were to be seen as an employee and form a tribunal hearing against your organisation.

More advice is available on this subject on our website.

Communication with your staff and volunteers is key. Keeping people informed of what your business is doing – whether it is good or bad news for individuals - will help them to make their own decisions and give them some degree of security in very uncertain times. Knowing they are valued and supported by their employer or the organisation that they support as a volunteer – and that you continue to prioritise their health and safety – will be pivotal to their well-being and your success.

If you are about to re-open or have re-opened and need support or advice, please feel free to call or message us.

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HR Support Sussex

Member since: 2nd June 2020

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