Returning to work — HR FAQs for small businesses

Phil Kendall

Jun 2020 ⋅ 8 min read

As lockdown rules begin to ease, and the UK government announcing ‘flexible furlough’, wherein furloughed staff will be allowed to return to work on a part-time basis, businesses all over the country are getting ready to reopen their doors.

But what, from an HR perspective, needs to be done to reopen safely? And what are the ethical and legal responsibilities of the manager or business owner?

We sat down with our HR expert, Denise Jennings, to pick her brain about the kind of things that business owners should do and bear in mind when asking their staff to return to work in a post-lockdown world.

Disclaimer: please be aware that some information may not be appropriate to all business types. If in doubt, seek professional advice relevant to your industry and business  — this article is for information purposes only.

We’ve divided the following HR questions and answers into sections to make it easier for you as a business owner to find the information that's most relevant to you. Feel free to browse the questions and answers one by one, or use the links to skip to the part that you’re most concerned about.

Assessing risk |Reducing workplace risk | Staff testing positive | Other HR issues

Assessing risk

Q1: Government guidance tells us we need to complete a COVID risk assessment. What sort of risks/measures do we need to think about?

As an employer you must take steps to protect your employees from coronavirus. This involves carrying out a risk assessment to help you to manage risk and protect individuals. You’ll need to:

  1. Think about which work activities or situations could transmit the virus between staff.
  2. Identify who could be at risk (both your staff and people they’re in contact with).
  3. Decide how likely it is that someone could be exposed.
  4. Act to remove the activity or situation or control the risk.

If you have fewer than five employees, you don't have to do a written risk assessment but it’ll probably help regardless.

The Health & Safety Executive website has excellent information and guidance for businesses looking for help in making the workplace as safe as possible.

Remember: every industry and business needs to think about different risks — there’s no one-size-fits-all risk assessment.

Q2: Do we also need to consider the risks associated with employees’ commutes?

It’s a good idea to encourage staff to walk, cycle, or take the car to work, where possible. If staff must take public transport, consider adjusting their working hours so they avoid rush hour, and ensure staff follow government guidelines, including those around face coverings.

Q3: What’s the difference between ‘clinically vulnerable’ and ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ employees in terms of managing their return to work?

‘Clinically extremely vulnerable’ employees will have received a letter or have been told by their GP or hospital clinician to shield. They can also register on the government website if they need any additional support, such as having essential groceries or medical supplies delivered to their home.

Employees who are ‘clinically vulnerable’ are at a higher risk of severe illness or have pre-existing conditions. They’ve been asked to take extra care in observing social distancing, and should be helped to work from home, either in their current role or in an alternative role that makes working from home possible.

If working from home isn’t an option, such employees should be given the option of working in one of the safest available on-site roles, i.e. roles that enable them to stay two metres away from others at all times.

Reducing risk

Q4: With regard to keeping individual workspaces clean and sanitised, is the onus on the employer or the employees? Should I use a cleaning firm?

You’re not obliged to employ professional cleaners, but before your staff come back to work, they should know what they need to do to keep their workspaces clean, where they can find things like sprays and cloths, and when and how to use them. They should also be instructed to wash their hands frequently, with the soap/sanitiser provided.

You’ll also need to devise a strategy for keeping shared areas sanitised. You could create a cleaning rota, take on this responsibility yourself, or simply make all places like break areas and kitchens out of bounds. Either way, you’ll need to make sure high-touch areas (think door handles, shared phones etc.) are wiped regularly, and decide whose job that will be — preferably with the help of some sort of cleaning sheet so that you can log when an area was last wiped down.

Finally, if you’ve decided to split your staff into sub-teams (more on this below) and have them come in at separate times, be sure to leave an ‘air gap’ (a time when clean air can be circulated) between the time when one sub-team exits and the other enters.

Q5: Should staff wear face masks or other PPE? Should we provide this?

This will really depend on the results of your own risk assessment, but if you find that masks and/or other PPE are required, you must provide it free of charge. All masks and PPE should fit properly, and your employees should be shown both how to use and dispose of it.

For example, your risk assessment may find that masks are not needed in a spacious, well-ventilated office, but in a tighter environment where staff can’t socially distance from customers, you may find that masks are required. It all depends on your circumstances.

Q6: What if we don’t have enough office space to keep staff at a safe distance from one another?

The first thing to say is that, regardless of whether you have limited or loads of space, your staff should continue to work from home wherever possible as this is by far the easiest way to limit virus spread between your team.

If, however, you simply must go back to the office, there are a number of ways you can help protect your team when working with limited space:

  1. Break into sub-teams. By dividing your team into two or more sub-teams, and having them work on completely separate days or shifts, you reduce the risk of infection spreading through your whole workforce.
  2. Stagger shift times. Keep your teams distanced and reduce the number of people present at any one time by drawing up a schedule and instructing staff (either individually or in small groups) to start and end their shifts at different times.
  3. Back-to-back working. Rather than having staff sit side-by-side, they should sit facing away from one another where space is limited.
  4. Install screens between desks. Screens made from materials like perspex would be best, as they allow light through, and are easy to clean.
  5. Choose online over face-to-face meetings. Rather than gathering at tables or in meeting rooms, make use of online software like Zoom, Slack, or Teams to hold meetings via webcam, even if you’re in the same office. Encourage staff to use internal messaging rather than visiting one another’s desks.

In other industries, for example hospitality and construction, employees should observe the correct social distancing guidelines, ensure they are wearing adequate PPE, have been correctly trained on new health & safety guidelines, and observe all hand-washing instructions. The government has provided sector-specific return-to-work advice on the website.

Testing positive

Q7: What happens if an employee tests positive after their return to work? Do we need to tell other employees and ask them to self-isolate as a precaution?

This won’t necessarily result in closing the business, but you should contact your local (for example, Public Health England) protection team to let them know that one of your staff has tested positive for COVID-19. They will then carry out a risk assessment, discuss with you the individuals who might have been exposed, and offer further advice on the steps you should take. This will include any cleaning advice.

Q8: Thinking about data protection, can we keep records of staff who have tested positive/have COVID symptoms?

Absolutely. So long as these records are held securely, employers should keep a log of any staff who have exhibited symptoms or tested positive for COVID-19, and use this information to help stop the spread within the business.

Your staff should also be encouraged to inform you at the first possible instance if they suspect that they have coronavirus or have been in contact with someone who has — and definitely shouldn’t come into work.

Other HR issues: Furlough, refusing to return to work & more

Q9: We need a phased return at our workplace. How do we determine who stays furloughed, and who comes back to work?

Start by identifying those whose physical presence would be most beneficial to the business. If there are staff whose work has been made difficult by working remotely, they should be among the first to return to the workplace.

Avoid the temptation to bring back all of your senior staff or managers back at once, however. You might think that starting from the top and working down is the most logical approach, but this could well result in your entire management team falling ill at once. Instead, consider a good mix of roles to meet the needs of the business, taking into consideration the distance your staff will have to travel, since those who rely on public transport to get to work will inevitably be more at risk than others.

Finally, remember that some of your team simply won’t be in a position to return to the workplace anytime soon. Some may have preexisting conditions that make them especially vulnerable, while others will be shielding vulnerable members of their household. In such cases, they should be asked to work from home where possible.

Q10: What if someone refuses to return to work even after risk assessments have been completed and actioned?

Communication is key here. Well in advance of asking your staff to return to work, talk to them — individually on the phone if possible — and explain the steps you’re taking to keep them safe.

If after doing this, an employee remains reluctant to come back to work, then you may need to consider taking disciplinary action as per your employee handbook. Before doing so, however, be absolutely sure to investigate their individual circumstances and ascertain whether there’s some other underlying reason — for example, a vulnerable family member — why they might be nervous about returning to work.

Q11: We want staff to come back into the workplace, but they can do most of their job roles working from home? Can we require staff to return to the office?

If an employee is worried about catching the virus and so refuses to attend work, the first thing I’d suggest is listening to the employee’s concerns and offering reassurance. An employer's response to this will depend on the actual risk of catching the virus, and will be different for every employer depending on specific circumstances, including whether anyone in the business has already been diagnosed or if there is another real risk of exposure.

Responses will depend on individual employees, too — some may live with people who are shielding or vulnerable, some may have anxiety around COVID-19 and returning to work, and others may simply prefer to work from home.

Employers may also decide to offer a period of paid annual leave or unpaid leave, or allow the employee to work from home for some or all of the time where this is feasible. Technically speaking, however, you can require staff to return to the office.

Q12: Many of our staff still have lots of annual leave to take, and not much time left to take it in. Can we require staff to carry it over?

There are a few ways to approach this. First, recent changes to regulations state that up to four weeks of unused leave can now be carried over for up to two years where it’s not practical to take the holiday as a result of coronavirus. Therefore, you might want to let staff know that some of their unused holiday can be carried over, with no need to cram it all in during the rest of the leave year.

This amount of carry-over can be difficult for small businesses to manage, so you may instead encourage staff to book their remaining leave as soon as possible, putting rules in place to ensure that you have always have the required staff in each role working at any one time.

If necessary, you can also require furloughed staff to take annual leave while furloughed. Holiday is still accrued during furlough at its usual rate, and can be taken during it. Some employers are allocating one or two leave dates per month during furlough. This must be paid at 100% of an employee’s usual pay, but 80% is covered by the furlough scheme.

Returning to work post-lockdown won’t be easy, and for many there will be no such thing as ‘normal’ for a long time to come. But with a little bit of planning, and a lot of communication, it will soon be possible for many businesses across multiple industries to reopen — whether full-time or on reduced hours — while still keeping their employees safe.

Good luck.