The onset of COVID-19 sent the UK into lockdown on 23 March. Now, after almost eight weeks of staying in our homes, we are slowly inching away from this. Based on the prime minister’s conditional plan, we are set to steadily head back to work in the coming months.
But how do businesses reopen after such an event? And how can business leaders get their workforce up and running again when there is no vaccine for the virus yet? Here, we look at the current state of play.
A matter of strategy
The UK is the latest country to begin to come out of lockdown, with countries such as Germany and Spain already starting to ease restrictions. This change has caused economists across the world to form strategies that are designed to help mobilise workforces and reintegrate employees into their roles – and many of these roles will look very different to the ones they were in before the pandemic hit.
There is a balance that must be struck between looking after the nation’s health and its healthcare system, and the impact of everything shutting down on the economy. However, economists are looking even further ahead to a time when the virus is defeated, and a vaccine is found.
To successfully look ahead and to be the business owner who is trying to plan how workers will return, strategies must be implemented. Significantly, every business must act lawfully, considering employees’ health and wellbeing as well as other factors.
By focusing on the legal perspective of how the workforce can return, business owners can ensure that staff are treated fairly as they transition back into the workplace. Both legal departments and contracted lawyers are, therefore, playing a pivotal role right now as they can navigate any legalities around staff returning to work. It’s crucial for them to have a good steer on this, otherwise employees could have a case for professional negligence later down the line.
There are instances where employers need to tread carefully from a legal standpoint as they ease staff members back into work. For example, the furlough scheme has recently been extended to October 2020, but their employees can return on a part-time basis from august. This is designed to help support employees as they return to work.
However, there are still issues around statutory rights for those who are furloughed. Annual leave in particular has been a huge point of contention, and employers have been advised to seek legal advice as there are potential employment law issues around whether holidays can be taken.
Similarly, companies have had to restructure as a result of the lockdown. Jobs have been made redundant, especially in some of the sectors that have been hardest hit by the pandemic. In these instances, companies must work out how the reshuffled organisation will look before their employees return.
Add to this, the practical implementation of social distancing guidelines. Is it possible to keep staff two metres apart? Is there enough PPE in place? If any staff members return and become unwell because social distancing has not been upheld, there is the possibility of legal action being taken.
Ironing out issues such as these is essential for legal departments, ideally before staff begin to return to the workplace. Getting this right is going to be a case of trial and error, but as long as businesses are acting within the law, it can be possible for employees to slowly set to work in this new normal.