lady in face mask

Relaxing COVID restrictions: How to deal with employee challenges

With the Government now announcing a move to Step 4 of the Road Map on the 19th July 2021 and a relaxation on the restrictions, how can employers manage potential challenges and conflict in the workplace?

Step 4 of the Government’s Road Map includes an easing of restrictions, such as social distancing, the wearing of facemasks and the requirement to work from home. Remember that the restrictions for England, Wales and Scotland may differ.

Whereas many businesses will welcome this easing of restrictions, they must remember they still have legal responsibility for staff’s health and safety in the workplace.

We explore some of the issues that staff may raise.

Face Masks

Face masks will no longer be compulsory after 19th July 2021. There will be a shift from the Government instructing employers and individuals to follow strict rules to a greater emphasis on businesses and individuals making their own decisions on what steps they feel they should be taking to keep themselves, staff and customers safe. This shift of responsibility gives businesses more flexibility when it comes to deciding whether to require staff to continue wearing face coverings in the workplace.

Employers are likely to have to deal with challenges from staff who refuse to wear face masks when required to do so, or staff who feel uncomfortable that their colleagues chose not to wear face masks.

For the time being, some businesses may choose not to relax the restrictions. However, some employers may wish to give staff a personal choice on whether to wear face masks in the workplace or not. The exception to this may be in certain roles, such as customer facing positions like hospitality and transport or where staff have to work in close proximity to each other. Employers may also wish to consider the wearing of face masks in staff meetings over a certain size or in the staff canteen.

If businesses do get rid of face coverings in the workplace, what practical things can they do to alleviate concerns?

There are various measures that you can consider from a HR and health and safety point of view to help make employees feel more comfortable with the transition to a face covering free workplace:

  • Double down on hand sanitiser, hygiene measures and workplace cleanliness
  • Consider keeping social distancing measures in place after the removal of the Government’s social distancing guidance.
  • Keep the workplace well ventilated.
  • Continue with regular COVID-19 testing in work.
  • Let employees wear face coverings if they wish to continue.
  • Have a rule that if an employee would like a colleague to wear a face covering when in close proximity, that they do so.
  • Empower employees to tell colleagues when they are not comfortable with someone being so close to them without a face covering on.
  • Remind employees to be respectful of their colleagues’ wishes; employees can have many reasons, which are not immediately apparent, for being cautious.
  • Do another vaccine awareness drive to increase the number of vaccinated employees.

Working from Home

Another challenge that may come from staff is from those who wish to continue working from home.

The guidance of ‘work from home if you can’ will be removed and the Government has advised on a gradual return to the workplace. However, this could raise some concerns and challenges from staff. Employers should take time to understand their personal circumstances and to deal with any anxieties the person may have about returning to the workplace.

Employers may see an increase in flexible working requests. Recent Leadership IQ stats found that a whopping 91% would like at least some time working from home, with 39% saying that they’d like to work from home three to four days a week going forward.

If staff wish to work from home on a hybrid or permanent basis, they can submit a flexible working request.

Employers may need to review and update their flexible working policy to set out how they will deal with such requests. If the business needs to refuse such requests, it has to be for business reasons. These will no doubt have changed during the course of the pandemic.

ACAS has published new flexible working guidance which explores hybrid working, when most COVID-19 restrictions will end in England.

Return to the Workplace

It is natural that staff returning to the workplace for the first time may feel anxious. 

Prime minister Boris Johnson said: “We don’t expect that the whole country will return to their desk as one from Monday, but we anticipate a gradual return to the workplace over the rest of the summer.”

Allowing a gradual return will be key both in terms of staff anxiety and ensuring a safe return. 

Staff may also be concerned about using public transport. Consider a flexi time system to allow staff to travel at less busy times.

Discuss and Engage with Staff

Employers should discuss this with their staff and seek their feedback. Allow staff to be part of the decisions. Give employees the opportunity to voice their concern. This may reduce or avoid disputes.

The same principles apply to flexible working policies. Given that with recent advances in technology many employees can now work very effectively from home, employers may find it easier to agree to requests to work from home for at least part of the week.

Be clear about what the workplace rules will be, especially if these differ from previous restrictions.

Hill HR can help with any challenges or queries you have. You may also be interested in our article on Hybrid Working: a new blended way of working.