A change in homeworking guidance on the 19th July only applies in England for now, but the UK as a whole is on the verge of opening up. As it does, employers in England will have the freedom to end homeworking measures, gradually.
If employees are reluctant to return, what options do employers have?
Managing a return to work
Employee safety must be the priority during the initial return to work period. Where it’s required that they return to work, reassure employees that the necessary measures have been put into place to ensure their safety. Requiring employees to work in an environment that puts their health/safety at risk could breach your duty of care.
Some employees may be cautious about returning to the workplace for fear that it puts them at a greater risk of contracting coronavirus. It is up to you to not only reassure staff but to listen to their concerns and factor in the possibility that their fears may not be unreasonable.
Forcing staff to return
If an individual is refusing to return you may want to explore your options. One of these options could be forcing reluctant staff back to work. However, be careful about doing this as it could lead to a decline in staff retention and/or morale. Some cases could result in automatic unfair dismissal if health and safety issues are raised and you are found to have acted unlawfully.
Rather than forcing employees to return (e.g. stating that an employee will lose their job if they don’t return), it is important to first determine why the employee is reluctant. Once this has been established, the right kind of conversation can then be had with them. Keep their specific circumstances in mind. You should also consider the current government guidance and the needs of the business. Although homeworking guidance is changing in England, office returns should still be gradual.
It may also be helpful to prioritise returning reluctant employees to work after they have had their second dose of the Covid-19 vaccine. However, they might refuse to have the vaccine too. More on that subject, here.
Can I force furloughed staff to return to work?
Some employers will not have to look too far to find an answer. You can take a look at your furlough agreements. Here, you may have set out when they should return. This is the easiest way to determine the initial steps you can take if they refuse to return.
You may not have previously agreed the return date being proposed. If this is the case, forcing them to return could lead to a decline in staff retention or morale. Consult with individuals on furlough to address when the company proposes they return. Give ample notice (ranging from a week to a day depending on the needs of the business). Finally, discuss any issues the employee may have about returning.
In all, employers may enforce the return dates stipulated in furlough agreements but should first find out the reason behind an employee’s reluctance. Consider alternative options where possible before acting. A similar approach should be adopted where furlough agreements are unclear about when an employee is expected to return to work.
It is still yet to be seen how the next few months will play out. However, it is advisable to follow the measures laid out in government guidelines. Consult with reluctant employees and apply exit strategies. Failure to do so could lead to problems down the line. You can also take other possible measures necessary to suit your specific business needs.
You may believe that dismissal, though unfavourable, is a reasonable decision. In actuality, taking this route may be unfair. The best solution will be to communicate with employees as much as possible to ascertain how best to move forward.
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