The global pandemic has resulted in a lot of “firsts” for employment law in the UK. Many employers will have implemented remote working for the first time. Others will have to tackle major communication and conduct issues.
But, by far, the biggest HR “first” during this period is furlough. This is a concept most of you won’t have faced before. Now, we’re dealing with the final stage of this challenge—bringing your employees back.
Bringing staff back to work
Do I have to take staff off furlough?
No. The Job Retention Scheme is set to continue until the end of September 2021, having recently been extended by the government. This means previously furloughed staff can remain on furlough if the correct procedure is followed. With this in mind, you might want to bring them back to work part-time.
Which members of staff should be brought back first?
This is mostly down to you. You know which employees you need to come back to the workplace. When deciding who to take off furlough, you should consider what employees, departments or groups should return first based on business needs. Alternatively, you could even ask staff to volunteer to return, although the final decision will rest with you.
So long as you follow the Government’s requirements, you can bring back who you need. Remember that England is currently on a nation-wide lockdown until 2 December, so you should check that staff can lawfully be asked to return to the workplace.
But what are the Government’s guidelines?
A large portion of these requirements relates to social distancing.
From an HR perspective, there are two main things to consider. One, is documenting the reasons for bringing your employee(s) back to work. The legitimate business reasons should be documented to prove that you have not discriminated against anyone.
Two, ensure you don’t ask shielding employees to return before they are required. Shielding has been re-introduced in England for those who were previously classed as ‘extremely clinically vulnerable’.
How much notice should I provide to staff before taking them off furlough?
There is no specific time period outlined by the government. However, you should stick to any notice period that you agreed with staff when they were put on furlough.
If there was no agreement on notice, it should be reasonable and set with certain things in mind. For example, you should allow employees sufficient time to make childcare arrangements if needed.
How do I bring staff back off furlough?
Provide staff with notice that their period of furlough is coming to an end. You should also provide them with confirmation on when you expect them to return.
Clearly outline the new measures that have been put into place at your workplace. In particular, this should detail social distancing measures.
During this period, have further discussions with employees to talk through any concerns they have. From these meetings, you should discuss any adjustments that can be made to their job if necessary.
On their return, staff should be carefully monitored and invited to come forward with workplace issues. Remember, some of them may have been away for some time. This might mean they need further training to settle back into their role.
What can I do if staff are reluctant to return?
Take the personal circumstances of your employees into account. For example, they may live with someone who is vulnerable to serious illness. Staff in this situation should be reminded of all steps the company has taken to keep them safe and consider extra adjustments for them.
If they still do not feel comfortable, consider alternatives to their return to the workplace. Can they work from home? Could they remain on furlough for a time? Could their working hours be adjusted to avoid peak travel times?
If staff refuse to return without a valid reason, you may be entitled to treat it as a disciplinary issue. However, given the circumstances, this should be the last resort. Explore all other possible solutions first.
How can flexible furlough help me?
From 1 July, employers have been able to combine work with furlough. Previously, employees were not permitted to do any work when they were on furlough. This means that employers can agree part-time work with employees. If you do this, you’ll need to pay them in full for those hours. The employee will be on furlough for the remainder of their normal working hours. You can claim 80% wage cost cover from the Job Retention Scheme for the furloughed hours.
Issues with returning staff
I’m going to struggle to keep all of my staff when the Scheme ends. What are my options?
Redundancy is an unfortunate reality of the current situation. However, there are other ways that you might be able to reduce your overheads but keep your staff.
For example, you may consider making changes to staff contracts. This can include the following:
- Reducing working hours or salaries
- Reviewing contractual schemes such as enhanced sick or maternity pay
- Introducing the option for job-sharing
- Removing or reducing bonus and commission schemes
You will need to seek the employee's agreement before going ahead and making changes. A period of consultation should be implemented. However, you can remove some discretionary schemes. These can be considered ‘perks’ of the job and can be removed when not offered on a contractual basis.
Ending the use of agency workers, or other temporary workers, may save costs. You could also remove overtime or offer unpaid sabbaticals.
Changes could be temporary until the situation improves, or permanent.
You can also consider reducing non-workforce relating overheads such as re-negotiating supplier contracts etc.
I have no other option but to make redundancies. How do I do this?
Consider all alternatives first. If you still need to make redundancies, you need to ensure you follow the correct procedure.
The actual procedure will differ depending on how many redundancies are proposed. One of the key principles is meaningful consultation with employees allowing them to suggest alternatives. Where you need to select employees for redundancy, you should do so against objective criteria. Be careful not to be make any discriminatory decisions. Employees who are made redundant are entitled to statutory redundancy pay if they have been with you for two or more years.
Communication is important at this time. No employee wants to hear that they are losing their job. Given the current climate, redundancy can be incredibly stressful. Being honest and open with employees about the situation won’t change the facts but will help them understand that you’ve done everything you can.
For pragmatic advice on redundancy, or any further guidance you need, call our dedicated member support helpline on 01455 858 132.