The Government is encouraging employees to head back to offices and other workplaces in the run-up to a major media campaign, amid fears that town and city centres are becoming ghost areas as commuters stay away.
But with many workers still concerned about possible infection, there are still questions about their rights and what to expect.
– How many people have been working at home?
A study by the Office for National Statistics showed that in April, 46.6% of people in employment did some work at home, mainly as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Occupations requiring higher qualifications and more experience were more likely to provide homeworking opportunities than elementary and manual occupations, said the ONS.
– How can workplaces be made safe?
All employers have a legal responsibility and duty of care for their workers. They need to carry out Covid-19 risk assessments and should seek staff input on safety measures at work.
Guidance says steps to be taken include:
– Increased hand washing and surface cleaning.
– Using screens or barriers to separate people from each other.
– Using back-to-back or side-to-side working rather than having colleagues sit face-to-face and make people work further apart.
– Staggering arrival and departure times and having more entry points to the workplace to reduce congestion.
– Providing handwashing facilities and hand sanitisers at entry and exit points and avoiding the use of touch-based security devices such as keypads.
– Using floor tape or paint to mark areas to help people social distance.
– Can staff be forced to return to offices?
Suggesting that employees who do not feel safe returning to work could be at risk of dismissal may clash with their rights, according to Slater and Gordon employment lawyer Sarah Hexter.
She said it could also be unlawful to leave the threat of dismissal hanging over immune-compromised employees, those living with vulnerable people or anyone who has genuine concerns about how safe their working environment is.
She said: “Employees cannot unreasonably refuse to return to work and must comply with reasonable management requests. But if an employer is asking someone to work in an unsafe environment the request to return to work could be considered unreasonable.”
Tom Neil, a senior adviser at Acas, said: “If an employee is worried about catching coronavirus by going into work, they should talk to their employer as early as possible. An employer should listen to any concerns an employee may have and seek to reassure them by highlighting measures already taken.”
They should also consider if any further action is needed. If an informal chat does not fix things, then making a formal grievance is an option.
– What are the concerns of businesses in trying to reopen offices?
Businesses need “crystal-clear official guidance and confidence in test and trace systems” to help reopen offices safely, British Chambers of Commerce director general Adam Marshall said.
He added: “For many employees, returning to the workplace depends on schools reopening, the availability of childcare, and confidence that they can use public transport safely.”
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady believes that getting back to the office could be welcomed by many people as not everyone has the space or quiet needed to work from home.
She called for a fast and reliable test and trace system and better enforcement of transport safety and workplace risk assessments.
She added: “People hoping to get back to the office soon should not be put at risk from unsafe commutes, or workplaces that are not safely adapted.”
– What will travelling to work be like?
Face coverings are mandatory on public transport.
Transport for London is telling customers they must be worn, unless you are exempt for age, health or accessibility reasons, and social distancing should be maintained where possible.
Customers should try to travel when it is less busy, wash their hands before and after journeys, carry hand sanitiser or use sanitising points at stations, and try to use contactless methods to pay for their trips.