2021 has been a busy year for HR, particularly in light of the rapidly changing Covid situation. Indeed, just as you might have thought things were calming down and you could get on with business as usual, along came the Omicron variant and the implementation of the Government’s Plan B. These latest developments will undoubtedly have added to your pre-Christmas to-do list. Below, we consider a few of the issues you may need to tackle before setting your out of office message for the holiday season.
Return to working from home where possible
Over the past few months, you may have been busy seeking to bring employees fully back to the workplace, or you might have decided to embed home and hybrid working as part of your organisation’s long-term culture. The return to official ‘work from home where possible’ guidance will have meant hitting the pause button on those efforts, but you shouldn’t lose sight of your long-term goals.
If you intend to bring employees back to the workplace when the Government guidance is lifted again, we recommend communicating this clearly to the workforce, emphasising that the return to homeworking is temporary only. If your organisation wants to make home and hybrid working more of a permanent feature, you can continue to work towards this, e.g. reviewing your policies and practices to see what changes you may need to make for the future. Our ‘HR Checklist: Adapting your contracts and policies to embed home and hybrid working’ can help you with this. To download the Checklist, click here.
Review and reminder of health and safety measures for those in the workplace
Not everyone can work from home, of course, and those who do have to attend the workplace may once again feel concerned about Covid-19 given the emergence of the Omicron variant. Both to reassure these employees and to comply with employers’ general duty under health and safety law, it is important that you take all reasonably practicable steps to reduce Covid-19 risk in the workplace.
If you haven’t done so already, it would be sensible to work with your health and safety team to review your workplace risk assessment. Does your revised risk assessment indicate that there are additional measures you should put in place, e.g. requesting that staff take daily LFD tests before attending the workplace, wearing face coverings in some work settings, reintroducing social distancing measures, etc.? Make UK’s Health & Safety experts can provide support with conducting and reviewing workplace risk assessments. For more information, click here. We would also suggest that you remind employees who need to attend the workplace about the safety measures that you have in place and the rules you expect them to follow, including the current self-isolation requirements (see below).
Another point to consider in relation to temporary homeworking is your stance on employees’ childcare arrangements when schools break up for the holidays. If employees’ holiday childcare plans are disrupted due to Covid-19, would you require them to take leave to look after their children, or might you allow them to look after their children themselves while continuing to work from home?
Similarly, you may find that employees who are continuing to attend the workplace need to request time off work if their regular childcare arrangements are disrupted due to Covid-19, e.g. if their child tests positive or their childcare provider has to close.
We discuss possible options to consider in these circumstances in our Covid-19 FAQs (see question 6).
Surging sickness and self-isolation absence
As reported daily Covid-19 case numbers break records, you are very likely to see an increase in employees testing positive and being required to self-isolate for 10 days. Under the current rules, those who are not fully vaccinated (or otherwise exempt) must also self-isolate if someone in their household tests positive for Covid-19 or they are a close contact of a positive case. Although the Government has now dropped the requirement for the fully vaccinated to self-isolate if they are a close contact of a suspected Omicron case, the guidance strongly advises fully vaccinated close contacts to conduct daily LFD tests for 7 days – and, of course, to self-isolate if they receive a positive test result. Rates of sickness absence and self-isolation are therefore set to rise.
In addition, as the booster vaccination drive continues apace, you may want to allow employees time off to get their booster jab. (If you wish to encourage vaccination amongst your workforce, you could consider providing paid time off for this purpose.) In addition, many people report suffering a few days of flu-like side effects after their booster dose, so you may experience a surge in short-term sickness absence as your employees come forward for the booster.
Of course, with those who can do so already working from home, you can expect employees who are self-isolating but not actually unwell to continue to work. However, that won’t be possible for everyone. Do you have a plan to keep things running if large numbers of employees are off sick or self-isolating (and unable to work from home) at any given time? Can you call on temporary cover? Might you need to refuse any last-minute holiday requests, or even ask some employees to cancel days of holiday they have already booked? (Note – we would recommend exercising caution if you are considering asking employees to cancel pre-booked holiday and taking advice on your specific circumstances before acting.)
The reintroduction of the requirement for all individuals (including the fully vaccinated) to take a pre-travel test before entering England from abroad has increased the cost and administrative hassle of overseas holidays. In addition, Covid-19 restrictions are being reimposed in some popular holiday destinations to tackle the spread of the Omicron variant. As a result of these developments, employees who had booked trips for a spot of winter sunshine may now be asking to cancel some or all of their booked annual leave. There are no statutory rules governing whether an employee can cancel the annual leave that they have booked off work and most holiday policies do not cover this.
On the flipside, any employees who do head abroad for Christmas may find that their return to England – and therefore their return to work – is delayed, e.g. if they test positive for Covid-19 in their pre-travel test and are unable to travel home as a result, or if they have to wait – and self-isolate – for longer than anticipated for the result of their day 2 post-travel test.
In view of the probable increase in numbers of employees having to self-isolate, you are also likely to encounter employees whose self-isolation period overlaps with a period of booked annual leave seeking to reclassify that leave as sickness absence. Employees are legally entitled to reclassify holiday/the balance of a holiday during which they become ill as sick leave, and are also entitled to do so where they become ill before a period of booked holiday so that their sick leave would coincide with their holiday. (Note that, in this context, there is a potential distinction to be drawn between employees who actually have Covid-19 and those who do not have Covid-19 themselves but are self-isolating as a contact of someone who does or due to post-travel quarantine.)
How will you handle any requests to cancel booked annual leave, or to reclassify it as sickness absence? Have you made clear to employees what approach you will take to additional absence if an employee’s return to work from an overseas holiday is affected by quarantine requirements? We discuss the factors you will need to take into account when considering your approach in our Covid-19 FAQs (see questions 21 to 26).
Given the speed with which the rules and guidance on Covid-19 can change, at this stage it is impossible to say with certainty what the position will be as we enter 2022. You may therefore need to liaise with managers in the business over the Christmas period to make strategic plans for the new year as things develop, and issue communications to the wider workforce on any changes, e.g. in relation to who should attend the workplace, any applicable testing and self-isolation requirements, changes to health and safety rules, or the need to come in at short notice to provide cover for sickness absences, etc. It is therefore worth checking that you have up-to-date contact details for all staff and making them aware that you may need to get in touch over the festive period to inform them of any new arrangements that may apply after Christmas.
How we can help
Our Covid-19 FAQs are regularly maintained to keep employers up-to-date on all HR and employment related Covid-19 issues.
Make UK members who need advice in relation to Covid-19 measures and their employment implications should contact their regular adviser.