The coronavirus (or COVID-19) was first reported in December 2019 in Wuhan, China. With person-to-person transmission, reported cases have since continued to grow exponentially. As governments and public health authorities adjust their policies to respond to the challenge, companies need guidance on how best to address the situation with regards to their employees. 

Committed to supporting employers in the region, the CIPD worked with leading law firm Clyde & Co to provide you with answers to the most commonly asked HR practice related questions. 

Working Practices 

Some staff travel a lot for work normally – can they refuse in the current circumstances? 

Employers should be taking the lead here and looking carefully at international travel and deciding on what is appropriate and what potentially poses a risk, cancelling all but essential travel, especially to high risk areas. Could meetings be done via videoconferencing for instance? If an individual is concerned, they should speak to their line manager or HR department to discuss options. 

What should we do with employees who have been travelling? Can we prevent them from coming into work? 

There is no statutory right to prevent employees from coming into work in these circumstances. In the absence of requirements issued by the relevant UAE authorities on this point, such arrangements should ideally be with the employee's agreement. Employers should look at their home working facilities to ensure that, so far as possible, employees who are unable to come into the workplace are able to continue working from home. Employers have the right (under the Labour Law) to require employees to take paid annual leave (provided they have sufficient leave balance to do so).

What HR basics should be followed? 

  • Make sure everyone's contact numbers and emergency contact details are up to date 
  • Make sure all staff are aware of your response as an employer
  • Continue to communicate as the situation changes
  • Make sure managers know how to spot symptoms of coronavirus and are clear on any relevant processes, for example sickness reporting and sick pay, and procedures in case someone in the workplace develops the virus 
  • Ensure that all potential incidents are being reported to HR so they can understand the overall risk to the business 
  • Ensure there is a designated place for people (with a closable door) should they turn sick at work.

What should businesses be doing to protect employees? 

At the moment, it should be a case of prevention rather than panic. It’s doing what you can to immediately protect staff and to plan for possible disruptions if things escalate: 

  • Businesses should already have business continuity plans in place to deal with things that can disrupt the workforce and operations, so this is an extension of that. 
  • Appoint a coordinator or team to prepare plans and keep on top of official advice. 
  • Reduce the spread of infection by providing soap and hand sanitiser gels, especially in communal areas like kitchens and coffee areas. Provide staff with hand sanitisers and particularly in communal areas. Think about frequent wiping down of communal spaces such as kitchens, hand rails on stairs, lift buttons, door handles, etc. 
  • Increase the frequency and intensity of office clearing, consider a deep clean. 
  • Encourage remote working and working from home where possible. Consider making laptops available for staff who wouldn’t normally work from home. Encourage team working / external meetings through video conferencing, etc. 
  • Allow people to work from home if possible – remember, it’s not just the workplace that poses a risk, your people could also be crammed onto the metro with lots of people on the way to work so stand to be exposed to the virus then. 
  • Consider having A & B teams to reduce the number of people in the workplace at any one time and reduce the risk of infection.Think about transferrable skills – how will you have sufficient people to keep business-critical areas going if you do face depleted staff numbers? Start training people now. 

What should employers do if it escalates to a pandemic-level crisis? 

  • Follow official guidance but each organisation would need to think of their own response. 
  • Step up contingency planning meetings with various scenarios and consider regular comms to staff.  
  • Be flexible and be ready to move quickly – planning for a range of outcomes will help you do this effectively. 

Can we ask staff to work from home as a precaution? 

Provided this is feasible from an operational point of view, it is certainly an option in order to maintain productivity and pay. This should ideally be with an employee's agreement. There are however a number of legal implications including health and safety, immigration and insurance.

Can we stop staff taking holiday to affected areas? 

What your employees do outside of working hours is largely out of your control. You can encourage employees to consider whether, from their own health perspective, travel to those areas is the best thing to do and that, if they do decide to travel, they should take all necessary health precautions. You could also require employees to notify you of their travel plans so that appropriate precautionary measures can be taken. 

Employers should also discuss the likelihood of post-visit isolation and the impact of that on the individual and the wider working team. 

We have a global workforce. How should we respond? 

  • Encourage video conferencing rather than international travel  
  • Be aware of how sick pay may differ in different territories 
  • Be mindful of the guidance being set out for citizens in each country where you have offices

Note: References to the "Labour Law" are to UAE Federal Law No. 8 of 1980, as amended.

This article was authored by Charlotte Chedeville, Senior Project & Programme Manager at CIPD and Sara Khoja, Partner and Samantha Ellaby, Senior Associate at Clyde & Co.

For more information and resources, explore the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Hub here.

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