It’s so uplifting to see COVID-19 infection rates coming down in most areas across the UK and the success of the national vaccination programme – a few months ago we didn’t even know there would be an effective vaccine to protect people from the virus.

In February, the Prime Minister unveiled the UK Government’s roadmap for easing out of lockdown in England; the accompanying guidance makes clear that vaccines are at the heart of its strategy to managing COVID-19. The devolved administrations have their own roadmaps for easing restrictions. Longer term, the narrative is one of transitioning ‘from pandemic to endemic’, meaning that hopefully the virus ‘will reach a stable and manageable level’. 

However, we’re not at that point yet. And as more employers start to look ahead to the early summer and plan for a return to offices and other physical workplaces, they still need to tread very cautiously. 

Step by step in line with official advice 

First and foremost, it’s crucial that organisations closely follow official advice in each devolved nation; in England the guidance will continue to urge people to work from home until late June at the earliest. The roadmap has four steps, and ahead of step four, the Government will publish a number of reviews to consider different aspects of how the UK should handle the virus from summer onwards. As well as a review on international travel and COVID status certification, there will be one on social distancing. 

This latter review will be important in informing how organisations plan for re-opening workplaces and will include decisions on the ‘one-metre-plus’ rule, face masks and other measures. It will also inform official guidance on working from home. The current advice is that everyone who can do so should continue to work from home until that review is complete. 

Ahead of step four, the Government will also update its ‘COVID-secure’ guidelines for offices and contact centres, as well as other distinct workplace settings, so employers should closely follow that advice too (again, separate advice applies in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales). Across all nations, it goes without saying that people’s health, safety and wellbeing will continue to be paramount as organisations navigate any re-opening of a physical workplace. 

Continue to take a holistic approach to health, safety and wellbeing

The Government’s strategy to place effective vaccines at heart of how we handle COVID-19 will hopefully be borne out in the longer-term. But in the here and now, and as organisations plan and manage a return to workplaces, there are many factors to consider as part of a safe return. An organisation’s plan can’t hinge on vaccination, and needs to follow a more holistic approach to protect people from risk. 

On a logistical level alone, by June not every adult of working age is likely to have received their first, let alone, second dose. There could still be a significant number who are hesitant, or who can’t have it, and we don’t yet know how long immunity lasts. The Government has not made vaccination compulsory and nor should employers; as the CIPD’s guide on preparing for the COVID-19 vaccination makes clear, organisations should follow a policy of encouragement. 

The Government wisely says it ‘will be guided by data, not dates’ on following the roadmap. One of its four key tests for assessing whether we move to the next stage of easing, for example, is consideration of ‘Variants of Concern’ and the effectiveness of current vaccination against these. 

All of these factors are indicative of the continuing uncertainty and variables around the virus and effective vaccination against it. It’s not surprising therefore that the Government says some measures may be required even after all adults have been offered a vaccine.

Effective vaccines will make a tremendous difference in combatting COVID-19 and enabling workplaces to re-open, but there are a lot of moving parts to take into account. For example, when the Government updates its COVID-secure guidance ahead of offices reopening, it says there will also be further advice on how businesses can improve fresh air flow in indoor workplaces (ventilation has been proven to be very important to help reduce transmission risk), as well as on regular workplace testing to reduce risk. 

A key message for organisations as they plan for a potential return, therefore, is to approach the process in a holistic way. This makes the process no less complex to navigate in the months ahead. Taking a systematic approach, for example by following the HSE’s COVID-19 risk assessment framework, will be vital. 

The CIPD's three tests: mutually agreed?

The CIPD’s guidance on returning to the workplace will be updated continually to reflect evolving official advice, but currently we continue to recommend three key tests before bringing people back: is it essential; is it sufficiently safe; and is it mutually agreed?

The third test – is it mutually agreed? – emphasises the need for a dialogue between the organisation and every employee about a return. The CIPD has regularly surveyed employees about their experiences of the pandemic, including their attitudes about a potential return to a physical work environment. Our findings have consistently shown a significant level of anxiety among some people, especially those with a pre-existing physical or mental health condition. Conversely, some people will be very excited to return, so employers will need to manage a range of reactions. Implementing a re-orientation or re-induction process for returning staff will help to ease people back.

Line managers are key 

The role of line managers in supporting a return to the workplace is pivotal. Where people have been working continually from home for over a year, in many cases they will be the crucial (and sometimes only) link between the organisation and the individual. 

Managers should be encouraged to have a one-to-one return conversation with every employee, where a key focus is on health, safety and wellbeing. This should provide the forum for a sensitive and open discussion about any worries or concerns someone may have, and any support needed for an effective return to the workplace. This is especially important for some groups of employees, such as those who have been furloughed, or who have joined the organisation during the past year. 

The future if flexible 

There is no precise manual for navigating the process for returning to a physical workplace, and employers’ plans will vary considerably according to factors such as the nature of their business, corporate goals and needs of the workforce. Strict adherence to official Government advice in terms of people’s health and safety is a given, but beyond that, there is scope to develop a new vision for the organisation.  

Going forward, the experiences of the past year have offered us an opportunity to embrace ways of working that more closely meet people’s circumstances and choices. Where a return to the workplace is necessary and/or desirable for both organisation and individual, at the heart of any plans should be a commitment to support flexible and remote working where possible. This approach has the potential to enhance the quality of working lives for many people, while simultaneously improving organisational performance.

About the author

Rachel Suff, Employment Relations and Diversity Adviser (Europe)

Rachel Suff joined the CIPD as a policy adviser in 2014 to increase the CIPD’s public policy profile and engage with politicians, civil servants, policy-makers and commentators to champion better work and working lives. An important part of her role is to ensure that the views of the profession inform CIPD policy thinking on issues such as health and wellbeing, employee engagement and employment relations. As well as conducting research on UK employment issues, she helps guide the CIPD’s thinking in relation to European developments affecting the world of work. Rachel’s prior roles include working as a researcher for XpertHR and as a senior policy adviser at Acas.

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