With social, economic and cultural norms changing at an unprecedented level, it is essential for employers to support their employees through the process – from mental health to creating a safe working environment, employers have a responsibility to protect their workforce.
Our checklist below provides the employment considerations which will enable you to assess and control the risk of COVID-19 as lockdown measures are eased:
- Information: Provide "clear, consistent and regular communication" to the wider workforce and representatives where appropriate. Reassure and set out a clear plan. Monitor and understand any unforeseen impacts of the changing working environment. Print off and display the appropriate COVID-19 health and safety guidelines around the workplace to demonstrate that guidance issued by the local authorities has been adhered to. Consider whether the COVID-19 guidelines should be translated to ensure that it is understood by all employees. Ensure those with responsibility (such as line managers) are fully informed on the protocol. Seek confirmation from the workforce that they have understood the new rules and will abide by them.
- Listen: Understandably employees will have concerns - whether returning to the workplace or continuing to work remotely. Create an easy mechanism to ensure the workforce has a voice which is listened to. For example through suggestion boxes, helplines, staff forums, concern forums or a centrally monitored email box. Be as flexible as possible. Implement ideas that are suggested and utilise all forms of media in communicating with more dispersed and technically linked businesses.
• Financial support: Consider employer support or advice with referral to consultants/specialists forthose employees facing future hardship. Ensure that you have details of external support that can be accessed in particular for those with challenging personal circumstances, for example those with a disability.
• Mental health and well-being: The impact of the pandemic on mental health and well-being cannot be underestimated. Employers must be mindful of the mental health risks associated with the level of change. Employers should consider the following:
- Contact: Keeping in touch is critical, whether through virtual meetings or otherwise. Messages of support and providing a sense of community is key. Communication protocols will need to be put in place for blue-collar/low income workers who might not have access to the internet/mobile devices.
- Structure: Employees have had to adapt to a sudden change in their working environment and a further period of change is inevitable. It will be important for employers to provide structure and co-ordination of work, setting clear, achievable objectives but making employees aware that there is likely to be further changes and to expect and embrace that as a means of ensuring the stability of the organisation.
- Support: Consider physical and mental well-being support for those employees who have been considerably affected by the pandemic, either in house or by means of helplines etc. Be understanding in relation to fears about not working at home, job losses and caring for others.
• Audit: Know your workforce. From questionnaires to business wide surveys, ensure you know who in your business requires assistance. Audit business processes to ensure you are in the best possible position to plan ahead. Create a clear image, know what is working well and what measures you will want to keep once restrictions ease.
• Carers/shielding: What measures are being put in place to assist those caring for people, from young children to caring for the vulnerable? Who in your workforce is shielding? Who lives with someone who is shielding? Are they able to work from home in their current role or in an alternative role? Consider possible discrimination issues.
• Equality: Ensure you are mindful of the particular needs of different groups of workers or individuals. Ensure that the business has policies and procedures in place that do not to discriminate against anyone and consider the particular responsibilities towards disabled workers, expectant mothers, elderly employees, employees with respiratory or chronic illnesses and mothers of young children.
• External communication: Communicate with stakeholders/clients/customers to assure them that you are able to continue to operate safely during the pandemic. Set out any specific measures to offer reassurance. Ensure the "COVID-19 secure" notice is displayed appropriately to demonstrate compliance with the government guidance.
• Further lockdowns: Organisations are having to adapt at an unprecedented rate. It is important to look to the next stage and consider possible further lockdowns. Consider what measures can be put in place to help facilitate the next phase. Look ahead as much as possible and prepare your workforce for change.
• Homeworking: As well as reviewing your homeworking policy - risk assessments, mental health support and data protection all need addressing. Employers will also need to consider what equipment will need to be purchased for remote workers; including the provision of Wi-Fi, laptops, monitors, stationery and other home office items. Employers should also assess living arrangements in order to assess whether it is conducive to remote working.
• Insurance: Check your employee insurance to ensure employees are adequately protected in the current climate and with the new ways of working especially if they are working from home on a more permanent basis.
• Reorganisation/restructure: Is there a reduction in work? Do employers need to consider reorganisation/restructuring of the business? Is any downturn temporary or permanent?
• Re-training/re-skilling: The workplace may look like a different place. Can employees be re-trained/skilled to work in different areas? Can they access them?
• Risk assessments: Employers have a duty of care for their workforce. Employers should update risk assessments for the workforce, especially where they were undertaken in haste due to the lockdown. In particular, consider vulnerable employees and any extra protection they may require to be brought back to work. Consult with health and safety and employee representatives where applicable.
• Training: Provision of ongoing training to ensure the workforce are clear on measures taken and what is expected from them. Keep clear records of training undertaken. Develop communication and training materials for your workforce prior to them returning to the workplace, especially around new procedures for arrival at work.
• Travel: Employers will wish to implement travel restrictions during the current climate. Ensure this is communicated appropriately to the workforce and a red flag system is in place for any travel booked. Consider the creation of a policy which highlights the need to minimise non-essential travel, minimises the number of people travelling together and provides advice on cleaning vehicles between shifts. Employees are likely to be concerned with regard to commuting to and from work, employers should listen to those concerns and be as flexible as possible when addressing any issues raised. For example, staggered start times may be appropriate to reduce the risk. Travel abroad has been severely curtailed and is likely to remain that way for some time but employers should consider the longer term potential of that and how that will be actioned.
Reviewing contracts, policies and procedures
• Annual leave: Consider management of annual leave to promote business efficacy. Make use of notice/counter-notice provisions to help ensure annual leave is taken at the optimum time for the organisation.
• Bonus/commission schemes: Employers will need to consider the impact of COVID-19 on any bonus/commission arrangements.
• Contracts of employment: New working arrangements are inevitable. Consider whether the changes necessitate a change to the contract of employment, for example implementing temporary staggered start times. Employers may wish to consider implementing part-time working clauses where possible.
• Induction/supervision: In businesses which are predominantly operating remotely, employers will need to plan inductions and supervision appropriately, making use of virtual meetings and any technology available to ensure there is no detrimental impact on quality.
• Policies and procedures:
- Disciplinary and grievance procedures: Consider possible amendments to address social distancing breaches or other reckless COVID-19 behaviour. Employers may see a rise in disciplinaries and grievances relating to COVID-19 and the change in working practices.
- Health and safety: Update policies and procedures to ensure the new measures are clearly spelt out. What steps are being taken to protect the workforce? What part do employees need to play? From enhanced personal hygiene to social distancing in the workplace, employees should be clear on what is expected from them and what they can expect for example temperature checks. If temperature checks are carried out, employers will need to be mindful of the issue of consent and data processing. Testing should also be carried out consistently across the workforce to help mitigate any discrimination claims.
- Homeworking policy: Review your homeworking policy to ensure it is fit for purpose in the new climate.
- Sickness absence: Consider whether any amendments need to be made to sickness absence policies, including requirements to self-report COVID-19 symptoms and to self-isolate.
• Visas and immigration: Employers will need to consider the impact of delayed visa applications and cancellations; employees ongoing sponsorship obligations particularly where former employees are unable to leave the UAE.