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How to transition staff back to work successfully

How to transition staff back to work successfully
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How to transition staff back to work successfully
Sandhya Iyer - HR Dept Sevenoaks Tonbridge Tunbridge Wells by Sandhya Iyer - HR Dept Sevenoaks Tonbridge Tunbridge Wells
Director - HR Dept Sevenoaks Tonbridge Tunbridge Wells

The coronavirus crisis and associated social-distancing measures have challenged businesses like never before.  We’ve all had to get our heads round the new concept of furlough – yet it’s already time to start thinking of an exit strategy for when the lockdown restrictions begin to be eased.   It’s been a minefield for business owners to navigate, and re-introducing staff to work is likely to be just as complicated as arranging for them to work remotely, or not at all. Sandhya Iyer of the HR Dept brings you up to speed with the latest government clarifications on furlough and how to plan your next steps successfully.

Clarifications on which businesses can furlough staff

It may seem like a lifetime ago, but it was only last month that most of us were trying to get to grips with this new idea of furlough. The Corona Virus Act 2020 was formalised in mid-April 2020, although it still leaves many questions unanswered. The huge positive however is that government guidance has since clarified that furlough applies to all businesses and this has resolved some of the confusion for businesses which were operating in the key sectors as to whether they could furlough their staff.

Managing annual leave successfully

It’s good practise to encourage your staff to take their annual leave within the year that it falls, so you don’t have staff either losing their annual leave (which can make them resentful) or – depending on your policies – carrying forward accrued time (which can make business operations difficult).

If your business’s annual leave year ends in June, July or August and you have had to furlough staff, it’s highly likely that they have annual leave for this year that they still need to take. However, they may not want to avail it while Covid-19 restrictions mean they can’t go anywhere.

As an employer, you can ask staff to take all their annual leave before the end of your leave year, even if they’re stuck at home in lockdown. Not being specific in requesting they take it could mean that it lapses, or – if your policies do not explicitly state this – employees could argue that they were not clearly instructed to avail their leave and they want to carry it forwards as they were unable to enjoy it due to being furloughed. The chances are high that employees will want to get away as soon as lockdown is eased; to avoid confusion and the chances of trying to kickstart your business with half your staff wanting to get away on holiday, it would be ideal to get your instructions in line now.

Under the law, an employer has a right to direct an employee to avail their accrued leave at specific times of the year, as long as they provide their staff with double the amount of notice to the duration of leave that must be taken. This means if staff have to take one week’s leave, then you must give them no less than two weeks’ notice to ensure that leave is taken at a stipulated time.

Breaks in Furlough

Thankfully over the last month the government also clarified that staff can have breaks from their furlough leave. This means employers who need additional staff just to attend to a few jobs which cannot wait until end of lockdown (for instance, trades like electricians or domestic appliance maintenance which attend domestic emergencies or a book keeper who needs to file VAT returns), can bring staff back to work albeit for just a few hours or half a day’s worth of work. Thereafter staff can go back on furlough leave for another minimum period of three weeks.

The only condition is that your staff need to have been on furlough for a minimum period of three weeks for the business to remain eligible for the grant. This does not imply that you cannot take staff off furlough earlier than three weeks due to operational needs – but doing so will make you ineligible for the grant.

Redundancy consultations

Sadly, but understandably, some companies may have to make positions redundant. It is clear that furloughed staff can be given notice of termination, and employees are entitled to notice pay whilst on furlough. The furlough grant can be used towards notice pay, but not towards redundancy pay as that defeats the point of the job retention scheme.

The unresolved matter here, however, is at what rate notice pay must be paid. Risk-averse guidance is to pay it at 100% and there are many legal arguments in favour of this, which are too complicated to go into here, but mean the safest advice is that you would have to top up your furlough grant with 20% if you have served notice of termination to your staff.

Staff carrying out alternative work

With the government confirming that staff can carry out alternative work – particularly with a view to getting resources to firms, such as soft fruit farms, that need additional resources – it may well be that your staff have opted for this.

Double check your contract of employment in case it has a clause restricting staff from working for an alternate employer whilst in service. If you have such a clause, then it would be prudent to confirm in writing the exceptional circumstances under which this clause is being relaxed to make resources available within the local community. You may, however, include that such alternate employment cannot be undertaken with competition or for the benefit of the business which has furloughed the employee.

Similarly, you may want to have a plan for staff who take up alternate jobs in places where they could be more susceptible to catch the virus. For instance, you may want to build in a quarantine period of two weeks for staff who work in supermarkets whilst being furloughed to extend protection to your other employees who may have to return to work post lockdown. This is because it could be argued that staff who work every day in supermarkets pose a higher risk of contracting the virus compared to those who have been staying at home or shielding.

What if staff refuse to return to work after lockdown?

This is expected to be a common issue; the government’s message of ‘Stay home, save lives’ has been very effective, with the result that many people are fearful about returning to ‘normal’ life, such as returning to their place of work and going out socially. In such a climate, any formal disciplinary action should be the very last resort; it’s important to bear in mind that if employees perceive the workplace to be unsafe, they may resign and claim unfair dismissal – arguing, for instance, they perceive that social distancing is impossible.

This means it’s a good idea to get your risk assessments done now and work out how you are going to ensure safe working methods with social distancing in place, given that it is here to stay for a few months.  Also, if any members of your staff require additional support and precautions to be taken upon return to work due to an underlying medical condition, you should definitely refer them to your occupational health provider to make sure you have agreed the arrangements you will have in place to help protect them.

Easing our way out of lockdown is giving business owners lots to think about. The key to managing your employees’ return to work is to identify how the challenges will affect your business and what measures you can be taking now to address these to make easing out of lockdown as smooth as possible for you, your staff and your operations.



Sandhya Iyer is the director of the HR Dept, helping small- and medium-sized businesses in Tunbridge Wells, Tonbridge and Sevenoaks, Kent.  A graduate member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, she works with business owners, entrepreneurs and managers to prevent people problems and help them get the best from their staff.

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