6 legal considerations for employers as staff return to the office

From mandatory vaccinations to flexible working requests, SoGlos shares 6 legal considerations for employers as they welcome staff back to the office – as part of our #BackToBusinessGlos campaign.

With lockdown restrictions finally over, self-isolating rules easing and the vaccination programme in full swing, it feels like a return to more ‘normal’ working conditions could be on the cards.

But for employers, it’s not just staff safety and wellbeing to consider. There are a whole host of legal considerations to think of too, according to #BackToBusinessGlos sponsor BPE Solicitors – with SoGlos sharing six of them in this hot list.


About the sponsors

BPE

BPE Solicitors is an entrepreneurial Cheltenham-based legal firm working with like-minded businesses and individuals – and supporting them through their lifecycle: from starting up and structuring to development through growth, joint ventures, buying and selling or floating on the stock market.

Hazlewoods

Hazlewoods is a UK top 25 independent business advisers and chartered accountants, with an established sector expertise hard to find elsewhere. It prides itself on a highly personal service, strong values and new ideas – with experts able to provide specialist accountancy, tax, audit and business advice.

Aston Lark

Aston Lark With an office in Cheltenham, and more than 45 others across the UK and Ireland, Aston Lark is one of the top five independent chartered insurance brokers and employee benefits advisors in the country.


1. The legalities of hybrid working

With thousands of employees working from home for the last 18 months, it’s almost inevitable that working patterns aren’t going to go back to the way they were pre-pandemic.

Many businesses have been evaluating which roles can and can’t be done from home effectively, as well as how best to use office space and resources. For companies considering a permanent switch to hybrid working, it’s vital to communicate with employees clearly – setting out what the company expects, how it would work in practical terms and how the needs of clients and customers will be met.

It’s best practice to engage with employees and hold consultations where they can express any concerns before implementing any permanent changes. It’s also a wise idea to update your employment contracts to ensure the company’s expectations with regards to hybrid working are clearly explained – especially for new hires.


2. The legalities of flexible working requests

During the pandemic, many employees have been unofficially working flexibly, but as we return to work, staff may want to make an official request for flexible working. From a legal standpoint, these requests must be taken seriously and may be hard to reject, considering employees have potentially been working this way for over a year already.

There is a process to follow, as well as statutory requirements and criteria for flexible working requests – for example, staff need to have completed 26 weeks of service before they can apply. Some roles won’t be suitable for flexible working, but for people in key roles or with skills that the business requires, offering flexible working options could be a good way to retain those vital staff members.


3. The legalities around mandatory vaccinations

Some sectors, like retail, hospitality and care have inevitably been hit harder by the pandemic than others. While there is currently no law to insist that employees have the Covid-19 vaccine, from Thursday 11 November 2021, it will become compulsory for anyone working or volunteering at a care home to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 (excluding under 18s, emergency workers or those medically exempt).

While care home workers, both staff and agency, are likely to be aware of the new legislation, businesses who regularly work in care homes – from tradespeople to hairdressers – will also be affected. Businesses should act now to ensure the new legislation doesn’t impact any existing contracts or commitments.


4. The legalities of self-isolation and close contact with other employees

Although the self-isolation rules were relaxed on Monday 16 August 2021, it’s likely that a mass return to schools, universities and offices could result in rising Covid-19 cases once again.

Employees who are fully vaccinated no longer need to self-isolate for two weeks, even if they are identified as a close contact of someone who has tested positive for Covid-19, but it is still recommended they take a PCR test to confirm they are not asymptomatic.

Businesses may still feel the effects of the ‘pingdemic’ for months and should take care to ensure workers who are not yet exempt still follow the government’s self-isolation rules. Employers should also support staff who may need to isolate to care for anyone who has tested positive for Covid-19, for example young children, by offering options like working from home if possible, or by taking annual, parental or unpaid leave.

Some employees may still feel nervous about returning to close contact with co-workers, particularly those in more vulnerable groups, so communicating which safety measures you’ll be retaining in your workplace should help provide some reassurance. Businesses which offer an employee assistance programme should also remind staff of that facility, should they have any concerns.


5. The legalities around taking holidays

With all the travel restrictions that the pandemic brought with it, many employees have built up a significant amount of holiday. Legislation introduced in March 2020 allows employees and workers to carry over up to four weeks of statutory paid holiday not taken due to Covid-19 into the next two holiday years.

For business owners and managers, it’s important to carry out an audit of how much holiday each staff member has to take and plan accordingly, to ensure that there aren’t any hotspots where large numbers of employees are on holiday now restrictions are easing, as well as ensuring teams and individuals who haven’t taken much time off aren’t at risk of burnout.

As different holiday destinations move between the government’s green, amber and red lists, while a business isn’t obliged to accept any requests to cancel annual leave, it should be carefully considered if an employee wants to change or adapt their holiday plans.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that any holiday that has been accrued but not taken will be payable to an employee if they decide to leave their role – which could have a significant impact financially and in terms of their notice period.


6. The legalities around property

As employees return to work, it’s important for businesses to make sure their office space is geared up to allow for hybrid and flexible working. Workspaces may need to be reconfigured to allow for hotdesking, while technology – including servers, meeting facilities and phone lines – will need to be able to accommodate both people working from the office and anyone working remotely.

It may be that with more people working from home, your business needs to downsize its office space, in which case you should speak to your landlord to see if there’s a possibility to use a break option to exit your lease; sublet; or share your office space with another business. All of these options will require the landlord’s consent, of course.


This article is part of SoGlos’s #BackToBusinessGlos campaign – made possible by Hazlewoods, Aston Lark and BPE - to champion Gloucestershire businesses as the county recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic. For more information, see soglos.com/backtobusinessglos


By Chloe Gorman


© SoGlos
Tuesday 31 August 2021

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