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Going back to the office – the latest guidance

31 March 2021

The government has published new Covid-secure guidance for office settings which includes updated guidance on who should go to work. This article looks at what it means for office reopening plans.

Earlier this week, on 29 March, the new regulations underpinning the gradual easing of lockdown restrictions came into force. Under the new rules, employees are no longer legally required to work from home if reasonably possible (for more details see Reopening offices – what do the new regulations say?) However, as part of its roadmap out of lockdown, the government made it clear that it would continue to advise office workers to carry on working from home if possible. We have been expecting updated guidance to confirm this.

The latest work from home guidance

The government has now updated its Covid-secure guidance to reflect the latest guidance on working from home.

The new guidance for offices and contact centres says that office workers should work from home if they can. This guidance will remain in place until at least step 4 of the roadmap (currently pencilled in for 21 June), when the work from home guidance will be considered as part of the wider review on social distancing.

The guidance re-states that anyone who can work from home should do so. However, the guidance goes on to state that employers should consider whether home working is appropriate for workers facing mental or physical health difficulties, or those with a particularly challenging home working environment.

The new guidance wording is more specific than last year’s pre-lockdown guidance which said that employees who could not work from home “effectively” could go to the office.  The references to employees with health difficulties or an unsuitable environment at home will come as a welcome clarification for employers who want to reopen their office in a limited way to support staff who are finding homeworking too difficult for these reasons. The overall message, however, is that only those with specific difficulties should come into the office, and homeworking remains the norm for at least the next three months.

Implications for office reopening

The latest regulations and guidance leave employers in the following position:

  • The latest working from home guidance is just that - guidance. It is no longer a criminal offence to go to the office if you can work from home. However, employers cannot simply ignore this and require everyone to return to the office. Employers would not be able to discipline or fairly dismiss employees for continuing to work from home in line with the guidance.
  • The “work from home if you can” message will be in place until the very end of the roadmap, meaning that restrictions on office workers look set to be the amongst the final restrictions to be lifted.
  • It is compliant with the guidance to allow employees to go back to the office if they are struggling with homeworking because of their mental or physical health or an unsuitable home environment. This could include:
  • employees with musculoskeletal conditions, who want to use special equipment in the office (although note that employers have obligations to ensure that homeworking employees are adequately equipped – see our FAQs on homeworking)
  • employees whose mental health is suffering because they are working from home
  • employees in cramped or shared accommodation, without a proper set-up to work from home, and employees who are struggling with disturbance from other household members, for example small children. However, the guidance emphasises that the home environment needs to be “particularly” challenging before it warrants a return to the office.
  • Employees do not need to be classed as a critical worker in order to go into office.
  • Although going to the office is only restricted by guidance, not by legislation, this is not true of meetings that take place in the office. These are heavily restricted by the latest regulations, as we explain in our earlier article. Our table below summarises the position.
  • As the guidance points out, if employees come into the office, then this will need to be reflected in the workplace risk assessment and the workplace needs to be Covid-secure. The Covid-secure guidelines are being kept continuously updated, and employers should check if there is more they could be doing. The latest update includes specific guidance on adequate ventilation.
  • Employers will need to monitor who is coming in and consider the maximum number of people who can be safely accommodated on site. The guidance says that employers should encourage a mix of home and office-based working where full home working is not possible.
  • Vulnerable employees who want to return to the office may need extra support. It would not be advisable to allow clinically extremely vulnerable employees to go to the office.
  • People are being advised to minimise travel and walk or cycle if possible. The Covid-secure guidelines say that businesses should also consider the impact of workers coming into the workplace on local transport and take appropriate mitigating actions (for example, staggered start and finish times for staff).
  • Employers are not obliged to reopen their offices and should not do so if this is not safe.
  • Looking ahead, some employers may wish to start planning to take advantage of the gradual easing of restrictions to hold small social events (on a purely voluntary basis) when this becomes possible (see our earlier article).Employers should also start planning for wider re-opening from (hopefully) 21 June. This will, in due course, involve considering the impact of vaccination and workplace testing programmes and, if introduced, any Covid-status certification programme. It will also involve making decisions about any new hybrid or flexible working arrangements and starting to plan for these now.

Going to the office and meetings - summary of current law and guidance in place as at 31 March

Activity

Status

Working at the office

Against guidance if employees can work from home (unless for health reasons or employee has particularly challenging home environment) but not unlawful.

Indoor in-person meetings at the office (any size)

Unlawful unless reasonably necessary, because these would be classed as a gathering which remain restricted by law. If the meeting could be done remotely, is a social occasion, or does not need to happen at all, then it is unlawful.

Outdoor in-person meetings at the office (up to six people)

Against guidance if employees can work from home (because they should not be working at the office at all), but not unlawful because the “rule of six” now applies.

Outdoor in-person meetings at the office (over six)

Unlawful unless reasonably necessary.

 

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