Preparing for a return to office working

Planning a safe and lawful return to the office working environment presents many challenges for landlords and occupiers. Here we explore employment law issues

15 June 2020

With preparations now gathering momentum for a return to office working of sorts, many are grappling with the complex issues that operating a safe - and lawful – working office environment presents. Over the next few weeks experts from our Real Estate Sector Group will be looking at some of these issues, offering practical and essential guidance. In this first article, Kate Redshaw, a senior employment lawyer, examines the choices employers face and how best to manage the employee relationship when navigating the new normal.

 

Following the easing of the lockdown over the last few weeks, people are full of talk of the return to work - roads are noticeably busier and takeaway coffees are making a welcome reappearance. However, whilst many businesses are in the throes of reopening, it is likely to be some time before office workers will be joining in the daily commute. This hiatus offers businesses operating in an office environment some welcome time to prepare.

With social distancing measures likely to be in place for many months, careful thought needs to be given as to how you will bring people back in to the office and in what order. Much will depend on customer and client demand which is proving hard to predict for even the most accomplished of analysts. The size and accessibility of your office space will also impact these decisions and those organisations who have furloughed staff will also need to consider who to bring back from furlough, and when, given the extension of the scheme until the end of October.

Many employers may choose to bring back certain people or teams of people whilst leaving others to work from home. When planning this, consider how individual teams are likely to be affected by the two big ‘enablers’ of public transport and open schools. It will be difficult to bring back teams where the majority are adversely affected by either of these two issues. The public transport issues may, in some cases, be easier to alleviate with a bit of creative thinking – for example you may be able to put in place private transportation or do as others have done and rent additional car parking space from nearby sites and visitor attractions that are currently closed. The childcare issues are less easy for employers to tackle.

Where it is practical to do so, consider offering people the opportunity to express their preference as to whether they return to the office or continue to work from home rather than deciding for them. For some, lockdown has been a welcome break from the norm. Increased productivity – no wasted water cooler moments discussing the latest boxset coupled with an opportunity to spend more time with family. Others paint a different picture with tales of cramped working conditions, a lack of support and a sense of isolation that has been difficult to counter.

If you do need to stipulate who has to return then take time to consider individual circumstances. Until the schools and nurseries reopen fully, it will be difficult for many working parents to return to the office and indirect and possibly direct discrimination issues could arise if you force them to return. Try to be flexible – can the employee continue to work from home? If not, can they return to work part-time, or work ‘out of hours’ which might allow them to share the child care. The situation won’t last forever and the more flexible you can be the more loyal the worker is likely to be longer term. Reputations will be forged on how well employers respond to employees’ needs at this challenging time.

Businesses with limited space may need to reduce the number of people in the office at any one time to comply with social distancing requirements. This may mean you need to change working hours. Whilst most employees will understand why this has to be done, altering hours is likely to be a change to the employee’s terms and conditions of employment and you will probably need to seek their consent to this change. Communicating with employees will be key here. Take the time to explain why you need to make the change, how long you expect the change to be in place (insofar as you can) and agree to review the change a few weeks in to see how people are faring. As before you will need to consider the impact of any such changes on particular individuals – again those with caring responsibilities or those with disabilities may need to be accommodated if the new shifts present issues.

You will also need to consider the impact of any possible physical social distancing measures on particular employees. When designing these measures, consider how the changes will affect any disabled employees or visitors to your premises. For example, how might disabled employees be affected if the use of lifts in your office is restricted or if a one way system is implemented? What steps can you put in place to alleviate potential difficulties? Again employee engagement here is key – take the time at the outset to understand and address any issues.

So what of the future? The Sunday supplements now regularly predict working from home will be the new normal - office life demoted to a relic of a pre-COVID past. But is this really a likely outcome? It’s true that more employees will probably ask to work from home on a regular basis – if the IT works (pets and children notwithstanding) and there will be occasions when it makes sense to do so. But the office offers so much more than simply a place to do your work. It’s where you go to collaborate, to generate new ideas and meet new people, where you laugh and where you learn. Yes, our offices and how we use them may change as a result of this crisis but people will continue to value and appreciate the opportunity to work with others, side by side, and, let’s be honest, cakes to celebrate a colleague’s birthday aren’t half as good over Zoom.

If you would like any further information on any of the issues raised in this article or to discuss any other employment law related issues in the context of real estate please contact either Kate Redshaw or Luke Bowery, a partner in our employment team, who will be happy to assist. Our employment team will shortly be hosting a live webinar series considering ways to reduce workforce costs in response to COVID-19. Please visit our website for further information and to register.

Also, our COVID-19 Support Hub includes a collection of helpful resources in relation to both Employment and Real Estate issues.

If you need assistance in relation to any other area of the law in connection with the use and occupation of your office space, whether you are a landlord or tenant, please contact Richard Clark, head of our Real Estate Sector Group.

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Richard Clark partner

Richard Clark Partner

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