Generally speaking, there will be two types of employees who are at home. Firstly, there will be those who are on furlough leave - not working but still your employees. Secondly, there will be those who are working as “normal“. Both of those types of employee remain subject to certain duties owed to the employer as well as obligations owed by the employer.
For furloughed employees, there will be various reasons why they may have been furloughed. Some may be shielding for health reasons; some may have been furloughed as there is no work currently available for them; finally some may be looking after children who are no longer at nursery or school. The theme common to all of them is that anxiety levels will likely be higher than normal. Although they are not working, they remain employees of the business and once furlough is finished, the employer will, in many cases, have a requirement for them to return to work and will want them to be fit and healthy when they do so. Given the increased anxiety levels that they are likely to be suffering from, consideration should be given as to how they can be supported to cope with that. If employers have support available for employees, such as a counselling helpline, you should remind furloughed employees that such resources are still available to them.
A sense of purpose can make people feel better, giving a sense of focus at an otherwise uncertain time. If your furloughed employees can undertake any remote learning or training, allow them to do that. The Guidance is very clear that furloughed employees can undertake training, so consider whether that would be useful not just for the employer, but for the employee too.
At the forefront of all of this is a simple message - keep in touch. Keep furloughed employees appraised of what is going on. Feelings of isolation can often heighten anxiety. The now commonly-used phrase FOMO takes on a darker side than normal - sitting at home, imagining that other people are party to information that you are not aware of could make matters worse. Reassure furloughed employees that you will communicate with them fully and regularly and at the same time as other staff. Just knowing that might make all the difference, avoiding a feeling of there being two tiers of employee, one of whom is prioritised over the other.
Which takes us on to those other employees who are not on furlough leave and are working from home, possibly for the first time. What should we be considering, now that the dust has settled on the practical arrangements?
First and foremost, think about your normal health and safety provisions. The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 still applies when working from home. Employers have an obligation to provide a safe system of work. So how do you do that?
The importance of breaks
One of the highest risk areas will arise from people working for too long, not taking regular breaks and not being inclined to take annual leave when they cannot travel abroad. All of these arise because of the peculiarity of the situation we find ourselves in, but do not be tempted to avoid the very real health and safety issues arising from all of this. You need to manage it. Consider this - the annual leave provisions of the Working Time Regulations 1998 are there for health and safety reasons. Quite simply put, people need time away from work. That applies whether they can go abroad or not. Whilst the Government has introduced legislation allowing people to carry forward their holidays by up to 2 years, that should not be regarded as acceptable practice for people who are continuing to work. Make it clear that people are still expected to plan and take their annual leave. It may not be the most exciting holiday they have ever planned, but any break from work is a positive force in the fight to stay healthy.
If there is resistance to this, consider the extent to which you employment documentation allows you to force the taking of annual leave, if necessary. If it does not, then the Working Time Regulations make provision for an employer to give notice to employees to take annual leave by the giving of notice (advance notice being double the amount of leave involved).
Annual leave aside, what else are you doing to make sure people take appropriate breaks? The Regulations require employers to maintain records of hours worked by employees. Have you considered how you are doing this now? It is less easy to do when people are not physically present in one place. Consider putting in place a simple system to ensure that there is compliance with this. Consider also the fact that the Regulations require appropriate breaks to be taken, not only through the day, but also between days and between weeks. Whilst they are not overly generous, it is much easier to skip the taking of appropriate breaks whilst at home. Do something to make sure that your employees are doing what you would normally expect. At a minimum, there should be 11 hours of uninterrupted rest between working days and 24 hours of interrupted rest in a 7 day period. Remind people of the importance of breaks, and that you expect them to be taken.
The importance of good communications
Aside from rest and breaks, experience dictates that poor communications are often a material factor in both constructive dismissal claims and discrimination claims. Communications are made even more challenging when everyone is working remotely. Take the time to make sure that managers have appropriate contact on a regular basis with their teams and support them in doing that. Replace the 'water cooler' chat with something else and try to make that happens by video, rather than conference call. Use techniques to make sure that everyone can contribute - it can be easier for someone to dominate these calls than they might do in a normal conversation, so try to avoid this happening if possible.
Communications can become more challenging when someone is working from home with children present, and a level of tolerance and understanding will go a long way. One of the higher risk areas at the moment will be in the area of sex discrimination. Discrimination claims often arise from people making assumptions based on gender stereotypes. Since many of us are suddenly at home with children present, it would be easy to make assumptions about the challenges that that might present. Do not assume that one gender is taking responsibility for the children more than the other. Also, it cannot be assumed that people are working less just because children are in the house with them. If you feel that there is an issue with people juggling work and children, make sure that everyone is asked about whether their arrangements are working and not just one particular gender. Be seen to be offering flexibility to everyone, if they need it, regardless of gender.
Other matters also become tricky when trying to work remotely. If for example you have been performance-managing an employee, you do not want to lose the momentum on that. These procedures can be lengthy to negotiate under normal circumstances. Managers need to be reminded not to let that drop off the radar just because it becomes logistically more difficult. Setting SMART objectives and deadlines for achieving them can still be done when someone is working from home and review meetings can be conducted by video conference. Make sure that the focus is not lost on these matters as, ultimately, when things return to normal, we will all need to be working as effectively as we possibly can.
Preparing for the future
There will be a future beyond this, of course, albeit it might look quite different from how it was previously. How can we prepare for that in terms of our employees' health and resilience?
One of the most challenging areas of management is in making adjustments in circumstances where an employee is suffering from a mental health condition and has already become unfit for work. On the basis that anxieties are heightened in general at the moment, and that that is likely to continue with people feeling anxious about their financial futures, is there anything that we can do to alleviate anxiety now so that it never gets to a point where someone can no longer attend work?
Things to consider - do you have people available in the workplace to encourage good mental health? If not, think about whether or not you could be training Mental Health First Aiders at the moment. Also, do you already have satisfactory occupational health (OH) arrangements in place? OH advisors are too commonly brought in far too late, at the point where an employer is trying to get an employee back to work. Consider whether OH might have a role in maintaining good health and investigate how that might work in practice. It is always advisable to have an OH provider in place who knows your business and understands the working environment, so that any time lag on treatment is reduced at a later stage.
Will all of this work? It will certainly help to reduce your future liability, and it certainly won't do any harm. And the very fact that you are an employer who is on the front foot, taking care of employees' mental health and resilience will be reassuring in itself. As we have all experienced over the last few weeks, any reassurance we can take, in all aspects of life, can make a huge difference to how we feel.