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Returning to the office: What you need to know

UK News | Published:

Employers can now ask staff to return to the workplace even if they are able to work remotely – here’s a guide to the new rules.

Working at a laptop

This Monday is the first working day that employers in England can demand their staff return to the office since lockdown began.

Until now, lockdown rules dictated that all who could work from home should do so.

Here’s a guide to your rights.

Coronavirus graphic
(PA Graphics)

-What has changed? 

As of August 1, new rules came into force stating that it was up to employers to decide if they needed to have their staff all in one place in order to properly run their business.

Previously, Government guidance stated everyone who should work from home should do so.

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Boris Johnson signalled the change of tack in a speech on July 17, stating: “It is not for Government to decide how employers should run their companies and whether they want their workforces in the office or not – that is for companies.”

The new rules only apply to England, with the devolved administrations having control over their own remote working policies.

-Do I have to go into the office?

The Government guidance promotes a collaborative approach between employers and employees to ensure the workplace is safe.

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If the employer decides it is in the company’s best interests to have its staff back in the office, it needs to complete a risk assessment and put social distancing measures in place.

It is up to your employer to prove to you that it is safe to return – such as demonstrating how two-metre distancing and cleanliness will be maintained, and where necessary, providing PPE.

Working from home
(Joe Giddens/PA)

-I am clinically vulnerable to coronavirus – do I have to go to work?  

Even those who have been told they are clinically extremely vulnerable can potentially be asked to return to work if their employers can prove their workplace is cornavirus secure.

Shielding for vulnerable people has been paused since August 1, but the default position is that these people should continue to work from home where possible.

The guidance recommends those who are vulnerable who cannot work from home should be offered the “safest available on-site roles” or temporarily adjusted working patterns.

-My employer is not putting proper health and safety measures in place – what can I do?

The Health and Safety Executive and local authorities now have a range of powers to force employers to comply with coronavirus-safe guidance.

Workplaces can be issued with advice or an improvement notice requiring them to implement measures within a certain time frame.

They can also be slapped with prohibition notices banning them from certain activity, while local authorities can close premises if they believe it necessary to control the spread of the disease.

Failure to comply is a criminal offence with a maximum penalty of two years’ imprisonment.

Someone in a face covering
(Andrew Matthews/PA)

-Can I refuse to go to work?

You need to return to work if you have been told to do so, unless you can prove your employer is not complying with Covid-secure measures.

Ruby Dinsmore, an employment solicitor from Slater and Gordon, said: “As an employee you must comply with a reasonable management request.”

But if your boss has not resolved serious issues about workplace safety or your own health then any request to return to the office might not be “reasonable” under employment law.

“If you are genuinely concerned about a return to work, and you feel that your employer is trying to force you to return to work when you don’t feel safe to do so, then in the first instance, I suggest you discuss your concerns with your employer and try to find a way forward,” Ms Dinsmore said.

“If this is not possible, seek legal advice urgently.”

-What does the Government say about employers trying to force staff back into the workplace?

The Government has urged bosses to take socially responsible decisions and work with their staff if they raise any concerns.

The guidance asks employers to reach a “practical agreement” with their employees about working arrangements.

It suggests that any individuals who need further advice contact the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) a free mediation service to help resolve disputes between workers and their employers.

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