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Acas North East has updated its coronavirus guidance to cover best practice around how to handle returning to work.

The coronavirus pandemic has seen calls to the Acas helpline increase by a third (34%) when compared to the same period the previous year. 

Acas North East director, Alex Peel, said: “COVID-19 has caused a lot of uncertainty in workplaces in the North East and our helpline has seen a record increase in calls from employers and employees wanting advice on how to handle changes to their work situation. 

“The UK Government’s advice is to continue to work from home if possible. But many employers and their staff in the North East may be concerned about the practicalities of physically going back to work. 

“Some people may also feel that they are unable to go back to work due to health, safety or childcare concerns. Our new advice includes guidance in these areas.” 

Acas’ advice is for employers and their staff to have early discussions about any plans to return to work and try to come to an agreement. These talks can take place with trade union or employee reps and health and safety reps, but all staff should be kept informed of plans and be able to feed into discussions. 

It is a good idea to talk about: 

  • When staff might return to the workplace where your plans allow 
  • How staff will travel to and from work
  • How health and safety is being reviewed and managed, including sharing the latest risk assessment 
  • Any planned adjustments to the workplace, for example, additional handwashing facilities, staggering start and finish times to avoid overcrowding or floor markings to help people keep two metres apart 
  • If there might be a phased return of the workforce, for example, some staff returning before others 

Wherever possible, employers should speak to staff before making a decision or putting plans in writing. This can help staff understand and feel included in decisions. 

Acas’ new advice is clear that some people may not feel that they are able to return to work due to worries around catching the virus, childcare responsibilities, or they could be an extremely vulnerable person or live with someone who is. In any of these situations, an employer should listen to staff concerns. Some practical options to consider are: 

  • Arrange for someone to work different hours temporarily to avoid peak-time travel
  • Keep someone on furlough if they are temporarily unable to work 
  • Offer extra car parking where possible so that people can avoid using public transport 

If none of these options are possible then it may be possible to take time off as holiday or unpaid leave but an employer does not have to agree to this. If someone refuses to attend work without a valid reason then it could result in disciplinary action.  

Non-essential retail shops in England are now able to reopen. Acas is regularly updating its advice to reflect any new changes to lockdown in Great Britain. The full advice includes proposed changes to employment contracts on returning to work, staff anxious about returning to work and how to raise it as an issue.   

Contributed by Alex Peel
Neina Sheldon
Article by Neina Sheldon
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