Much has been written during the pandemic about the future of work – polls have been run on social media to gauge workers’ ideal split between working at the office versus from home, and some companies have already announced their intentions of providing increased flexibility in their workforce’s schedules.
But with governments lifting restrictions in some countries, re-imposing them in others, new variants being discovered, and vaccines being rolled out unevenly around the world, the “return to the office” becomes more difficult than companies would like.
Facilitating a safe return
Pre-pandemic, businesses may have placed restrictions on their employees working from home, for fear of loss of productivity, or inability to monitor their progress, but had to pivot quite quickly in 2020. Many have since realized that their employees remained productive while at home, or even increased their efficiency, and now have to weigh up several considerations for bringing them back:
- Flexible work patterns: The option of a few days in the office, and a few days at home each week;
- Social distancing and space considerations: Potentially rotating ‘shifts’ of staff to ensure adequate social distancing, and reducing office capacity, implementing desk booking, and facilitating the collaboration needed for all-important innovation (while reducing access to collaboration spaces)
- Cleaning the premises in between shifts;
- Facilities: Adding hand sanitizing stations, systems for one-way traffic, and making provisions for staff feeling unwell; and
- Communications: Communicating plans for returning to the office, with empathy, transparency, and reciprocity
Employment contracts that work
While businesses in some countries have welcomed back employees for months, others have remained cautious among stricter local government guidelines. While the board may be responsible for the practical application of measures in the office, the general counsel will be called on to advise on several short- and long-term legal considerations:
- Would introducing shift rotation to reduce crowding in the office affect the employment contract?
- Would changing the workforce structure to respond with agility to government restrictions help or hinder profitability, and what are the implications for current contracts, future contracts, and consultation procedures?
- What pandemic-time policies have been created for seasonal or migrant workers, and do they need to be reviewed for the long-term?
- If governments drop mask mandates in favour of recommendations, are you still allowed under health and safety at work regulations to require your employees to wear face coverings in the office?
- Do your real estate contracts allow for office alterations to enhance social distancing, sanitizing, or downsizing?
- Would altering supplier contracts (e.g., improved or more frequent cleaning) result in higher costs?
A matter of policy
As many countries are in different states of unlocking, it is more important than ever to tailor your return-to-work strategy to the jurisdictions in which you operate. The GC’s role in deciding the strategy, along with the HR department, is vital, not only in order to comply with local regulations, but also to help the returning workforce feel confident that their safety, physical and mental health, and personal commitments (such as caring for affected relatives) have been considered:
- Review your workforce needs in relation to your business strategy, mapping out the business needs for the future, and the likely employment law implications of any suggested changes;
- Review all the polices – standard policies (from dress codes to study leave), and the policies created or altered because of the pandemic, and decide whether changes are needed; consult with your workforce or their representatives as necessary;
- Review the different stages of restrictions and pandemic levels in your various jurisdictions, and seek outside legal help to ensure compliance;
- Create and communicate your return-to-work strategy, including what measures you are implementing to keep employees and visitors safe—obtain crisis communication help if necessary; and
- Meet with suppliers, landlords, and other further down the supply chain to negotiate new terms if necessary.
For many people around the world, a return to the office would signal a step closer to some form of normality, but epidemiologists warn that COVID-19 is likely to remain endemic, rather than be eradicated. Businesses will need to prepare for increased agility, flexibility, and resilience.