Put safety first, even at work.

Working life has changed forever thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since March 2020, many professionals around the UK have been working from home and adjusting to 'the new normal'.

Now, as modern life starts to pick up again, these particular workers face quite the conundrum. Should they return to work? If so, when? They are simple questions, and yet they have complex answers.

If you have concerns about going back to work after COVID, it's important that you know where you stand. Read our quick guide to find out your rights and how you should handle that tricky conversation with your manager.

Should you return to work?

Whilst life here in the UK slowly starts to feel normal, there's one question on everybody's lips: Should you return to work? Despite the government relaxing lockdown in other areas, the official advice on who should go into workplaces has not changed. Put simply, if you can work from home, you should do so.

Whilst you're working from home, your employer has a duty to provide any equipment you need. For example, you may need a laptop to complete your work or a webcam for video conferencing. They will also need to keep in regular contact with you and ask about your everyday well-being.

However, whether you can work from home at all will be at the discretion of your employer. They may decide that you need to be in the office to complete your everyday tasks. Your employer can ask you to come back to your site on either a temporary or permanent basis.

Note: Shielded people can return to work on 31 July in Scotland, 1 August in England and 16 August in Wales. Employers have a duty to help protect shielded workers.

What are your rights when returning?

If you have been asked to return to your workplace, the chances are that you have some concerns. Less than half of people currently working from home are eager to return to their office, according to a survey from Glassdoor. With the pandemic ongoing, it's natural to feel trepidation about returning to a workplace, especially if your site is a large one.

It's important to remember that your employer has to comply with the workplace safety guidelines outlined by the government. To make the site 'COVID secure', the employer must:

  • Carry out a risk assessment and determine who can and cannot work from home 

  • Ensure people don't use the exits and entrances at the same time

  • Provide handwashing and hand sanitiser stations 

  • Keep work areas two metres apart, where possible

  • Have people working side by side (not face to face) 

  • Limit the movement of people in high footfall areas, e.g. lifts and corridors

  • Stagger breaks and lunches 

  • Encourage outdoor breaks for all staff 

  • Provide packaged meals instead of opening canteens

  • Clean equipment and premises regularly

These measures should help alleviate some of your concerns about going back to work after COVID. If you believe that your employer is not meeting the above criteria, it's vital that you speak to them or the HR department. It may be a simple oversight, but your safety is a priority.

How can you speak to your employer about COVID safety?

But wait, what should you do if your employer says you should return to the workplace? In some cases, you may find that your employer organises an interview in which you can voice your worries. If that is not the case, you may want to arrange a meeting with your line manager or boss to discuss what happens next. Here are some things to keep in mind when talking about workplace safety with your manager:

Ask about the safety measures

First, you should fully understand the steps your employer needs to take to ensure your safety at work. Once you have familiarised yourself with the workplace safety guidelines, you will be ready to speak to your manager about the issue.

The first step in this process is asking what safety measures the company plans to put in place and how they will ensure individual staff members are safe. Hear your employer out, because they may already be doing their best to adhere to guidelines. Raise any concerns you have about these measures then and there.

Speak up if you don't feel comfortable

If you're uncomfortable going back to the office, now is the time to state your case. Speaking up about your concerns about going back to work during COVID is essential. However, how you phrase your worries is also important. Ahead of speaking to your manager, write down the reasons that you feel unsafe returning at this time and give evidence.

For example, if you are a shielded individual and don't feel ready to return to the workplace, you should say so. Equally, if you fall into the vulnerable worker category, you may also want to mention this as a factor too. Whilst your employer does not have a legal obligation to allow you to work from home, having an open dialogue with them about the issue is crucial.

Note: If your employer does not allow you to work from home and you still feel unsafe in the workplace, you should first talk to HR and then look for external support. Consider speaking to an adviser at Citizens Advice.

Be open to negotiating with your manager

Workplace safety due to COVID is new territory for all of us. When you're speaking to your manager about your concerns, be open to negotiating with them. Whilst they may believe it is necessary for you to come into the workplace, you could ask if they will limit the instances you do so. For example, you may be able to come into the office on a part-time basis.

In summary

Having concerns about returning to work during COVID is perfectly normal. Should your manager ask you to do it, you have every right to speak up and ask questions to ensure your safety.

In some circumstances, the management team may insist that you return to the workplace. If that's the case, you need to determine if you feel safe to do so and whether you want to continue working for that employer. Educate yourself on your rights and do what's right for you and your safety.

Are COVID concerns pushing you to find a new job? Start your search by getting a free CV critique.

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