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Taking advice from Government guidelines is crucial (see “Further information” below). Going through the below considerations will help you evaluate when it may or may not be appropriate to introduce practices and measures while managing the reactions and worries of your disabled employees. The Government have also issued sector-specific guidance on phasing back into the workplace.

The Chartered Institute for Personnel Development (CIPD) has also issued guidance on when the appropriate time to introduce employees back into the workplace is. A 3-step test has been issued to provide an objective measure to apply to your organisation (see “Further information” below).

Whatever employers communicate to their workforces – whether that is altered policies and procedures or new information about Covid-19 – it is important that communications are accessible and inclusive, or that they can at least be provided in a different format when requested.

The Government in England is urging employees who are not able to work from home to try and look to go back to work as of Wednesday 13th May (the advice in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is different; see here for the advice in WalesScotland and Northern Ireland). The Government have also asked employees to avoid public transport if possible and to encourage other modes of getting into work. This can, of course, propose some further thought around the support given to disabled employees who depend on public transport to get into work.

If your organisation is currently operating or due to be back in operation soon, also be mindful that not everyone will be ready – or comfortable – to commute to work as soon as the Government or an employer allows. For example, employees may still be shielding (which means not leaving the house) when others start commuting to work. In addition, consider where care arrangements may not yet be in place – for example, parents with dependents, or employees with care responsibilities. Day and respite care options may not be operating fully at the time when employers are ready for employees to work at their usual location of work again.

Questions to consider: impact on commuting for carers and parents

  • Do you have employees who are still shielding?
  • Do have employees with childcare or caring responsibilities?
  • Do you have employees who live with others who are shielding or who are vulnerable?
  • Will employees in the above categories need to work remotely for longer after other employees return to the work environment?
  • Do you have a GDPR-compliant and non-discriminatory method of identifying who in your workforce falls under the above categories?

Aside from arranging to commute back to work, it is important to consider the health risks commuting may pose to employees.

Questions to consider: risk of commuting and travelling

  • Can the employee reasonably commute to work without putting themselves at unreasonable risk of infection?
  • Do employees have, and aware of, a method of communicating to their manager whether they are comfortable to travel or not.
  • Is it ensured that employees are not compelled to travel or will be treated detrimentally from not feeling comfortable to do so, whilst the pandemic is present?
  • Can they access or reasonably use a car, have their own transport, or could they walk to a closer site?
  • If public transport is required for travel, can employees reasonably alter their start and finish times of working to avoid peak and busy periods?
  • Could employees work from home for some of the time?

Getting to work is not the only travel related consideration; many roles also involve travel for external meetings or visits with customers, and stakeholders. Consider whether, even your employees return to the workplace, if visits to external meetings should commence and how.

Questions to consider: travel for external meetings and visits

  • Will meetings with clients, stakeholders or other external parties still be able to take place remotely using technology?
  • If not, can social distancing measures be communicated beforehand, and practiced during any face-to-face meetings?
  • Will a briefing or tour of the facilities and the current Covid measures be compulsory to visitors to receive, and perhaps validated by signature or tick box upon entering the facilities.
  • What do you need to communicate to your clients/stakeholder about how you will operate meetings, particularly when face-to-face meetings are necessary? For example, “Our staff have been asked not to shake your hand when they meet you. We are not being rude; we are doing this protect you as well as our staff”.
  • Will your staff or visitors have appropriate access and support measures when visiting yours or other premises; and is there a process in place to ensure that social distancing can be maintained whilst providing this support (e.g. wheelchair ramps, elevators)?

When choosing whether to return office workers to the office environment, there are many environmental and social issues to consider, even aside from the above considerations about actually getting to the office. Some employers will phase people back to the office, and others will allow some roles to continue to work from home while other roles will return to office working. For those returning to the office, rotating having different teams in the office or rearranging space may could be factors in safely returning to pre-lockdown practices. Some of the following considerations may need to involve people managers as well as facilities or premises managers and health, safety and risk teams.

It can also be the case that office environments are better or preferred option for some employees, as soon as is safe to return to them. You may therefore need to prioritise which roles and which individuals return to the office environment first.

Questions to consider: returning staff to the office

  • Which roles of individuals with adjustments because of a disability, if any, could reasonably stay working from home?
  • Which roles should come back to the office first?
  • Which individuals would benefit from being prioritised for a safe return the office (for example, think of employees in home situations, stress and mental health, or ergonomic situations where returning to the office could be more beneficial)?
  • Will returning individuals benefit from having a tour/induction including the current COVID-19 workplace measures (for example, employee with Autism understanding social distancing ruling, wheelchair routes, visually impaired employees who rely on non-visual signals for coordination)?

Questions to consider: maintaining hygiene and social distancing at work

  • Can the entire workforce reasonably work in the premises at the same time without compromising social distancing?
  • If social distancing is not possible, is the relevant and appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) available?
  • Could a rota system be put in place for employees who work in the office on what days to monitor capacity
  • How could you end or rearrange hot desking?
  • Which areas of the wider work environment (for example, eating areas, washrooms, staff rooms) generate a lot of people traffic throughout the day, and when are the busy/quiet periods in these spaces?
  • How will you accessibly and inclusively communicate the safe office working to employees in the office current measures to staff at work – for example, signage on noticeboards, intranet, emails, manager briefings?
  • Could you provide more hand wash and hygiene stations within the workplace?
  • What measures can be implemented to ensure social distancing is maintained? For example, tape on the floor, walking routes mapped out, spread out desks, spaced out seating in communal areas; spaced out seating in meeting rooms.
  • What is the risk of facilities and environmental factors spreading infections – for example, air conditioning, fans, sharing tools, or stationary?
  • Are there sufficient cleaning products for shared facilities and equipment – for example, desktops, keyboards, and other technology?
  • Could you restrict the number of people allowed in a lift at any one time? Ensure you consider the priority of employees with relevant disabilities or long-term conditions. This may include, mobility energy limiting, dexterity, or relevant neurological conditions.
  • When may social distancing not be possible, and what measures/procedures are in place to protect employees who are in that position (for example, fire evacuation support for a wheelchair user)?

Workforces ultimately need to guide employees to behave in a new way in the working environment. This will need effective communication and understanding towards employees who find change difficult or distressing or employees who may struggle to understand new ways of being in the office environment.

Questions to consider

  • How do you want employees to behave differently during their working day in the working environment? For example, consider how to set expectations on social distancing, and managing culture and attitudes toward workplace and remote workers.
  • What emotional support is available to employees? Consider employees who are vulnerable, who already experience mental health conditions, and those who are close to people affected by and unwell from Covid-19.
  • What support, resources, and guidance are there for managers to communicate, assist in implementing, and managing different ways of working?
  • How can employees working in the workplace and remotely manage social needs and fulfilment with their work colleagues whilst adhering to government measures; particularly including individuals who may feel socially distant or removed from their peers?
  • How can the negative bias or discrimination against individuals who currently has, has previously had, or cares for/lives with someone with Covid-19 related symptoms be managed and mitigated at work?
  • What are the responsibilities of both the employer and the employees of ensuring and maintaining a supportive working and team dynamic?

Procedures and new ways of working you put in place as employees return to the workplace need to be practiced consistently by everyone in the workplace space. This is crucial for the measures to be effective. Monitoring effectiveness and managing non-compliance with procedures is therefore important for every employee’s health and safety.

Questions to consider

  • Is there an appropriate policy and procedure in place in line with Government advice for if an employee shows symptoms of Covid-19 in the workplace?
  • Are there audits and checks that measures are being followed appropriately?
  • What is the process for if an employee does not follow these measures?
  • Could employees to take non-invasive health checks throughout the working day – for example, temperature checks, health questionnaires, observing symptoms of COVID-19?
  • If employees are worried about anything related to COVID-19 and their health and safety while they are in the workplace, who should they contact? Ensure this is well communicated.

It could be that the UK could lockdown again at some point in the future. Employers will need to respond quickly and safely.

Questions to consider

  • Is the organisation prepared to re-enter the lockdown working environment if a second wave of the pandemic emerges?
  • Are there documented policies and procedures for a lockdown scenario?
  • Are there policies and procedures that are aligned to stages in the Government’s COVID alert system?
  • Are any tailored adjustment plans and workplace adjustments documented so that they can efficiently be implemented again in a lockdown situation?
  • Are communication methods in place to respond quickly if need? Ensure all communication methods are accessible and inclusive.
  • Has the organisation collected and evaluated feedback from employees working from home, and investigated ways to ensure the experience during a potential second wave can be improved upon for all employees?

To ensure the NHS frontline was equipped to care for the huge number of people who contracted and showed symptoms COVID-19, many operations, treatment procedures, and rehabilitation and on-going care appointments were cancelled. This has had a huge impact on many people with disabilities and long-term conditions who rely on the NHS to manage their condition ongoingly. The impact for employers could be that some employees with short and term conditions that are supported by the NHS may not be ready to return to work when everyone else does. We have heard that some employees may be delayed in returning to work until they get the treatment, operation, or procedure that they need.

In such cases, employees might be feeling anxious, worried, or less ‘themselves’ at the moment without the ongoing care they usually have to manage their condition. On top of this, they may be unable to return to the workplace. This means that employers may need to consider how they make adjustments, plan a supportive return to work (when appropriate), and record absence as disability leave (or equivalent) for employees in this situation.

For specific advice on this topic, please contact the Advice Service to discuss your situation.

If your organisation is a Member and you need more information, please email our Advice Service or call us on 020 7089 2400. To become a member, please email our Membership Team.

You can also visit our COVID-19 toolkit.

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