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How has employee management changed in the time of COVID?

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Employers and their managers have certainly been thrown a curveball by the events of 2020 and the on-going impact of the Coronavirus pandemic. In some cases, the physical workplace has disappeared entirely, replaced by home offices and ‘Teams’ meetings. For others, completely new ways of operating and managing the physical workplace and those working within it have had to be put in place. Both scenarios bring with them new challenges in terms of employee management.  

Here, we explore some practical actions for employers and highlight some of the particular problem areas. 

Employers have a responsibility to make their workplaces COVID-secure

Where employees are unable to work from home, employers will have been implementing measures to create safe working environments for employees to return to. From a management perspective, it is important that the expectation that employees follow workplace rules on health and safety is clearly articulated. Policies should be amended and circulated explaining the importance of these rules and the disciplinary consequences that will follow if they are not adhered to. If employees jeopardise these systems, then managers will want to be able to act quickly and decisively to take disciplinary action.

A safe workplace is now potentially also impacted by an employee’s actions outside of work (for example, if they meet in a group larger than 6 or fail to socially distance). Employers should consider sending out clear communications that conduct outside the workplace which is in breach of the current coronavirus rules may, if discovered, result in disciplinary action in the workplace. Employers should be clear in explaining the expansion of the concept of actions outside the workplace and the health and safety reasons for it. The clearer that you are with your employees, the easier it will be to take decisive action if your expectations are not met.

What if employees go on holiday and need to self-isolate?

Prior to 2020, the destination that an employee might choose to go to on holiday would have likely been of little consequence to an employer. However, with a growing number of foreign countries being placed on the Home Office’s self-isolation list requiring 14 days quarantine following return, it is now a pressing issue. During the post-holiday quarantine period employees will not ordinarily be entitled to SSP. If employees are able to work from home, then this is not likely to cause an issue as they can work from home whilst isolating. However, if they cannot work from home then managers need to have the tools necessary to manage those opting to holiday in such destinations on their return.

Employers could look to amend holiday policies or issue an instruction to require employees to inform them of their holiday destination. This will aid the employer in keeping the workplace COVID secure and to plan for any likely extended absence owing to self-isolation. Employers could go further and issue an instruction that employees should not travel to countries on the quarantine list. However, such an instruction would have to be subject to reasonable exceptions (if, for example, a family emergency requires overseas travel or a country is only placed on the quarantine list whilst an employee is away). The employer would then potentially be in a position to discipline an employee who travelled in the knowledge of this rule.

However, threatening disciplinary action in such circumstances brings with it the risk that the employee will conceal their holiday destination and then break quarantine by returning to work, endangering the safety of the workplace.  It is a tricky balance to strike. An employee is not entitled to SSP or any other form of pay whilst they self-isolate in these circumstances as a matter of law. The employer may wish to agree to the taking of additional holiday to cover the quarantine period or agree unpaid leave. A common-sense approach would be to actively discourage travel to risky destinations, to have a clear policy on payment and work during any quarantine period and to be reasonable about breaks booked before countries were placed on the quarantine list.

Short-term sickness absence

Short-term sickness absence is something that managers generally spend a lot of time dealing with. It causes business disruption and is often an indicator of underlying issues. Many businesses use the Bradford Factor or similar systems to monitor such absences and to discipline employees appropriately when attendance problems arise.

However, these approaches are unlikely to be appropriate when dealing with the various absences arising due to the pandemic. It is important that managers are supportive of employees who are being asked by the government to take action by quarantining which takes them necessarily away from the workplace. Disciplining absence in these circumstances is rarely going to be appropriate. Unfortunately, whilst the management of these absences is pretty much impossible, the impact they will have on the business will remain. Employees who display symptoms will have to isolate until they receive a test result. They may have to isolate for 10 days with coronavirus, 14 days if they are in a household of someone with symptoms or 14 days if they are contacted via test and trace. In each case, this will be classed as a sickness absence (if the employee is unable to work from home) and the latter two circumstances could arise on multiple occasions for each employee.

The government are helping by offering to refund 14 days payment of SSP per employee where the absence is related to coronavirus, but this will only take an employer so far. Employers should look at sick pay policy and consider reducing any contractual enhancements to cut costs relating to these absences. Other COVID-related absences don’t fall to be considered as sickness at all, for example if an employee has childcare issues owing to their child’s educational ‘bubble’ being required to isolate. Such absences should be treated sensitively with options such as time off for dependents (in the short term), taking parental leave, taking holiday and agreed unpaid leave all being considered.   

Are your workplace rules, policies and documentation where they need to be to manage effectively during these unprecedented times? Have you covered all the bases? In part two, we set out some thoughts on areas where employers and managers can have a real impact.

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