The recent weeks and months have proved to be a challenging time for all. Those businesses that have been able to remain open during lockdown have had to operate in unchartered territory.  Those that have only been able to reopen recently, or are yet to reopen, have had the benefit of seeing how those that have remained opened have implemented changes to ensure safe working practices. However, the practicalities of planning and implementing changes and operating in the continued uncertainty for many is far from straightforward. It would not, therefore, be surprising if the last thing on any employer’s mind was reviewing their employment policies/staff handbook. However, if you are an employer, here are ten policies that are worth reviewing or introducing to make your business run as smoothly as possible in these unsettling times. 

1.    Absence management policy

First up, employers will want to turn their minds to their absence management policy. Although the number of infections is continually reducing at the time of writing this, it is fair to say that the end of the pandemic is likely to be some time away, and the risk of employee absence remains high. 

With that in mind, it is worth reviewing trigger points for formal action under any absence management policy and consider whether COVID-19 related absences will be disregarded.

There have also been some recent changes to the law insofar as SSP is concerned, which your policy will need to reflect. In particular, from 13 March 2020, those that are self-isolating following government guidelines or shielding in accordance with a notification are entitled to SSP from the first day of their absence where they are unable to work. Further, employees will only be able to obtain an “isolation note” if they are unable to work as they have been advised to self-isolate.

2.    Annual leave policy

With many employees placed on furlough, their holidays cancelled and the prospect of the usual summer getaways looking unlikely, employees may not be able or keen to take annual leave as they usually would.  Therefore it is worth considering what changes, if any, you need to make to your current policy.  For example, are you able to accommodate everyone’s annual leave within the remaining holiday year? If not, what provisions do you have in place for allowing employees to carry over any accrued untaken leave into the next holiday year? Note that the Government has introduced new legislation permitting workers to carry over some of their annual leave entitlement into the following two leave years where it is not reasonably practicable for them to take it in the leave year to which it relates. 

3.    Disciplinary policy

Reviewing or introducing a disciplinary policy may be the last thing on your mind; however, it is worth considering whether your policy reflects current examples of misconduct sufficiently. For example, does it deal with the business’ view on refusal to return to work where there is concern about safety and breaches of health and safety measures, including social distancing measures? Of course, social distancing is still something that we are all getting used to, and in some workplaces, it is trickier than others; however, you may want to have a clear stance on repeated unnecessary breaches. 

4.    Flexible working policy

Employees that have been employed for at least 26 continuous weeks have the right to request flexible working. In the current climate, employees may now, more than ever, want to consider making applications as families struggle with childcare or caring responsibilities. The pressures of balancing work and family life are only likely to increase as the school holidays approach. You may already be taking a pragmatic view on such applications (including considering applications from those that wouldn’t ordinarily qualify); however, having a clear policy in place will help ensure that employees know what to expect when making an application and guide the process. 

Applications may include temporarily reduced working hours, working at different times, or working at a different location (for example, working from home in whole or part). If changes are agreed to an employee’s working arrangements, make sure that it is clear whether the changes are temporary in light of the current situation or permanent. It may be that you want to restrict any alterations for a limited time to allow scope for change in the future as the situation evolves.

5.    Harassment & bullying policy

Sadly, there have been reports of racial harassment related to COVID-19, in particular towards those that are perceived to be a higher risk of having the virus. Therefore, it is advisable to remind employees that harassment and bullying are not tolerated and the policy which deals with any such concerns.

6.    Health & safety policy

If your business has reopened, then it is likely that you have already applied your mind to ensuring that work can be undertaken safely, including ensuring social distancing. If you have not, then the Governments’ COVID-19 secure guidelines are a good place to start. Your employees are likely to take particular comfort in knowing that all reasonable steps have been made to reduce any risk to their health in the present circumstances. 

Remember that if you have five or more employees, you must have a written statement on health and safety at work. You must also bring your health and safety policy, and any revisions, to the attention of all your employees. It is an excellent opportunity to remind employees of the policy and their duties to protect their own and their colleagues’ health and safety and cooperate with you to ensure everyone’s health and safety.  

7.    Time off from work policies

There are a variety of reasons employees may seek to have time off from work. In light of the ongoing situation, those with children and caring responsibilities may likely need to take time off work at short notice. 

For example, it may be that employees with childcare responsibilities consider that any working at the moment is too much of a struggle with their family or personal commitments.  Therefore they may seek up to 18 weeks unpaid parental leave (if furloughing them is not an option) or even a career break. 

Sadly, employees may also seek to take time off on compassionate leave following the death of a loved one. 

Having clear policies which set out the business’ position and process on the possible types of leave that an employee may be able to take will make things much easier to navigate should the situation arise. 

8.    Travel policy

If your employees need to travel for work, you must review how they can continue to do so safely; this should form part of your health and safety risk assessment. However, as a result of that assessment, you may need to review any separate travel policy that you have. For example, if employees are usually required to use public transport, in light of the Government’s current guidance on using public transport, can they use private transport instead?  If so, how will they be reimbursed? If travelling on public transport is unavoidable, then consider whether employees can travel outside peak times.  

9.    Whistleblowing policy

If you haven’t got one already, I’d seriously recommend that you put a whistleblowing policy straightaway. We live in troubled times, and employees need to know that they can raise concerns without fear of reprimand or detriment. Employees will likely be nervous about working, and knowing how they can raise those concerns and how they will be treated will be of comfort to all. 

10.    Working from home policy

Last, but by no means least, employers should consider whether their working from home policy, if they have one, is still fit for purpose. For many businesses working from home was not a utilised option until the Government announced that all those that could work from home should work from home, and therefore may not have the policies to set out expectations. Given that employees will likely be working from home, if they can, for the foreseeable future, now is the time to put in place a formal policy. If your business is used to having employees work from home, it is worth taking this opportunity to review your policy to see if it still meets your needs and reflects the changes and reality of your employees’ working situation in the current circumstances. 

It is important to note that even when your employees work from home, you continue to be liable for their welfare so far as reasonably practicable. Therefore, if you have not already done so, now is the time to carry out a risk assessment to identify any hazards and risks as a result of their working environment. Be mindful that not only may there be physical ramifications of employees working from home long term (for example back pain or neck pain as a result of not having an ideal workstation set up) but also on their mental health. Working from home can be lonely, and it can take time for employees to adjust. Think about how you could mitigate any feelings of isolation, for example, by keeping in touch, considering outreach programmes, putting in place mental health champions, or a buddy system.

Summary

In summary, now is an ideal time to review and reflect on the policies that you have in place to ensure that they reflect your business’ current situation. If you haven’t got an employee handbook, then I’d recommend setting some time aside to put one together. They can be a valuable tool for all.

If you’d like help putting an employee handbook together or reviewing what you already have, please do get in touch – I’d be happy to help.

This blog provides general guidance only. Expert advice should always be sought in relation to particular circumstances.  

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