Prioritising team safety and managing absence in a ‘pingdemic’
The term ‘Pingdemic’ has become a widely used way to describe the role that the NHS Track and Trace system has played in the pandemic.
The Track and Trace app will ‘ping’ individuals with instructions to isolate if they come into contact with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus.
Businesses are already feeling the effects of the post-restriction Track and Trace system, with many warning of shortages and delayed response times as a result of team members isolating.
Ports are experiencing up to a 10% increase in worker absences which is having a significant impact on supply chains with High Street giants like M&S also suffering, warning that stores may need to close early.
The ‘Pingdemic’ appears to be here to stay, at least for the next few months. Below we have set out guidance for employers on how to manage employee absence during this time.
Now that the advice to work from home has ended, the government has issued six pieces of workplace guidance covering a range of different sectors such as factories, hospitality, retail and education.
The underlying message of this guidance is that employers have an ongoing duty of care towards their team and customers and, despite the voluntary language used throughout the guidance, there is a strong undertone suggesting that previous precautionary measures should continue; ventilation, grouping team members, using screens or barriers, wearing masks and hot desking are all covered.
Employees who are required to self-isolate will be entitled to pay in line with their contract of employment. In many cases this will be in line with Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) but if you offer enhanced sick pay this would take precedent.
The government will currently allow employers to reclaim up to two weeks SSP per eligible employee via the Statutory Sick Pay Rebate Scheme.
Another option that could be considered is the use of annual leave, particularly for those employees who may have entered a new holiday year with an annual leave carry over. This may help to reduce holiday entitlement whilst sustaining wages for a period and can be achieved with agreement from the employee or could be enforced by giving appropriate notice.
If your business is significantly impacted and/or forced to close as a result of self-isolation (or other COVID related factors) then you may be eligible to claim via the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme until the end of September.
Talk to your team
For over 18 months people have been accustomed to COVID-secure measures and isolation. Removing these abruptly without consideration may lead to higher levels of anxiety among your team.
Check in with employees and communicate openly about the challenges to come and how you propose to overcome them. Taking into account their concerns will help them feel safer returning to work.
It is important that businesses engage with their people to understand how they feel about a return to the workplace; line managers should be informed and prepared to deal with any concerns raised by their team.
Review flexible working arrangements
Data reports that some 40% of employers expect more than half of their workforce to continue regular home working after the pandemic.
We are already seeing an increase in flexible working arrangements as a direct result of 2020’s restrictions and this includes the hybrid working model. Hybrid working offers employees flexibility in their work location and/or hours and provides more freedom to fit their work around their personal life. Research has shown that hybrid working can help a business to retain team members as well as increasing productivity levels.
Work ‘bubbles’ or co-horting
Employers may want to consider separating team members into small cohorts or bubbles to minimise possible disruption to the wider business should individuals be advised to isolate. Staggering working hours and/or days will also help to minimise the number of people potentially affected by a positive case of COVID-19 in the workplace.
Furlough and flexible furlough
Although the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme is due to come to an end on 30 September, employers are still able to access the scheme in the short term, albeit on declining reimbursement percentages (government contributions at 70% in July and 60% in August, with employers required to top this up to 80%). Employees must have been employed on 2 March to be eligible for furlough, regardless of whether they have been furloughed before or not.
It should be noted that short term illness or self-isolation should not be the deciding factor in whether to place somebody on furlough leave. However, if the business, or parts of the business are forced to close as a result, this may entitle the employer to access support through the scheme.
Employers should continue to update risk assessments, completing these based on up-to-date government and public health guidance to minimise the risk of infection and subsequent impact on business.
There will be many different aspects to consider depending on the nature and work environment of your business, but some key points to start with are:
- How will you ensure that communal areas are kept safe?
- Do you need to review your cleaning routine?
- Are any changes required to how large meetings are conducted?
- Should your team be operating in ‘bubbles’?
- How can you maximise air ventilation?
- Will you keep barriers and screens in place?
Mental health and wellbeing
As well as encouraging your team members to look after their physical wellbeing, it is of equal importance to ensure that their mental wellbeing is being nurtured too.
The ongoing health implications of contracting the virus, leading to a fear of infection or transmission, as well as the lack of social interaction will be some of the concerns causing team members to feel anxious.
Many will have experienced challenging domestic situations such as juggling work with childcare, caring for vulnerable relatives, and financial or job security fears. Some people may have concerns around returning to work using public transport, some may be worried about what the workplace will look like now restrictions have lifted, and others may just be struggling with the disruptions they have experienced over the past 12 to 18 months.
Take an active role in signposting your team to available resources and encourage them to get help if needed. If you have an employee assistance programme or access to occupational health advisers, ensure your team know there is help available through these mediums in addition to their GP and other help lines.
Testing and vaccination policy
In light of the government’s plans to remove isolation obligations for some critical sector workers, this may be something that you are able to consider in very specific circumstances, in the social care sector for example.
Team resource review and reduction in working hours
Employers could consider extending a period of reduced hours with the agreement of the workforce. Beyond the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, reduced hours would need to be paid at 100% and would require explicit employee agreement to change their terms and conditions for a temporary period.
Whilst a temporary reduction in working hours may help employers to weather the storm in the short term, this unfortunately does not offer a longer-term solution in cases where reduced workloads are significant or ongoing.
It may be necessary to consider reducing the workforce on a more permanent basis by way of a consultation and redundancy process. Employers could ask for volunteers for redundancy in the first instance, this may avoid the necessity for compulsory redundancies. It will be important to follow a fair and reasonable process where redundancies are being proposed, and advice would be to seek support with this prior to entering any formal processes.
Other possible options
Do not re-fill roles when an employee resigns or retires
Not filling current vacancies until business improves
Stopping or restricting overtime
Retraining or redeployment
Consider moving team members around the business with their agreement (unless as part of a formal redundancy process)
In line with National Minimum Wage restrictions
Short Time Working
If the employee’s contract allows, it may be possible for you to require them not to attend work for up to four weeks without pay. This should be considered as a last resort, certainly bearing in mind the hardship that some employees have faced over the last 12 to 18 months.
If you are considering the next steps for your business and would like professional advice, support or more information on any of the above, please contact our team.