As part of its COVID “Plan B”, the government announced that with effect from 13 December 2021, people should work from home if they are able to do so. This led to a quasi-shutdown of London’s business districts in the run up to Christmas, with the majority of office workers retreating to their kitchen tables.
Despite London experiencing unprecedented Omicron infection rates, encouraging evidence continues to emerge that hospitalisations appear to be manageable. This has prompted calls from some business leaders for employees to return to their office desks. However, the government has continued to request that people work from home if they are able to do so – in a statement to the House of Commons on 5 January 2022, the Prime Minister confirmed that the existing Plan B restrictions will continue for another three weeks, with a further review before the regulations expire on 26 January2022.
If, as is widely reported, London is close to reaching a peak of Omicron infection rates, there is real possibility that the government’s work from home guidance will fall away in the coming weeks. If so, employers will once again be faced with prospect of bringing their people back to the office.
Familiar issues will resurface. Employers will need to dust down the hybrid working policies that were being developed or rolled out last summer. Staff who had begun to grow used to being back in the office again towards the end of last year, may now be less comfortable to return to the office – dealing with formal flexible working requests is likely to be a key issue for employers during the course of 2022.
As staff begin to return to the office, employers will again need to grapple with the issues of testing and vaccinations. These are emotive and complex matters and carry with them the risk of litigation. Some employees may be genuinely nervous about another return to the office. Employers must act with caution and ensure that they engage with their staff in order to properly address each situation on its own facts.
It is likely that if the guidance on working from home is lifted, some measures (such a mask wearing and social distancing) may well remain in place until the Spring. If so, employers will need to ensure that they have the appropriate policies and procedures in place.
Whilst this will all seem like déjà vu for employers, the fact that almost all organisations have already tackled return to work issues means that they should be better prepared this time. The key is not to be complacent and to continue to engage with the workforce as the return to office plan is implemented.