Pulling up the shutters - what ‘return to work' means for your business

What happens when it's time for businesses to pull up the shutters again?
Andrew Lightburn

‘TO call this as clear as mud is an insult to mud' was the comment from broadcaster Jay Rayner following Sunday night's much anticipated update from Boris Johnson.

And while Northern Ireland businesses may welcome the news that the UK government is looking at easing the economic lockdown, there remains a lack of clarity and direction. Hopefully this will be addressed by the Stormont Executive imminently.

Irrespective of time frames, reopening businesses and returning employees to work has the potential to be complex on several levels, but there are two key areas that business owners should be aware of.

The first is the health and safety of the returning employees. Employers have a duty of care to their workforces and must provide a safe place and system of work. This will include a risk assessment of each workplace, and implementing systems and arrangements to ensure, at the very least, government guidance is followed, and employees are safe.

This is most likely to fall into four categories: social distancing, provision of hand washing/sanitising facilities, employee health monitoring and personal protective equipment (PPE).

Subject to employees not being able to work from home, the effect of applying social distancing (the two-metre rule) could be challenging. Measures could include introducing one way routes around the workplace, reducing employee numbers in the workplace, applying floor markings for guidance, changing working practices, introducing measures to reduce socialising eg at lunch and break times, and increasing shifts or working hours to deal with reduced output because of social distancing.

Businesses may also be expected to provide facilities to ensure frequent hand washing – ie entering and leaving work premises and before/after breaks. This may require installing additional 'pop up' handwashing/sanisitising stations.

Monitoring and management of employee health will also be a priority for businesses. Strict reporting procedures will be a necessity, particularly for anyone displaying symptoms (or a family member). Some businesses may even consider taking employees temperatures on arrival at work to provide reassurance to the workforce in general that risks are being managed.

While it is yet to be clarified, businesses may need to provide appropriate PPE to employees either because of the sector they work in or, quite simply, to provide reassurance.

Once the protection measures are in place, the next obvious issue for businesses will be the need to adapt to potentially new market conditions. This could mean businesses will need to scale up operations gradually - perhaps in line with the phased lifting of lockdown measures.

This in turn could impact on an employee's terms and conditions such as reducing pay or hours, changing policies such as sick pay and holiday entitlement, making some redundancies or even continued furlough after the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme has ceased. Whilst furlough was not a concept previously known to UK employment law, it could remain in place for the foreseeable future.

Whilst there is a great deal to consider before employees are brought back to work, thought also needs to be given to the mindset of each individual, as they may have been out of the business for three or more months.

Some may be nervous about returning to work or perhaps have issues surrounding childcare whilst schools remain closed. Inevitably there will be difficult and sensitive conversations to be had.

Irrespective of the challenges presented by the return to work, for the business community, the wider economy and society in general, embarking on the ‘road to recovery' is a journey which is widely welcomed.

:: Andrew Lightburn ( is senior associate (employment) at DWF Belfast (

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