Business

The challenges for employers in a post-Covid workplace

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THE pandemic brought with it a huge shake-up to the traditional employment arrangements that had previously existed. Huge numbers of employers were mandated by government guidelines to allow staff to work from home where possible.

Now that guidance is no longer in place, employers and employees are faced with numerous challenges as we emerge into a post-Covid workplace.

Firstly, with hybrid working continuing for some but not others, employers must deal with avoiding the emergence of a two-tier workforce. This problem is more acute in some sectors such as hospitality. In the hotel industry, there are staff such as wedding co-ordinators, marketing managers and other administrative staff that can do their job and not be on the premises all the time. By contrast there are other members of the same work force such as porters and bar staff who simply do not have the option as their role is fully customer facing.

There is very little an employer can do in this instance as some roles simply cannot be undertaken effectively from a remote environment.

Another problem employers face are those who are reluctant to return to the workplace. Whether an employee can insist on a hybrid working arrangement ultimately comes down to their contractual terms. In each contract of employment, the obligations and duties of each side are laid out. If there is a reference to the work being undertaken on site, the employer can insist on an employee returning. Even though hybrid working has become the norm, it does not mean that the express terms of a contract are no longer applicable.

Employers do, however, still have to be alert to staff who are vulnerable, and due to their vulnerability, reluctant to return to the office. In Northern Ireland the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act places a duty on employers to make reasonable adjustments. An example of a reasonable adjustment could be to allow a vulnerable employee a hybrid working model.

If the employee has previously demonstrated that the quality of their performance is not impacted by hybrid working in the last two years, it would be unreasonable in the vast majority of circumstances not to allow the practice to continue for that employee.

There are other employers who have benefitted from hybrid working, reduced overheads and downsizing in space leads to a saving on overheads which can be redeployed in other areas. Similarly, employees have benefitted by savings on the ever-increasing cost of travel.

However, hybrid working brings with it another headache for employers - how do they best create a cohesive, collaborative culture in a remote environment?

There is also a knock-on effect that some employees’ mental health and productivity can suffer as social interaction in the workplace is no longer there.

There are some tips for employers to help safeguard against such issues. One effective step is to have short hybrid meetings with some staff in person and others joining remotely. Doing these regularly with the rotation of team members who are remote and those who are in-person allows for everyone to participate equally over a period of time.

Secondly, ensure that each employee has the technology available to be able to work effectively from home and participate. Furthermore, managers should be mindful of the concept of presence disparity, during meetings it can be easy to fall back to the default position of engaging with team members who are physically present while those on Zoom get left behind.

:: Andrea McCann (andrea.mccann@mckees-law.com) is a partner at McKees (www.mckees-law.com) specialising in employment law