The HR experts at Croner Taxwise advise
You will need to determine why the employees are reluctant to return. Once this has been established, on a case-by-case basis, the right kind of conversation can then be had with each employee – keeping their specific circumstances in mind, as well as government guidance and the needs of the business. Importantly, whilst these three things don’t always need to marry up with one another, government guidance should always take precedent.
As it stands, government guidance across the UK remains that staff should work from home where possible and where this is not possible, Covid-secure measures should be implemented in the workplace to reduce the spread of the virus. Employers are also being encouraged to implement mass in-house testing so that asymptomatic cases can be detected. You should communicate these measures to the reluctant employee – e.g. in the form of sharing the company’s Covid risk assessment and testing policy with them. By doing this, a return to the office can be prioritised if homeworking is no longer feasible.
You should be careful not to force staff to return to the workplace, especially if they are in a position to work from home, as this could lead to a decline in staff retention and/or morale. You should instead consult with individuals to address when the company proposes they return, giving ample notice, and discuss any issues the employee may have about returning. These issues may well be resolved by highlighting the measures being taken by the company to ensure that the workplace is Covid-secure – e.g. implementing social distancing measures, mass on-site testing etc. It may also be helpful to prioritise bringing back the reluctant employee after they have had their second dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, if this is something they wish to take up.
If after all is said and done the employee still refuses to return to the workplace on the proposed return date without prior agreement, you may be able to class this as a period of unauthorised absence. Unauthorised absences can result in disciplinary action being taken against employees who unreasonably refuse to return to work, or other necessary action in compliance with company policy – the likelihood of which should be made clear to employees in the interest of full disclosure.
To avoid this, you may wish to consider alternative options where possible; for example, the taking up of annual leave, continuation of homeworking until government guidance changes, or another more suitable adjustment.