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Back to work after lockdown — the opportunities for change

With the first of the four stage plan to ease lockdown now underway, how do we kick-start the economy and safely get teams back to work?

Progress will be assessed and the fine details remain uncertain. One thing's for sure though — working life will not be the same.

That old adage “change or die” has rarely been more apposite. There is no part of working life in any sector that will be left untouched.

So, what could change?

Flexible working

The lockdown forced many businesses to not only try, but to rely, on home working as their backbone operating model. This is no panacea to all of the ills of COVID-19 but has proven successful in many instances.

Employers are already experiencing grievances against previous decisions to refuse requests for home working and those who seek to regress back to life simply ‘as it was’ can expect challenges.

It is likely, for example, that discrimination claims will rise from parents, and not only women, returning to work post-childbirth. Males might conceivably take umbrage at refusals if women are permitted home working, in similar circumstances, for the same employer.

For employers too, tightening budgets and the realisation that home working can reduce premises costs, inevitably makes this approach attractive. Some have opted already not to renew or take previously-earmarked leases.

Safe working and PPE

We will see greater reliance on PPE equipment specifically targeted at office hygiene, etiquette and safe working.

Expect hand sanitisers to be easily accessible and the requirement to justify physical meetings. There may new visitor protocols. Some offices are planning ‘traffic maps’ and indeed traffic bans between floors as they wrestle with two metre distancing and footfall.

Travel and shifts

Proposals for travelling to work in Scotland’s cities particularly remain unclear, but there are likely to be knock-on effects for timekeeping and absence rates, particularly as there may be a reluctance to return to previous norms.

Tied to this is the delicate balancing of floor spacing and social distancing.

In response, employers may restructure shift patterns or, at the very least, the requirement for on-site attendance. It is widely acknowledged multi-site operators will see intra-company travel needs (domestic and international) significantly reduced and replaced with growing use of web-based technologies.

Business development

Curbed by the dual forces of cost reductions and social distancing, we're likely to see a huge decrease in networking and client entertainment. Hopes of rescuing the events season for this year have all but evaporated. Again, there will be a need for staunch justification for any events to be allowed to go ahead in the short to mid-term.


Some employers may seek to introduce regular testing of employees as a means of meeting their obligations to provide a ‘safe place of work’. Careful consideration will be needed when it comes to developing policies, for example, not least because of GDPR concerns given this information amounts to ‘sensitive personal data’ for data protection purposes.

Health and safety-related claims

Employees already enjoy robust health and safety-related protections under UK law.

However, with a greater focus on specific COVID-19 related measures, it is inevitable the territory for disputes to arise will widen. Employees might reasonably take the view measures and arrangements taken are inadequate.

All of the above represents a seismic shift in working practices and inevitably will have cultural repercussions. Face-to-face dialogue and employee interactions will reduce; personal intra-organisational exchanges will decline; customer and client interface will change. New concerns for individuals and employers will crop up.

It is possible too generational splits could arise. Take, for example, the older employee who is now less comfortable rubbing shoulders with party-going younger colleagues.

Employers that seriously consider reasonable risk minimisation processes; that are innovative in their reactions to the cultural challenges; that adopt and harness clear communication strategies; and quickly grasp the opportunities for change in these exceptional times will no doubt flourish.

Time to “change or die” indeed.

John Lee

Edinburgh-based partner John, who is qualified to practise in Scotland, England and Wales, is one of a small number of solicitor advocates in the country accredited by the Law Society of Scotland in employment law and discrimination law. He has considerable expertise advising clients from a wide range of sectors including energy and utilities, defence, food and drink, healthcare and social care.

Posted, 29 May 2020 by John Lee
Categories: Coronavirus | Coronavirus and employment law | Employment | Insights