COVID-19 impact on employment documents

HR consultant to Business Gateway, Alison Bell, provides guidance on the temporary changes employers should consider making to employment documentation.

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5 min read

As the impact of COVID-19 continues businesses will need to adapt to this new “normal” for the time being. Employment documentation such as contracts of employment and HR policies provide clearly defined procedures for both employers and employees to follow. COVID-19 has had an impact on the way that we live our lives and it is likely to have had an impact on the way that businesses manage staff.

What documentation would you expect an employer to have in place?

It is likely that an employer will issue an employee with a contract of employment which sets out the main terms and conditions of employment. In addition to this, employers may also have an Employee Handbook or a set of HR policies. COVID-19 has not changed employment law but the impact of the virus means that employers will find it helpful to review and update policies such as Working from Home, Managing Sickness Absence, Holidays and Data Protection. In addition to these employers should review their contracts of employment to ensure that they offer flexibility in the event of further restrictions being imposed.

In this article we look at the key HR policies which may be impacted by COVID-19 and the changes employers should consider implementing.

What changes will an employer need to consider making to the Sickness Absence Policy?

A standard sickness absence policy is likely to contain guidance on:

  • Absence notification procedures for the employee to follow
  • Support in managing short term and long-term absence
  • Detail of the sick pay employees are entitled to
  • Procedures for dealing with dental, doctor and hospital appointments

It is advisable for employers to amend the detail contained in the sickness absence policy to incorporate specific procedures in relation to the impact of COVID-19. This additional detail is likely to cover:

  • Confirmation of the symptoms of COVID-19 and a clear statement that employees must not attend work if they have any of these symptoms.
  • Confirmation that employees must follow government guidance and self-isolate and book a test if they have symptoms of COVID-19
  • Guidance to employees on the certification they are required to give their employer if they test positive or are told to self-isolate
  • Guidance for employees if they become unwell at work with symptoms of COVID-19

It is common to find detail in a sickness absence policy which relates to disciplinary action being taken if levels of short-term sickness absence are high. It is important to be clear that absence related to COVID-19 will be disregarded from normal absence monitoring and employees will not suffer any detriment from following government guidance in relation to the taking time off work.

What changes will be required to a standard Working from Home policy?

Working from home for many businesses has become the “norm” rather than the exception. There may have been a Working from Home policy in place but if this has become the default position it would be advisable to review the Working from Home Policy. The key areas to cover in the Working from Home policy are:

Working Hours: The hours of work will be specified in the contract of employment. It is important that employers take into consideration the needs of the job and assess whether employees need to have the same start and finish times when they are at home or whether the working pattern needs to be amended with agreement to fit with business needs and individual circumstances.

Breaks: The policy should set out the importance of taking regular breaks away from the screen. The policy can also refer to the limits on working hours as set out in the working time regulations.

Communication: Whilst communication happens naturally when a team are in the same location it is likely to need more planning when working from home. The policy should set out the ways employees will be expected to communicate, and it may also set out the frequency of team meetings or 1 to 1s between managers and staff. As video calls in some cases have replaced face to face meetings it may be appropriate to set out the dress code required for video calls and any rules regarding backgrounds on display during video calls.

Health and Safety: The Working from Home policy should cover the need to ensure that employee’s workstations are set up in a safe manner. The Health and Safety Executive website provides guidance on work station set up the employees can follow themselves.

If employees have concerns about their workstation they should be aware of the internal process for rectifying any issues they have.

Security: Employers should assess what information employees working from home have access to. If this information falls into the categories specified in the Data Protection Policy the employer should ensure that they give clear guidance on how this information is to be stored by those working from home. It will also be appropriate to state that information should not be shared with anyone else in the household and the use of Company equipment is only for the employee.

Home Visits: It may be appropriate from time to time to visit the employee at home, for example to drop off or pick up equipment. It would be helpful to set out the circumstances when these visits may be required and also to state that visits will only be made with prior arrangement with the employee.

Equipment: The employer will need to provide the employee with equipment such as a laptop and mobile phone to enable them to work from home. The contract of employment should make it clear what equipment the employee has at home and that if their employment terminates this equipment must be returned to the employer.

In addition to updating the Working from Home policy the business will need to consider how normal working practices can be transferred to a new working environment. This may apply to running team meetings in a virtual way or managing performance of those who are working from home.

What additional detail may need to be added to the Holiday Policy in 2020?

Holidays have been difficult to take in the normal way in 2020 therefore employees may prefer to delay taking holidays until restrictions have been lifted. Whilst employers will want to find the right balance they cannot (in most cases) have a situation where employees request to take a large proportion of their annual entitlement in the last few months of the holiday year. The Holiday Policy should state when employees are expected to take holidays during the holiday year and the arrangements which may be put in place to allow employees to carry forward holiday entitlement into the next holiday year if that is a policy which is adopted by the organisation.

The holiday policy may also set out the rules on leave and pay if an employee is forced to self-isolate after returning from a holiday abroad and cannot return to work.

In the event of a second lockdown or a reduction in work it will be important to review the detail in the contract of employment.

If work is reduced the employer should review the hours of work clause in the contract of employment to confirm the hours that the employee is contracted to work. Where the employer cannot provide this level of work the employer cannot enforce a reduction in hours but can try and reach an agreement with an employee to reduce hours.

In the event of enforced closure, it is important for employers to be aware of the options they have to manage this, especially if the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme is no longer in operation. Employers should check contracts of employment to find out if there is a “short time working and lay off” clause included in the contract. Where an employee has a signed contract with this clause the employer could use this as a way to handle temporary work shortages.

For more one to one advice contact your local Business Gateway office to arrange a virtual call with one of our experienced advisors. Connect with us at www.bgateway.com.

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