Posted by Macduy Ngo

COVID-19 and return to work

Early responses to the COVID-19 crisis saw a diversity of government-led responses, ranging from strict lockdowns and quarantining to lighter-touch restrictions such as curfews and social distancing. We are now witnessing a similar range of easing measures. Companies across the world are returning to work amid some continuing restrictions, ongoing public health measures, the end of government support schemes, and depressed demand in certain sectors versus counter-cyclical increases in others.

Reflecting the rapid nature of these developments, we at Ergon have seen a shift from providing advice on ‘job protection’ during the pandemic (see our guides for DFI clients here and here) to advice on managing the labour implications of work recommencement. We have been busy developing related guidance, notably for the UK’s development finance institution (DFI), CDC Group.

This blog summarises some of our early thinking in this area, focusing on labour considerations for emerging market companies that are planning to resume operations or are in the early stages of resumption.

Safety first

Occupational health and safety (OHS) considerations are paramount. Risk assessments should be conducted which will determine appropriate engineering, organisational, and administrative controls. Assessments should look beyond the immediate worksite. Interventions will undoubtedly be sector specific, but might involve hygiene protocols, reorganisation of work processes to accommodate distancing, and regular safety trainings or briefings.

More resources on specific health and safety considerations are available here and here.


What are the workforce considerations?

The parameters of a return to work will be significantly influenced by government policy and the scope of ongoing restrictions. Companies should start with a good understanding of these measures before resuming operations.

Measures to make the workplace safe may require changes to the way work is organised. Examples include reducing shifts or introducing part-time work to allow for social distancing, maintaining remote working arrangements, or modifying employer-provided services such as accommodation or transportation. It is important to communicate and consult with workers, particularly if changes involve modifications to workers’ terms and conditions of employment.

Human resource (HR) teams will play a key role, and revisions or updates to HR policies might need to account for new working realities. This could be in relation to:

  • Data protection and confidentiality, particularly if COVID testing is taking place, medical questionnaires are being used, or health information is being stored. Policies need to clearly state the limits of information collection and specify use and access rights in line with national laws.
  • Grievance mechanisms, especially if there are significant disruptions in the workplace. New (and more) grievances might arise, including in relation to concerns about unsafe work, tensions stemming from operational changes, or disputes about changes to terms and conditions of employment. Grievance mechanisms may need to be reviewed to ensure that they respond to the workplace situation, for e.g. ensuring that remote workers have easy access. This can be an opportunity to strengthen grievance management through technology, and some companies may consider COVID-specific grievance mechanisms.
  • Disciplinary processes, for instance if workers breach new safety procedures like failing to respect distancing or refusing to wear PPE. New procedures, including disciplinary procedures, should be communicated clearly and an adjustment period might be necessary. Discipline should be applied fairly, account for individual circumstances, and include a right to appeal.
  • Leave policies, especially sick leave. Sick leave plays a key role in ensuring that sick workers do not create workplace transmission risks, and policies should at a minimum comply with relevant laws or collective agreements. Where existing laws or contracts do not provide for sick leave, it might be provided through company policies and developed in consultation with workers.
Partial returns

For some companies, it might also be necessary to consider how to recall a portion of the workforce if a full return to work is not feasible. A clear recall plan should be adopted which is based on consultation with workers (to the extent possible based on social distancing requirements) and which is not discriminatory. Criteria for selecting recalled workers should be objective (e.g. considering a mix of skills, seniority, objective medical clearance criteria), grievance mechanisms should allow workers to raise concerns about the recall process, and regular reviews should be conducted to understand workforce requirements and assess effectiveness.

Looking ahead

Driven by the prospect of recurring lockdowns, persistent economic difficulties, and new patterns of consumer behaviour, many companies are seeking opportunities to adapt and innovate. For some, this is an opportunity to build resilient businesses or transition the workforce to new scales and forms of operation.

As employers respond to the consequences of COVID-19, there may be opportunities to introduce changes based on a longer-term perspective, allying business and employment priorities by seeking to become an employer of choice in the ‘new normal’. This could involve taking a longer-term approach to workforce upskilling and recruitment while offering workers sufficient security in order to realise returns on skills development investments. Working arrangements might be adapted according to worker needs and priorities, for instance to remote or flexible working where feasible. trend Companies will also benefit from strengthening worker engagement and communications strategies on the basis of lessons learned during the pandemic.

We will be presenting on a webinar that addresses ‘Returning to the workplace during COVID-19’ alongside CDC and RSK on 6th July. Registration details are here. For more information about Ergon’s work in this area, please contact Macduy Ngo.