Many staff returned to on-site working prior to and during Michaelmas term 2020 to support the optimum combination of in-person teaching and online learning; and the minimum possible reduction in research capacity. However, in light of Government guidance on 5 January 2021, only those staff who cannot reasonably work from home should work on-site. Staff who have not already returned on-site and who cannot reasonably work from home should be assisted to return to their place of work for some or all of their contracted hours.
Managers should work with their head of department and departmental administrator/HAF to develop a clear, documented and agreed rationale for which team members are asked to return to the workplace based on work requirements, equality considerations, and individual circumstances, taking health and safety considerations into account while not making assumptions that are based on people’s characteristics. Equality considerations should also take into account travel to work. Decisions should be as fair, objective and transparent as possible.
1. Work requirements
Some staff have been working on-site throughout the lockdown period or for some time, and will continue to do so. Under Government guidance as of 5 January 2021, only those staff who cannot reasonably work from home should work on-site. Departments may need to prioritise the work that can be done on-site in order to maintain social distancing and other health and safety measures (see the section ‘Managing the work of the team’).
2. Equality considerations
When determining which staff which staff can safely return on-site to undertake the agreed work, departments should make sure that equality issues are taken into account, including travel to work.
- Disability: Some disabled people may be considered clinically vulnerable to developing serious disease from COVID-19 and should not return to the workplace unless strict social distancing can be maintained or they can be redeployed to an equivalent, safer role. Under Government guidance as of 5 January 2021, those who are clinically extremely vulnerable should not attend work. Equal considerations apply to staff with disabled family members who may be at increased risk of serious disease. On the other hand, the Equality Act allows an employer to discriminate in favour of disabled people and working on-site could be a reasonable adjustment to overcome disadvantages associated with working from home - this may include mental health difficulties.
- Sex: There is evidence that men – particularly older men and those with certain health conditions – may be at higher risk of serious disease and death from COVID-19. On the other hand, there is growing evidence that women may have experienced greater adverse career impact than men from having to work from home due to unequal sharing of caring responsibilities. It is important to avoid indirect discrimination against women by assuming they are responsible for caring and thus cannot return to the workplace.
- Pregnancy and maternity: assessing whether expectant or new mothers can maintain strict social distancing in their role, or be redeployed to an equivalent, safer role, when considering any request to return to on-site working.
- Age: assessing whether staff over 70, who have been deemed vulnerable, could maintain strict social distancing in their role. Staff in older age groups – particularly male and/or with certain health conditions – may also be at increased risk of serious disease from COVID-19.
- Ethnicity: ensuring that BME staff can maintain strict social distancing, as the evidence suggests that COVID-19 reinforces existing levels of racial disadvantage and inequality among Black and Minority Ethnic people.
3. Individual circumstances
Staff who can reasonably work from home should do so under the Government guidance as of 5 January 2021. Other staff members may be unable to return to work on-site in the immediate future.
- Those who have been assessed by Occupational Health as being in the very high or high vulnerability categories and adjustments cannot be made satisfactorily to manage the risks associated with a return to working on-site;
- Those who have been assessed as being in the very high or high vulnerability level categories and who do not feel safe and able to return (Note: under Government guidance as of 5 January 2021, those who are clinically extremely vulnerable should not attend work);
- Those who have a letter from a GP or medical practitioner stating that they should not return for reasons related to COVID-19 (their health or that of someone who lives with them);
- Those who have symptoms of COVID-19 must remain at home for 10 days or until they are fully recovered in accordance with NHS guidance. They will receive sick pay subject to entitlement but this will not be counted towards their sickness absence record.
- Those who are self-isolating because a member of their household has COVID-19 symptoms must remain at home for the full 10 day self-isolation. Staff who are self-isolating should work at home if they can, provided that they are well. If they are unable to work at home for operational reasons they will continue to receive their normal pay.
- Some staff who have returned on-site may have to go back into self-isolation; if they develop COVID-19 symptoms or a member of their household does, or if NHS test and trace shows that they have been in contact with someone with COVID-19.
It is now an offence for the University to knowingly permit a member of staff who is required to self-isolate to attend the workplace. Fines for the offence start at £1,000.
Some staff may also have concerns around care responsibilities, such as:
- For parents: schools, nurseries, and wrap-around care may not be fully operational or operating staggered pick-up and drop-off times for different age groups. Staff members affected by the partial school closures should explore all the options available to them to enable them to work (including those set out on the Government website), and should discuss their situation with their line manager.
- For those with adult dependant care responsibilities: elderly relatives or other adult dependants may need additional support to help them negotiate issues such as reduced transport availability, or increased requirements to use online services, or difficulties with social distancing measures.
It may be possible to adjust working patterns to allow staff to accommodate caring requirements during the day.
Staff in high risk categories
Staff members who are in high risk categories as defined by the NHS (clinically vulnerable or extremely clinically vulnerable) will have particular concerns about the risks of returning on-site. Under Government guidance as of 5 January 2021, those who are clinically extremely vulnerable should not attend work and must work remotely where they are able do so. Those who are clinically vulnerable should complete a self-assessment and seek advice via an Occupational Health (OH) teleconsultation. Guidance on holding conversations with staff and the support offered by OH is available. OH will provide advice on managing the risks of working on-site for staff in these groups. Staff who have a member of their household who is vulnerable (even if they are not on the official list of clinically extremely vulnerable or vulnerable people), may be extremely reluctant to return to work on-site. Other members of staff may also be reluctant to return while they perceive there to be health risks. Line managers should explore with them the nature of their concerns and consider how they might be addressed. Levels of personal risk, and risk to other household members, must be taken into consideration when planning the to return on-site.
(See “Return to On-Site Working: Guidance for Departments” Appendix 7 Advice on Vulnerable Groups).
Some staff may find it difficult to travel to the workplace while the frequency or capacity of public transport remains restricted or have concerns about using public transport. Additional car and cycle parking options are being provided on University sites across the city, and managers may offer support in applying for a temporary parking permit for staff who are able to drive to work. Further information is available on the University’s travel pages. Options for improving provision for cyclists and walkers are being explored with the city council. Staff who have no option but to use public transport should follow government advice about face coverings and social distancing and may want to change their working hours to avoid travelling at peak times. Line managers should be sensitive to the fact that staff with certain underlying health conditions may both be extremely concerned about the risks of using public transport and unable to travel by other means (e.g. because they are disqualified from driving on health grounds or physically unable to cycle).
Some staff with disabilities and/or long-term health conditions may not be able to receive the same level of support from schemes such as Access to Work as they did previously and in such cases line managers should discuss any additional support needs with staff and attempt to find alternative ways to meet their needs. Seek advice from your local HR contact and/or the Staff Disability Advisor.
Avoiding making assumptions
Line managers may already be aware of the situations of team members but should avoid making assumptions or judgements about their ability to return to work on-site based on, for example, their caring responsibilities or any protected characteristic (age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex or sexual orientation). However, in some cases protected characteristics such as age, disability, pregnancy or race may be relevant factors when considering whether it is appropriate for them to return on-site. They should offer to have a conversation with each team member while planning the return to on-site working (see Step by Step 1 - offer to talk to each individual team member) to discuss their particular circumstances including those of household members, so that these can be taken into account. Some staff may feel more comfortable discussing their personal situation with their local HR contact rather than their manager.
NB Information which staff provide about their health and personal circumstances must be treated in confidence and any records stored securely in the departmental HR office (or sent by password protected email to HR staff for secure electronic storage, where the physical office is not open) in accordance with GDPR requirements.