Long COVID, differing attitudes to social distancing and reluctance to return to the workplace are among the key challenges

In the UK, many firms have planned a return to the workplace in June once the next stage of the easing of Covid-19 restrictions comes into force, which will remove much - if not all - restrictions around social distancing.

With some firms looking to move to a hybrid system of working – where staff split their time between the workplace and working remotely – company management and human resources departments are faced with discussions around how to best manage the return to work.

Nick Elwell Sutton, an employment partner at law firm Clyde and Co told sister publication Insurance Times that employers should be aware of the potential for new types of claims once staff return to the workplace.

“We are likely to see an increase [in] claims as workplaces start to open up. Both staff and management will have concerns around the return to work,” he said. “It is highly likely that there will be new types of claims [that] arise around Covid.”

While management is planning for staff to return to offices, there are growing fears that employees have become increasingly reluctant to come back to the workplace. One of the biggest issues is around the UK’s vaccination programme.

A survey by HR software firm CIPHR revealed that 35% of the 1,163 UK workers polled said they would not work in the same office or work environment as someone who has refused the Covid-19 vaccination.

The study, published in April, also found that 64% of UK workers think employers should be able to require that employees receive the Covid-19 vaccine in order for them to return to the office or workplace.

Elwell Sutton said that despite the concerns around staff who through ethical reasons have not been vaccinated at present, employers would be in a difficult position to refuse access to the workplace as it is likely that such a move would be tested in the courts under the employee’s human right to refuse the vaccine.

Potential challenges

In terms of other workplace-related “challenges that have arisen due to Covid”, Elwell Sutton said “the first is around those staff who are suffering from long Covid”.

He explained: “At present there is little known about the condition, who it effects and any predisposition. Many of the symptoms, such as lethargy, are extremely hard for a medical professional to accurately diagnose or test for and companies will need to manage long Covid cases very carefully.”

“Another issue may well be the different approaches staff will take to social distancing,” he added.

“There may well be members of staff who will want to see health and safety rules rigorously implemented, while there may be some staff who do not see the need to follow the rules around social distancing from colleagues. It creates the potential for some tension within offices and teams if there are different approaches, which will need to be carefully managed.

“Firms also need to be prepared for claims should a member of staff believe they have contracted Covid within the workplace.

“It may well be a difficult thing to prove or disprove, but the risk needs to be addressed by company managers and [made] clear as to the steps that are in place to keep staff safe.”