Coronavirus: Employee Benefits and the return to work
The Government has now released new guidance to assist employers in understanding how to get employees back to work safely as the UK begins its exit from the lockdown. As expected, employers will need to carry out coronavirus-specific risk assessments to determine how they can ensure that individuals who have returned to the workplace can work in a safe environment (see Preparing to Return to Business as (Un)usual – Road Maps to the Restart).
However, employees are unlikely to relish a return to work unless their employers place significant focus upon flexible working practices, commuting and the use of public transport. Forward thinking employers may want to consider restructuring their employee benefits package to ensure that their employees feel safe and supported to return to work.
We understand that offering the following benefits will not be suitable for all employers, especially in the current tight financial environment where cost management has become more important than ever. However, given the indications that the coronavirus will be a part of the business landscape for some significant time, those employers who are able to provide additional support to their employees will be in the best position to operate successfully in a post-lockdown UK.
Getting employees back to work
Green transport and salary sacrifice
- Government guidance has consistently indicated that the infection risk is significantly lower when individuals are outdoors. This is likely to result in a significant increase in employees choosing to walk or cycle to work rather than using public transport. Employers might wish to consider signing up to a cycle-to-work scheme if they have not already.
- Larger employers with employees who are required to travel a lot may wish to consider implementing a salary sacrifice scheme for the purchase of electric vehicles. Allowing employees not to rely on public transport, where social distancing may still prove incredibly difficult, will make for a safer workplace. Even more attractively for employees, insurance, road tax and servicing plans can also be included in the scheme.
- Salary sacrifice results not only in the employee being able to spread the cost of their green transport interest free, but also in a National Insurance saving for both employee and employer.
Vehicle sharing schemes
- If green transportation options are not appropriate (due to costs, or employees living too far from their workplace) employers may wish to consider whether they can arrange for individuals from the same locality to share transport into work, whilst adhering as strictly as possible to social distancing guidelines. Employees may feel much safer travelling into work if they know they will only come into contact with the same two or three other people from their workplace rather than potentially hundreds if using public transport.
Supplying face coverings
- Government advice around face coverings has changed, and it is now recommended if you are going to be in an environment where social distancing is not possible. If employees have no choice but to use public transport, employers might consider providing washable and reusable face coverings.
Provision for employees’ mental health and wellbeing
- Employers will need to be able to provide support not only for employees’ physical health, but also their mental health. This could mean engaging an Employee Assistance Program or providing access to other mental health support systems.
- While mental health support may once have been considered an optional extra, new generations joining the workforce are coming to expect that their mental health will be supported to the same extent as their physical health. Prudent employers investing in mental health support services will be in a good position to deal with the short term impact of coronavirus-related anxiety (which may be particularly prevalent among those who still need to use public transport) and will make themselves more attractive to potential future employees.
Insurance and assurances
In difficult times when maintaining cash-flow is crucial to businesses, it may be tempting to make cuts to outgoings that do not provide an immediately obvious financial benefit, such as Life Assurance policies.
The danger here is twofold. Firstly, if any Death in Service policy is not amended at the same time (which can be a costly and time consuming process), ceasing to pay insurance premiums may leave the employer shouldering the burden of any payout to the beneficiaries of a deceased employee. Secondly, cuts to assurances that give employees comfort in uncertain times is likely to cause the workforce to feel unsettled and may give them even more cause to be anxious about a return to work.
Facilitating flexible working
It seems inevitable that employers will have to be amenable to changing working hours and allowing for a continuation of increased working from home (for further information on the possible implications of increasing requests for flexible working, please see our Coronavirus: FAQs for Employers).
Technology to facilitate home working and safer travel
Employers who are not already a member of a salary sacrifice technology scheme may wish to consider signing up to one. These allow employees to purchase technology and spread the cost interest free. As with cycle-to-work schemes, technology schemes allow for a National Insurance saving for both employee and employer.
- Employees could use the scheme to purchase hardware to ensure that their home-working set up functions effectively for them.
- The Government has indicated that public transport should become contactless as far as possible. This will require the use of electronic season tickets and contactless payments. Employers who participate in a technology scheme may encourage their employees to utilise it in order to purchase modern phones to allow for contactless travel.
It is important to note that implementing salary sacrifice arrangements requires employers to keep a watchful eye on HR and payroll operations to ensure that the deductions are being correctly applied. If you have any queries about salary sacrifice please contact a member of our team.
With so many employees furloughed over a long period of time and/or working from home during the lockdown period, together with what will be a long lockdown release period, employers should give some thought as to how annual leave will be deal with. It would be catastrophic for most businesses to reach a point where business begins to pick up only to find most of their work force wants to take lots of annual leave. Thoughts as to how this should be spread out fairly should be planned now.
Why does this matter?
Just before the pandemic hit, the UK was approaching the point of having more jobs on offer than workers available to fill them for the first time since the Second World War. There will undoubtedly be some form of recession following on the heels of the coronavirus outbreak, but it will pass, and once it has it is unlikely to be many years before we reach another excess of jobs.
Employers must be wary of taking knee-jerk measures to get them through the crisis which may test employee loyalty and put them in the position of losing large numbers of their workforce once the job market picks up. Employers who have, or put in place, benefits that help their employees to work from home, and encourage flexible working or travelling safely will be more valued by those employees. How an employer reacts during this crisis is likely to be something that is remembered by your employees and others in your sector in the future.
If you would like to talk through the consequences for your business, please email us and one of our team will get in touch.
The content of this page is a summary of the law in force at the date of publication and is not exhaustive, nor does it contain definitive advice. Specialist legal advice should be sought in relation to any queries that may arise.
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