How to return to the office safely

What will it take to ensure employees feel safe upon their return?

How to return to the office safely

Majority of employees (87%) believe that employers are responsible to protect them and enforce COVID-19 related health and safety practices at work, based on a recent study.

As employers in Singapore figure out the best strategy for their organisations, can HR ensure that employees feel safe upon their return?

Required safety procedures
To help employers carry out a safe return to work, the government shared a clear checklist of measures for leaders to implement. The updated measures address everything from mandatory mask wearing, safe distancing, to strong guidelines around flexible work arrangements.

The government has made clear that a failure to comply may lead to a shutdown of the workplace and a swift return to remote working arrangements.

Understandably strict, the measures aim to protect employees and mitigate any risks of infection.

Singapore’s COVID-19 numbers are currently at a low, and the country is gradually opening up more economic activities, including the real possibility of leisure travel. But leaders have said that they won’t hesitate to return to stricter COVID measures if the city-state were hit with another wave of infections.

As for the reopening of workplaces, whether sooner or later, a return to the office is an inevitable move for organisations, so how can HR enforce strict health and safety measures? HRD finds out.

Read more: Back to work: Govt requirements to reopen safely

What employees expect from HR
Government guidelines aside, employees also have heightened expectations around health and safety amidst the pandemic.

More than ever before, employees returning to the office said they’re prioritising their health and wellness alongside work, according to a study by O.C. Tanner. What’s more, they expect to be supported by their company and its leaders.

Almost three in four (74%) of employees said that any non-compliant co-workers should be punished.

Staff shared that they would only be willing or comfortable returning to the office when certain actions or practices are in place. Employees expect the following from employers:

  • Ensure adequate safe distancing between all employees and their work areas (71%)
  • Provide free hand sanitizer to all employees (68%)
  • Require all employees to wear face masks (63%)
  • Ensure additional office cleanings (60%)
  • Require employees to have their temperature taken every morning upon office entry (53%)
  • Require COVID-19 testing or antibodies before returning to the office (43%)
  • Pre-package all provided snacks/food (28%)

Staff added that verbal (61%) or written warnings (59%) should be giving to co-workers who fail to abide by any health and safety practices.

Over one in three employees were even in favour of a job suspension (37%) or fines (34%). About a quarter of staffers would be satisfied with asking errant employees to return to remote working (24%).

Read more: Rushing back to the office? Maybe it’s time to slow down

Are COVID-19 breaches punishable offences?
While employees may expect some form of punishment for irresponsible colleagues, HRD spoke to Nicolas Tang, managing director and Charlotte Wong, senior associate at Farallon Law Corporation to find out what HR can and cannot do in Singapore.

The two lawyers shared that since the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) Act 2020 was passed, the most common offences have been those involving the failure to obey social distancing or stay home measures.

They explained that any person who contravenes the regulations is liable for the following penalties:

  • For first-time offenders, a fine up to $10,000 and/or imprisonment for up to six months.
  • For second and subsequent offenders, a fine up to $20,000 and/or imprisonment for a term up to 12 months.

Those are the legal consequences of going against existing COVID-19 laws – but can HR punish errant employees themselves?

“Whether an employee may be dismissed for a COVID-19 breach depends on the terms of the employment contract,” the lawyers told HRD.

“Some employment contracts do expressly provide that employment may be terminated if the employee is convicted of any offence. In such a case, an employer is entitled to terminate employment if the employee is convicted of a COVID-19 breach.”

Read more: Return to work: What employees expect from HR

However, if no such provision was made in the employment contract, the employer could consider termination of employment on the grounds of misconduct.

“Most employment contracts would provide for this, and again termination on the grounds of misconduct would depend on the precise terms of the employment contract,” they said.

Assuming that the contract provides a broad T&C that employment may be terminated on the grounds of misconduct, “it is typical” for the employer to have to go through the process of a disciplinary inquiry in order to establish the misconduct, and give the employee an opportunity to respond.

The disciplinary inquiry would likely have to consider the following factors:

  • Did the breach pose a risk to the employer?
  • What were the consequences of the breach on the employer?
  • Did the breach have an impact on the employee’s performance?
  • Was the employee’s conduct deliberate?

Going through a disciplinary inquiry process would mitigate the risks of an unfair dismissal claim, although it would not be able to eliminate all risks.

“Another way to mitigate the risk of an unfair dismissal claim would be for the employer to issue a firm-wide notice that the employer takes a zero-tolerance approach to COVID-19 breaches, in light of the risk that such breaches have on the employer and its employees,” they said.

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