Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic many office workers have worked at home to support efforts to minimise the spread of COVID-19. Working from home guidance is available to support employees and employers. A wide variety of models of working are already being explored by businesses in consultation with their workforce, such as hybrid models of home and office based working.
It is important to note that encouraging working at home has nothing to do with concerns about the ability of offices to adjust arrangements to make premises safer. We are aware that businesses have spent a lot of time and money ensuring that offices are as safe as they can be.
However working at home, to date, where possible, has been an incredibly important mitigation to control the spread of COVID as it has prevented the need for a large number of people to travel and interact in person which has removed many opportunities for the virus to transmit. This in turn has allowed the virus to be controlled enough to allow the reopening of various areas of the economy and for other parts of life to return to more normality. We do however recognise the impact that working at home has on the mental health of employees and some potential challenges around productivity.
On 16 March 2021, the First Minister announced plans for a phased reopening of the economy. The Covid-19: Strategic Framework update, published in February 2021, made it clear that employees should work from home where possible in levels 1 to 4. In Level 0, it was indicated that a phased and limited return to offices could begin however this was indicative and subject to the data supporting this decision.
Following a review of the epidemic on 13 July 2021, the First Minister announced certain modifications to the indicative plans. This included the decision to postpone the return to offices until we move beyond Level 0. Until then, employers are asked to support working from home where possible.
This document sets out the plan around the gradual reopening of offices in preparation for a move beyond Level 0.
Whilst this document contains references to a number of measures and tools employers should consider, it does not replace existing safer workplaces guidance and instead signposts employers to guidance which they should have regard to.
Employers have a duty to manage workplace risks under existing health and safety legislation, in addition to the specific requirements set out in the Coronavirus Regulations. This includes having regard to the longer-term health and safety requirements to support employees to work safely at home or in the office, depending on the organisation’s future operating model.
The latest update of the Strategic Framework, published in June 2021, indicated a phased return to offices could begin when the country enters Level 0, however this was indicative and subject to the data supporting this decision. Following a review of the epidemic on 13 July 2021, the First Minister announced certain modifications to the indicative changes. This included the decision to postpone the return to offices until we move beyond Level 0. Employers are therefore asked to continue to support their workforce to work from home where possible.
The updated strategic framework also sets out the plan towards moving beyond level 0, which is conditional on all adults over 40 being protected with two doses of the vaccination and a review of the epidemic being carried out ahead of the date for that move. This is referred to as the ‘gateway condition’. When the gateway condition is met, the country will move to beyond Level 0 when almost all COVID restrictions are planned to be removed.
The updated Strategic Framework also sets out the need for continued baseline measures and states:
“While we will work with business to support a phased return to office working from level 0 onwards, we will continue to encourage a greater degree of working from home than pre-COVID-19. Where this is possible and appropriate, it will not only assist with controlling transmission of the virus, but also promote wellbeing more generally.”
The document also states:
“We still believe that working at home is an important element of minimising the spread of the virus and we would strongly encourage businesses to continue to support staff to work at home some of the time. However, we also recognise that businesses are best placed to understand how their operations work most effectively and also understand their employees’ needs and requests for flexible working, based on consultation with staff and unions.
"We will therefore work with business organisations to make the guidance on returning to offices, as we move to Level 0 and beyond, as simple as possible and allow individual businesses to determine what flexible working practices work for them and their staff, while recognising the strong encouragement from Government to support working from home”.
The Scottish Chambers of Commerce led on work to set out principles we should use for returning to offices. This work was done in conjunction with trade unions and other business organisations.
The principles agreed through this work were:
- the health and safety of employees and customers remains a priority for businesses throughout levels 0 to 4 and beyond
- we would encourage businesses to work with employees and trade unions to consider flexible working arrangements in their own contexts
- a phased and co-ordinated approach should be considered to support the re-opening of offices to support employee wellbeing and economic recovery
- a wide variety of models of working should continue to be promoted with businesses considering the unique situation for their staff e.g. hybrid models of office based and home working