Playing fair: Two rules for returning employees

With the unlocking of the Covid-19 lockdown, some employees will return to work but only within certain limitations. In mining and manufacture, for example, there are limits on the percentage of employees allowed. For the rest, social-distancing requirements are the guide — one may allow employees to return if there is enough space (not more than one person per square meter of floor space) for adequate distance between workstations.*

Shuffling the pack

In most workplaces there will be some employees who can continue to work from home. It may be, however, that they need to get to the office (say) once a week to pick up or drop off items. How will you fit them in?

Some positions require an employee to be in the office permanently (a receptionist or team leader, perhaps) while others can come and go.

This will take some creative thinking and careful planning, but it is essential to remember that labour-law principles and requirements still apply.

Two labour law requirements:

  1. Honour contracts
    Something employers often forget once the employee starts working is that the employment relationship is based on a contract. Even if we have neglected to write and sign a formal contract, the courts will interpret the contractual relationship as they see it. And contracts (even unwritten ones) cannot be changed unilaterally.
  2. Play fair
    A key requirement of labour law in this country is equity — fairness. When deciding who comes back and when, think fairness, not just convenience. It might be convenient to have Sam permanently at the office, because he is your go-to person. It’s easier to have him down the passage than be communicating via WhatsApp or telephone. However, is it necessary? Is it fair on the others?

Keep talking

Both requirements are easily taken care of — talk to employees about what your thoughts and requirements are. A Zoom or Skype meeting is ideal, otherwise get the emails going. Keep the content simple: ‘This is what we need to achieve; these are my ideas for getting there; what are your thoughts?’ 


What challenges are you facing with the limited return to work?

*[NOTE: When this was written, the rules for re-opening the workplace were that not more than a third of the workforce could return to work at a time. The article has been edited to reflect the floor-space requirements now in place.]

Ian Webster

From Methodist minister to Customer Relations manager in a computer bureau to HR Manager in a newspaper printing and publishing company. Now focussing on training and developing people and HR & people-management consulting.

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