The Employment Practicalities of a Return to Work

* Last Updated 4 May 2020

Here we cover some of the key issues to consider when your employees are returning to work, as well as the communication process to follow.


High Risk Employees

At both alert level 2 and 3, high risk people are advised to stay at home where possible. Information released by the government says that employees who are high risk should discuss with their employer whether they can work from home, or other ways to keep them safe while at work and travelling to work. If they decide to stay at home, and cannot work from home they should agree with their employer what their leave and pay arrangements will be.

‘High risk’ includes employees over 70 and anyone with a pre-existing medical condition including:

  • Serious respiratory disease such as chronic lung disease or moderate to severe asthma
  • Serious heart conditions
  • Immunocompromised conditions, including cancer treatment, smoking-related illness, bone marrow or organ transplantation, prolonged use of immune weakening medications, such as anti-rheumatic drugs and cortisteroids
  • Severe obesity — a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or higher
  • Diabetes
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • People undergoing dialysis
  • Liver disease
  • Pregnant women may also be at a higher risk, and caution is advised for this group as well

As many of these conditions are common, most workplaces will have a group of employees that fall into this category. We recommend identifying these employees now, so you can discuss and agree on whether they will return to work, and in what capacity.


Different Alert Levels have Different Impacts on Different Roles

In addition, there are specific jobs/roles that will be impacted by the restrictions at these lower alert levels:

  • At level 3 many businesses will be required to remain partially closed, and some will need to remain fully closed. This may mean parts of your operation and team are up and running, but other parts are not
  • At level 3, travel is still highly restricted and limited to ‘essential travel only’. At level 2, there is a request to limit non-essential travel. Some roles (for example regional sales roles) involve regular travel that may not be deemed ‘essential’ and will therefore be impacted by these restrictions
  • Restrictions and/or bans on gatherings continue at level 2 and 3 to varying degrees. Some roles (for example training and events) involve organising and running gatherings and will therefore be impacted at alert level 2 and 3.
  • Even at level 2, there is a ‘request’ to continue with alternate ways of working where possible (i.e. working from home). At level 3, working from home where possible is a ‘requirement’. For some workers whose jobs allow for remote work, this may not be possible due to not having a suitable workspace in their home environment.
  • At level 3, pre-schools, primary and intermediate schools re-open but only where caregivers cannot work from home. At level 2, schools and pre-schools will close if a Covid-19 case emerges – this may be for 72 hours or 14 days where necessary. These arrangements will impact some employees’ ability to return to work and/or work from home.
  • Many businesses are likely to have reduced workflow – depending on the nature of your business, this is likely to impact some roles more than others
  • Physical distancing requirements will impact some or all positions – depending on your workplace, you may need to make significant changes to hours and/or stagger shifts to accommodate the distancing requirements
  • PPE requests and requirements – depending on the nature of your work, some roles may require PPE. You will need to ensure that there is enough available for all that require it and that this supply is maintained. If this is not possible initially, it could lead to shift cancellations and roster changes for some roles
  • There will be more work for some roles/areas of many businesses – for example, Health and Safety reporting and work


Being Fair and Equitable

So how do you manage things fairly when some of your team can return to work and others cannot? Or where for some roles you have sufficient work but not for others?

Every business is different and so is every employee and every unique role within your business. There will be no one-size fits all, but you must be fair, reasonable and, as always, operate in good faith.

We suggest at this stage, you go through each employees details and consider for both alert level 2 and 3 and for any possible future periods at alert level 4:

  • Can they return to the workplace?
  • Can they work from home for some or all of their hours?
  • If they can recommence work, either from home or in the workplace, will their current hours and role responsibilities be appropriate?
  • Could an employee with low/no workload be redeployed or given additional/different responsibilities?
  • If they cannot return to work and cannot work from home at one or more of the alert levels, what should they be paid during that period?


Communicate, Consult, Communicate Again

Once you’ve drafted up the proposed plan for each position at each alert level, it’s time to put this to the employee and ask for their feedback. Remember, with any change in terms and conditions (even if only temporary) you will ideally want written agreement. If this cannot be achieved, ensure you can document your consultation process.


Document Your Process

In most cases we recommend issuing a consultation letter with a feedback/agreement form that the employee returns signed to you, followed by a confirmation letter. You should write into this confirmation letter when the arrangement will be reviewed or, alternatively, you may include the plan for each alert level and simply review that when the alert level is dropped to 1 or below.


Dealing with the Exceptions

Ideally, you will be treating people in similar roles and situations in the same way. For example, you could decide that all those that must stay home and can’t work (for whatever reason) are paid the wage subsidy only, all those that can do limited work from home are paid 80% of normal earnings. Those that return to work or can work from home full-time are paid 100% of normal earnings.

However, it is important to be prepared to make exceptions in response to information received in the feedback stage. It is likely that you will face some challenges and need to make changes as a result. This is OK and demonstrates that you are meeting your obligations to consult in good faith. You will not always be able to share with other employees the exact circumstances and reasons that one employee has a different arrangement to others – unless you obtain the employees permission to do so. However, if you have treated everyone fairly throughout you will be able to stand by your decision knowing that you have been fair and reasonable if challenged.


Fair treatment is a non-negotiable and always enhances the culture in a business.


Positive People can help you work through the employment practicalities of the coming weeks and months. Email us at or call 09 445 1077.