European Back-to-Work Plans Delayed amid COVID-19 Resurgence

By Dinah Wisenberg Brin January 20, 2022
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View of Europe from space at night

​Amid the latest COVID-19 surge, employers and employees across Europe have pushed back return-to-work plans with government encouragement.

Given that official recommendations and requirements vary by country and region, companies should stay aware of the rules where they operate, employment lawyers said.

In the U.K., Scotland and Wales have made working from home whenever possible a legal requirement again in response to the highly transmissible omicron variant, noted Laura Morrison, an attorney with Dentons in Edinburgh.

In December, England had put in place guidance advising employees to work from home when possible but imposed no legal obligation, she added, and the Northern Ireland Executive has given similar advice. England is now no longer advising people to work from home, AP reports.

Back to Work from Home

While governments have not reintroduced domestic travel restrictions within the U.K., some employees are reluctant to return to the workplace based on concerns over COVID-19 risks, Morrison said. "We have seen many clients revert entirely to home working for the foreseeable future," she noted.

"In the summer of 2021, many companies were planning to return to the office from October onwards. With the beginning of autumn, the plans changed due to the pandemic trends: Return to the office was restricted and, in some cases, postponed until 2022," said Massimiliano Biolchini, an attorney with Baker McKenzie in Milan.

"With the spread of the omicron variant, the day for returning to the office has become even more distant for many companies," he said.

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Employers Stay Flexible

Companies have been "very flexible in their approach to remote or hybrid working schemes" while complying with rules on prevention measures and workplace access, according to Biolchini.

"At the moment, companies are getting ready to ensure compliance with a new legal requirement: Starting Feb. 15, employees in Italy aged 50 and above must hold a vaccination/recovery pass in order to access the workplace," he said.

Many employers in Italy have suspended or postponed return-to-work plans, given that the government has recommended remote work arrangements and allowed companies to unilaterally implement them until March 31, according to Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. Employers could face heightened health and safety liabilities if they don't allow remote work and their workers become infected on the job.

Major restrictions likely will be phased out starting mid-spring, but employers should review flexible work plans and build policies focused on employees' well-being, Biolchini said. They should also rethink health and safety models to bring greater focus to mental health protection, he recommended.

Remote work in France has become compulsory again for positions that allow it. As of Jan. 3, employees must work from home for at least three days per week—ideally four, if possible—for three weeks, as the country sees record numbers of new coronavirus infections, according to Freshfields.

In November, Germany imposed a "3G" workplace requirement, effective until March 19, allowing access only for those fully vaccinated against COVID-19, recovered or testing negative, and requiring employers to offer a remote-work option if possible, with employees required to accept absent a clear reason.

Measures in Spain, which has a high vaccination rate, vary by region, noted Raquel Flórez, a Madrid-based attorney with Freshfields. The country no longer recommends that employers send employees home to work, although the Catalunya region has implemented a remote-work recommendation, she said.

Most companies in Spain have been back to ordinary work arrangements for several months, with some companies—usually multinationals—introducing new protocols allowing for flexibility, according to Flórez. Right before Christmas, some employers reintroduced options to work remotely, and some, including big auditing companies and public offices without direct public contact, sent employees home, she said.

Dinah Wisenberg Brin is a freelance reporter and writer based in Philadelphia.

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