Staff at engineering firm Dyson were reportedly angered last Friday by a request to return to the workplace at short notice.
One staff member who spoke to the Guardian newspaper said there had been a furious reaction from the workforce. This led to Dyson reversing the decision the next day.
On Friday 15 May, new chief executive Roland Krueger, sent an email, subsequently seen by the Guardian, to employees informing them they should start returning to work in varying shift patterns from Monday. The email was allegedly sent after working hours.
The next day the decision was reversed after the company had “reviewed the practicalities”.
The email stated that staff would be divided into two rotating teams, alternating between home and office working. According to employee accounts this would have meant some employees having to travel to the firm’s Wiltshire factories at Hullavington and Malmesbury, despite being able to work from home.
Steve Turner, assistant general secretary of the Unite trade union, said: “This is an important example of how many employers will interpret weak, unclear and confusing messages about a safe return to work from government.
“In the case of Dyson workers who should still be working from home, they have been able to collectively push back against their employer.
“However, many workers are not as confident or organised and in the same position will be either economically forced back into work, without adequate measures being put in place, or pressured to return under the fear of losing their jobs.”
A spokesperson for Dyson responded: “The health, wellbeing and job security of Dyson people have been our priority throughout the crisis, as we have always made clear. Our campus has remained open throughout as 450 people worked to create Dyson’s ventilator – which mercifully was not needed.
“We have followed the government’s request for manufacturing and research organisations to restart the economy. Those Dyson people who can work from home have been asked to continue to do so, those who require access to equipment on campus can do so in a safe working environment, and those who need occasional attendance on campus are being supported to complete their tasks.
“We are keeping every person on our campus safe, exceeding the government’s guidance, this includes the mandatory wearing of face masks, distancing measures, enhanced cleaning protocols and temperature checking. We have maintained full salaries and benefits, not furloughed any staff and not accepted any Covid-19 financial assistance but, like many companies, are facing a grave economic future.”
Work life after coronavirus
Neill Thomas, partner in the employment department of the specialist law firm Thomas Mansfield, said that all companies must give the return to work process plenty of thought. “Understandably, many employers are desperate to open up their businesses to stave off financial ruin but employees have a range of legal protections in place to protect them from being pushed into returning to work too early or for the wrong reasons,” he said.
“Employers can mitigate the risk of claims to their businesses by conducting workplace risk assessments and considering risk in the light of individual circumstances. Employers need to maintain trust and confidence in their employees.”
These comments were amplified by Mark Harris, lead consultant at risk management and business continuity firm Blindside Risk, who said: “Ill-judged communication about returning to work is unfortunate. Were employees consulted, were union reps consulted? You build up a database of which individuals can work on which days. You get into any issues on a one-to-one basis so you avoid disputes with employees.
Speaking at an online conference on business and pandemic, Harris added: “You do need to go through your scenario planning so you don’t get presented with a workforce saying ’this is not on’.”
He said the pandemic had shown that collaborative approaches needed to be built into crisis management plans.