Return to on-site working

The University is now operating at BCP stage 2. Many staff are continuing to work at home but on-site working is resuming for a broader range of staff where:

  • there are clear benefits to enabling staff and teams to work effectively and productively
  • there is full agreement between the member(s) of staff involved and their line manager or supervisor, and
  • the step-by-step process, including a return to on-site working induction has been completed before the on-site working is resumed.

This return to on-site working is separate to the New Ways of Working framework.

This guidance is for line managers and supervisors (including heads of department (see Note below) for academic staff, referred to as “line managers” throughout) and covers how to work with staff to manage the return to on-site working. Your department will inform you of the latest guidance for students.

See also:

Note: Heads of department/faculty board chairs may delegate this responsibility where appropriate, for example to heads of sub-department or sub-faculty or other appropriate colleagues. Guidance on dealing with academic staff may be sought from the divisional office.


The safety, physical and mental health and wellbeing of all our staff is of paramount importance and should be the first consideration when planning any return to, or increase in, on-site working. It is understood that some staff will have been working on-site since the lockdown on essential COVID- 19 related research activities, or other essential operations that cannot be undertaken remotely.

For the safety of all of our staff, a full risk assessment must be undertaken and measures to implement COVID-safe workplaces have been implemented before on-site activity resumes/increases in any given area of the University.

No staff should return to on-site working unless they have been advised to do so through their head of department and the step-by-step process including RTOSW induction has been completed before on-site working is resumed.


Line managers should bear in mind that some staff will be eager to return to the workplace, and there may be a need to manage their expectations about the speed of return to on-site working, whereas others will be very reluctant to return.  Where staff are finding it difficult to work effectively from home, for example  because of lack of appropriate workspace, or because working in isolation is affecting them negatively, their requirements should be taken into consideration in the RTOSW planning, and in the meantime it may be appropriate to signpost them to the range of resources that are available to support homeworking and wellbeing.

General considerations

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It is the responsibility of the line manager to:

  • reassure staff members that their safety is paramount, that COVID-19 guidance from government and PHE and the University will be observed;
  • ensure equity across team members as far as possible, remembering that the impact of working from home will be different for different staff members for example, those with caring responsibilities, disabilities, etc.
  • offer each individual staff member a conversation about their own situation and individual needs:
    • for those who have been identified for a return to on-site working the discussion should cover issues which may affect the return such as caring responsibilities, pregnancy, health conditions and/or disabilities, household members with health conditions, mental health and/or wellbeing concerns
    • for those who are primarily office-based and who are asked to continue to work from home where possible, in line with current government guidance, the discussion should cover any difficulties the individual is experiencing with working effectively from home, which may mean a return to the workplace should be prioritised
    • assess any changes to their position since the beginning of lockdown.
    • guidance on holding the conversation and on the self-assessment tool for staff with concerns about their own health or the safety of returning on-site is available. If staff are uncomfortable discussing their personal situation with their manager they may prefer to speak to the local HR contact;
  • give staff members clear, up to date information and instructions about safe working in their particular location and make the relevant risk assessment(s) available to them in advance of the return on-site (by post or telephone for staff who do not have online access at home);
  • explain clearly to staff members the arrangements for return to on-site working in their location, and in particular the arrangements which apply to them;
  • recognise that staff may have concerns about factors beyond the immediate control of the University, such as the need to use public transport and access to childcare;
  • be aware and sensitive to the fact that staff may be feeling stressed or anxious about work and/or their personal circumstances, and seek advice from their local HR contact if they are unsure how best to support them;
  • explore arrangements for staff who are working from home to come on-site, by agreement, but only where this would be to support core on-site activities, including teaching and research, or where there are clear benefits to enabling staff and teams to work effectively and productively;

  • ensure that staff know who to contact if they have questions or concerns.

Many staff returned to on-site working prior to and during Michaelmas term 2020 to support the optimum combination of in-person teaching and online learning; and the minimum possible reduction in research capacity. In light of the latest Government guidance with effect from 19 July 2021 there is no longer a requirement for staff to work from home if they can. 

Managers should work with their head of department and departmental administrator/HAF to develop a clear, documented and agreed rationale for which team members are asked to return to the workplace based on work requirements, equality considerations, and individual circumstances, taking health and safety considerations into account while not making assumptions that are based on people’s characteristics. Equality considerations should also take into account travel to work.  Decisions should be as fair, objective and transparent as possible.

1. Work requirements

Some staff have been working on-site throughout the lockdown period or for some time, and will continue to do so.  With effect from 19 July 2021 there is no longer a requirement for staff to work from home if they can but departments may need to prioritise the work that can be done on-site in order to maintain social distancing and other health and safety measures (see the section ‘Managing the work of the team’). 

2. Equality considerations

When determining which staff which staff can safely return on-site to undertake the agreed work, departments should make sure that equality issues are taken into account, including travel to work.

For example:

  • Disability: Some disabled people may be considered clinically vulnerable to developing serious disease from COVID-19. Under Government guidance, with effect from 19 July 2021, those who are clinically extremely vulnerable  may return to the workplace but may wish to think about additional precautions; see government guidance on protecting people who are clinically extremely vulnerable from COVID-19 and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance on protecting vulnerable workers. Ensure that all COVID measures are being strictly maintained. It may be possible to redeploy some staff to an equivalent, safer role.
  • Sex: There is evidence that men – particularly older men and those with certain health conditions – may be at higher risk of serious disease and death from COVID-19. On the other hand, there is growing evidence that women may have experienced greater adverse career impact than men from having to work from home due to unequal sharing of caring responsibilities. It is important to avoid indirect discrimination against women by assuming they are responsible for caring and thus cannot return to the workplace.
  • Pregnancy and maternity: assessing whether expectant or new mothers can maintain strict social distancing in their role, or be redeployed to an equivalent, safer role, when considering any request to return to on-site working.
  • Age: assessing whether staff over 70, who have been deemed vulnerable, could maintain strict social distancing in their role. Staff in older age groups – particularly male and/or with certain health conditions – may also be at increased risk of serious disease from COVID-19.
  • Ethnicity: ensuring that BME staff can maintain strict social distancing, as the evidence suggests that COVID-19 reinforces existing levels of racial disadvantage and inequality among Black and Minority Ethnic people.

3. Individual circumstances

With effect from 19 July 2021 there is no longer a requirement for staff to work from home if they can but some staff members may be unable to return to work on-site in the immediate future.

For example:

  • Those who have been assessed by Occupational Health as being in the very high or high vulnerability categories and adjustments cannot be made satisfactorily to manage the risks associated with a return to working on-site;
  • Those who have been assessed as being in the very high or high vulnerability level categories and who do not feel safe and able to return (Note: from 19 July 2021 clinically extremely vulnerable people are advised, as a minimum, to follow the same guidance as everyone else, but they may wish to think about additional precautions; see government guidance on protecting people who are clinically extremely vulnerable from COVID-19 and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance on protecting vulnerable workers;
  • Those who have a letter from a GP or medical practitioner stating that they should not return for reasons related to COVID-19 (their health or that of someone who lives with them);
  • Those who have symptoms of COVID-19 must remain at home for 10 days or until they are fully recovered in accordance with NHS guidance. They will receive sick pay subject to entitlement but this will not be counted towards their sickness absence record.
  • Those who are self-isolating because a member of their household has COVID-19 symptoms must remain at home for the full 10 day self-isolation. Staff who are self-isolating should work at home if they can, provided that they are well. If they are unable to work at home for operational reasons they will continue to receive their normal pay.
  • Some staff who have returned on-site may have to go back into self-isolation; if they develop COVID-19 symptoms or a member of their household does, or if NHS test and trace shows that they have been in contact with someone with COVID-19.

It is now an offence for the University to knowingly permit a member of staff who is required to self-isolate to attend the workplace. Fines for the offence start at £1,000.

Care responsibilities

Some staff may also have concerns around care responsibilities, such as:

  • For parents: schools, nurseries, and wrap-around care may not be fully operational or operating staggered pick-up and drop-off times for different age groups. Staff members with caring responsibilities due to class or school closures linked to local COVID-19 outbreaks  should explore all the options available to them to enable them to work (including those set out on the Government website), and should discuss their situation with their line manager.
  • For those with adult dependant care responsibilities: elderly relatives or other adult dependants may need additional support to help them negotiate issues such as reduced transport availability, or increased requirements to use online services, or difficulties with social distancing measures.

It may be possible to adjust working patterns to allow staff to accommodate caring requirements during the day.

Staff in high risk categories

Staff members who are in high risk categories as defined by the NHS (clinically vulnerable or extremely clinically vulnerable) will have particular concerns about the risks of returning on-site. Under Government guidance from 19 July 2021, those who are clinically extremely vulnerable may return to the workplace but may wish to think about additional precautions; see government guidance on protecting people who are clinically extremely vulnerable from COVID-19 and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance on protecting vulnerable workers. Those who are clinically vulnerable should complete  a self-assessment and seek advice via an Occupational Health (OH) teleconsultation. Guidance on holding conversations with staff and the support offered by OH is available. OH will provide advice on managing the risks of working on-site for staff in these groups.  Staff who have a member of their household who is vulnerable (even if they are not on the official list of clinically extremely vulnerable or vulnerable people), may be extremely reluctant to return to work on-site. Other members of staff may also be reluctant to return while they perceive there to be health risks. Line managers should explore with them the nature of their concerns and consider how they might be addressed. Levels of personal risk, and risk to other household members, must be taken into consideration when planning the to return on-site. 

 (See “Return to On-Site Working: Guidance for Departments” Appendix 7 Advice on Vulnerable Groups).

Public transport

Some staff may find it difficult to travel to the workplace while the frequency or capacity of public transport remains restricted or have concerns about using public transport.  Additional car and cycle parking options are being provided on University sites across the city, and managers may offer support in applying for a temporary parking permit for staff who are able to drive to work. Further information is available on the University’s travel pages. Options for improving provision for cyclists and walkers are being explored with the city council. Staff who have no option but to use public transport should follow advice about face coverings and social distancing and may want to change their working hours to avoid travelling at peak times. Line managers should be sensitive to the fact that staff with certain underlying health conditions may both be extremely concerned about the risks of using public transport and unable to travel by other means (e.g. because they are disqualified from driving on health grounds or physically unable to cycle).   


Some staff with disabilities and/or long-term health conditions may not be able to receive the same level of support from schemes such as Access to Work as they did previously and in such cases line managers should discuss any additional support needs with staff and attempt to find alternative ways to meet their needs. Seek advice from your local HR contact and/or the Staff Disability Advisor.

Avoiding making assumptions

Line managers may already be aware of the situations of team members but should avoid making assumptions or judgements about their ability to return to work on-site based on, for example, their caring responsibilities or any protected characteristic (age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex or sexual orientation). However, in some cases protected characteristics such as age, disability, pregnancy or race may be relevant factors when considering whether it is appropriate for them to return on-site. They should offer to have a conversation with each team member while planning the return to on-site working (see Step by Step 1 - offer to talk to each individual team member) to discuss their particular circumstances including those of household members, so that these can be taken into account. Some staff may feel more comfortable discussing their personal situation with their local HR contact rather than their manager.

NB Information which staff provide about their health and personal circumstances must be treated in confidence and any records stored securely in the departmental HR office (or sent by password protected email to HR staff for secure electronic storage, where the physical office is not open) in accordance with GDPR requirements.

In order to maintain safe working practices and to maintain the required social distancing on-site, it may be necessary to consider some changes to working practices as part of a structured risk assessment and risk mitigation process. Risk assessments for the relevant work area must be taken into account. Where the risk assessment for particular activities indicates that health surveillance is required, see the guidance in Section 2 of Return to On-Site Working: Guidance for Departments

  • No one should be asked to return to the workplace, even intermittently, without a conversation with their line manager, well in advance of the return date, at which any concerns can be explored.
  • Some staff may need to work reduced hours or work only part time on-site (and part time at home if they are able to do some of their work remotely). Staff who are working reduced hours should be reassured that they will continue to receive their full normal pay.
  • You may need to ask some staff to work different patterns from their normal pattern, for example, if staff share offices, and to make sure that there are always essential staff such as first aiders, fire marshals and estates staff on-site. This might involve some staff working mornings and others working afternoons; or staff attending on alternate days or alternate weeks. Make sure that as far as possible staff working shifts keep to the same pattern to avoid cross-infection. It may be necessary to balance shifts across a team to take into account caring responsibilities and personal needs.
  • You may need to ask some staff to work in a different building or in a different part of their usual building, and you should ensure that you keep in regular contact with them if they are working away from others in the team.
  • It may be necessary for some staff members to take on different tasks at a similar grade on a temporary basis to cover for colleagues who are unable to return to the workplace. But staff should not be expected to take on a cover role in addition to their normal role and line managers should make sure that tasks are prioritised to cover key areas without overloading staff. If cover is at a higher grade the normal arrangements for ‘acting up allowances’ may be used. Opportunities to take on higher level roles should be distributed fairly and transparently to ensure equity between staff. Staff in grades 1-5 working overtime should be compensated by TOIL


Individual contracts may specify normal working hours and place of work; in the current extremely unusual circumstances, line managers may ask staff to work different hours (although not excessive hours) and in a different location for a limited period of time, if there is a properly justified rationale for so doing. Any proposed changes to normal working patterns must be discussed with the member of staff and the rationale fully explained. The staff member should then be informed of the changes in writing and asked to agree to them before they are implemented. A template letter is available at the right hand side of the page. Seek advice from your own manager, local HR contact or departmental administrator/HAF if you are unsure how to respond to staff concerns.

Make sure that staff members are given clear instructions about work patterns, place of work, work tasks and priorities etc.


1. Offer to talk to each individual team member at the planning stage

Make sure that you offer to talk to each team member at the planning stage to discuss their particular circumstances (see the section Selecting staff for return to work: Individual circumstances) and any concerns they have about returning on-site. Issues to discuss with them include:

  • whether they are  vulnerable, or live with someone who is vulnerable
  • their own health including mental health and/or wellbeing concerns and any disability or long-term health condition which could affect either their ability to return on-site or their ability to work at home
  • any caring responsibilities
  • how they would travel to work.

Read the guidance on holding the conversation and on the self-assessment tool for staff with concerns about their own health or the safety of returning on-site.

If staff feel comfortable returning to work and do not have any concerns, there is no need to have a conversation with them about their circumstances unless you have reason to believe that a staff member is putting themselves at risk.

2. Talk to each team member who is returning on site before they return

Make sure that staff working on-site understand what they must do to maintain a safe work environment.

Ensure that staff receive clear instructions before the return on-site (by post or telephone for staff who do not have internet access) on how to maintain a safe environment in the workplace, and that they understand the instructions. University-wide guidance will be provided centrally; departmental guidance will be provided by the head of department or HAF; you should provide local instructions for the specific laboratory or work space as necessary. These instructions constitute a reasonable management request and must be followed by all staff on-site.

Instructions (which may well be provided by the department) should cover:

  • use of designated entrances and exits
  • social distancing within the building – in offices, corridors, staircases, lifts etc
  • use of communal facilities – kitchens, canteens, meeting rooms etc, as it may be necessary to stagger usage or to continue to hold remote meetings so as to maintain social distancing
  • any restrictions on the use of communal equipment such as printers and photocopiers
  • other health and safety instructions such as hygiene practices including how to take appropriate measures if you are using a face covering at work
  • clear instructions on when not to attend work, i.e. when displaying symptoms of COVID-19.

You should also discuss any concerns staff may have about safe travelling to and from work.

If you need to ask staff members to make changes to their normal work patterns (see the section Managing the work of the team) set out the changes in writing and ask the staff member to confirm their acceptance. A template letter is available from the right hand side of the page.

Make sure that staff receive regular reminders about health and safety precautions and are updated as necessary about any changes to requirements and safe working practices.

3. Hold one to one meetings with each staff member on their return to the workplace

All staff should be given an induction briefing on their return to the workplace. A sample induction checklist is available in the RTOSW - Guidance for Departments (Appendix 17) and your department may well provide a local version of this for line managers to use. The briefing should cover:

  • information, instructions and reassurance about health, safety and wellbeing, including the risk assessment(s) applicable to their role
  • a reminder of any changes in ways of working, work patterns, tasks to be carried out as previously discussed (this will be particularly important for new staff who have not worked on-site before and for staff returning from furlough who may not be aware of any recent changes)
  • a discussion of any ongoing support which the staff member may require
  • what support is available to staff on-site
  • who the staff member should contact if they become ill while at work or at home, ensuring that they know they must not attend the workplace if they have COVID-19 symptoms (and that they are reassured about arrangements for sick pay subject to entitlement)
  • an opportunity for the staff member to raise any questions or concerns with you or with the local HR contact or HAF as appropriate. The Departmental Safety Officer, Departmental Safety Advisory Committee members, local or University trade union representatives or the University Safety Office may also be able to help with questions or concerns

Some issues may be sensitive (e.g. the support that the staff member may require) and would be better raised in a remote meeting before the physical return on-site rather than being discussed over a 2 metre distance. A face to face meeting should then be held on the return on-site. If you are not on-site consider who could be deputed to meet the staff member on arrival to provide reminders about working arrangements, health and safety instructions, and contact details.


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Where staff who are needed on site are reluctant to return it is essential to establish the reason for the concern, assess the risks and look at what can be done to mitigate any that are causing concern. Full guidance on conversations with staff who have concerns about returning on-site is available. Note: under Government guidance with effect from 19 July  2021, those who are clinically extremely vulnerable may return to the workplace but may wish to think about additional precautions; see government guidance on protecting people who are clinically extremely vulnerable from COVID-19 and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance on protecting vulnerable workers.

For example, if the individual has to travel by public transport, can you review working hours so that they can travel at quieter times?  Or can you offer support with applying for a temporary parking permit? Or if the concern is about the working environment can you demonstrate the measures that will be in place to make it safe to return?

Staff who are concerned about their own health or the safety of returning on-site should be encouraged to complete a self-assessment. If they remain concerned they may arrange a teleconsultation with an Occupational Health Advisor (OHA). The OHA will advise on whether and how any workplace risks can be managed.

Where the individual has a vulnerability level of ‘very high’, as assessed by the OHA, or a letter from a GP or medical practitioner stating that they should not work on-site, and adjustments are not possible so as to satisfactorily manage the risk, they should continue to work from home or, if that is not possible, remain on furlough, if eligible or special paid leave. They will not be able to return to on-site working until all parties concerned are satisfied that the risks can be managed.

Where the individual has a vulnerability level of ‘high’, as assessed by the OHA, and they wish to return to work, adjustments should be made as necessary and practicable to enable that to happen. Where they do not wish to return, they should continue to work from home or, if that is not possible, remain on furlough (if eligible) or special paid leave.

If the individual is concerned about the risks to another member of their household who is in the NHS high risk category, and does not wish to return to working on-site as a result, they should be asked to confirm the details in writing. They should continue to work from home or, if that is not possible, remain on furlough if eligible or special paid leave.

Any such arrangements should be confirmed in writing and reviewed regularly.

In order to facilitate working from home for staff who are unable to return on-site it may be useful to consider whether duties can be reorganised and/or reallocated on a temporary basis.  Line managers should work with their local HR contacts (who may seek advice from their HRBPs where necessary) on any plans to reorganise or reallocate work and it should only be considered if:

  • There are suitable staff at the same grade who have appropriate skills and all parties agree to the reorganisation/reallocation;
  • The reorganisation/reallocation is set up for a time-limited period in the first instance.

Employees have a legal obligation to co-operate with their employers on matters relating to health and safety.

If the breach is clearly inadvertent and minor, remind the staff member that it is a requirement for everyone on-site to follow social distancing and safe working practices, both for their own safety and the safety of colleagues, students and others in the building. Explain to them that their colleagues are observing the safety instructions and expect them to do so as well, and emphasise to them the seriousness with which the University views health and safety issues. If the breach is repeated, you may need to consider sending the staff member home on special paid leave; seek advice from your local HR contact first.

If the staff member deliberately refuses to follow the instructions or commits a major breach, including coming into work with symptoms of COVID-19, that would be a disciplinary offence and the staff member risks being denied access to the building and being suspended. You must seek the advice of your local HR contact straight away in these circumstances

You may ask staff to return from furlough, but bear in mind that not all staff will be able to return on site. You can ask someone to return to work with a minimum of 24 hours’ notice excluding weekends (although you should give them more notice than that if operationally possible). You should remember that if they have not been on furlough for a minimum of 7 consecutive calendar days, the University will then be unable to recoup any of their costs from the Government’s CJRS scheme. See the full guidance on the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.

Detailed guidance on how to deal with cases, or suspected cases, of COVID-19 is available in Section 2 of the Return to on-site working guidance for departments



The details of any health conditions that your team have is sensitive and should wherever possible be kept confidential. When an individual with COVID-19 symptoms orders a test they will be encouraged (but not obliged) to ask their employer to alert colleagues with whom they have been in close contact. NHS guidance is that those contacts should not self-isolate at this stage unless they feel unwell but must avoid individuals who are at high-risk of contracting COVID-19, for example because they have pre-existing medical conditions such as respiratory issues, and must take extra care in practising social distancing and good hygiene and in watching out for symptoms.

If the staff member tests positive the NHS test and trace team will contact direct any colleagues who have been in close contact with the staff member, and will ask them to self-isolate for up to 10 days depending on when they were last in contact with the individual. If colleagues are “pinged” by the NHS app they must self-isolate for 10 days. NB with effect from 16 August those who have been double-vaccinated will no longer be legally required to self-isolate if they are a close contact but will be advised to take a PCR test (and if that is positive they will be required to self-isolate regardless of vaccination status).


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