It is quite remarkable to think that only four weeks ago we first heard of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. In a matter of weeks, companies that are household names, alongside small and medium sized businesses, have furloughed hundreds of thousands of staff members covering industries as diverse as aviation, retail, beauty therapy, manufacturing, music and leisure. No work sector has been unaffected either as a result of increased demand for its services or following a slump in its production. It has been an unquestionably bruising, worrying and challenging time for many to navigate with management teams having to work quickly to decide how best to protect their businesses from the economic shock of Coronavirus.
It may seem somewhat premature to be thinking about how on earth companies can begin to reintroduce workers to their workplaces in due course but, considering the complexity of the situation, it is essential that managers begin to develop a plan sooner rather than later. The UK government decided at the end of last week to extend the lockdown for a further three weeks minimum and there is always the possibility that this timeframe may be extended again. In the meantime, many organisations have moved to a remote-working model by making use of multiple technology solutions to keep them operational. The worry is that, if and when, the government decide that restrictions on movement can be relaxed to some degree, an employer who has not given sufficient thought to how to reintroduce workers to their normal workplace could be met with a backlash of understandable concern from employees about their safety in returning to the office and their general physical and mental well-being.
We all know that the economic implications of Coronavirus will have a lasting effect on he health of our economy and, whilst experts debate whether there will be a relatively quick bounce-back or a more protracted return to productivity, what is not up for debate is that the country needs industry and commerce to start up again with momentum to stave off potentially devastating long-term damage to our economy. So, the question remains, how does a business owner or CEO begin to re-introduce employees to the workplace at the appropriate time whilst the threat of Coronavirus remains? Further, will the new normal, when we arrive at that point, be the same as it used to be; what changes will need to be permanent? What good things have emerged from the pandemic from which we have learnt and which we might want to retain?
The mantra of ‘Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives’ has become a regular feature of our daily lives - we see it on television broadcasts; we see it in newsprint and we hear it on the radio. We have absorbed this message and complied in our millions with its direction. Having turned off so much of what was normal about our lives before, switching this back on is going to come with a natural sense of uncertainty and unease for many.
Our advice to employers is even if it seems early to begin formulating your plans for a future return to the workplace, it is essential that you begin thinking now about how you intend to manage this transition. There are so many factors at play here from the psychology of your employees to the financial needs of your business - getting the right balance between these potentially competing priorities will be essential. It really isn’t as easy as saying “OK off we all go back to the office” in how ever many weeks or months’ time. Rules around social distancing are likely to be with us for months to come and, even if you can socially distance in your workplace, what about the journeys that your employees will need to take to reach work? Whilst some employees may use their own car to travel, others will rely on public transport services with all the complexities of shared travel that will undoubtedly bring.
Further, it is essential that employers do not assume they know all about the health of their employees. The NHS has identified 1.5 million people whom they consider to be at particular risk if they were to contract Coronavirus and those individuals currently have been told to shield for twelve weeks. It is quite possible that an employee may be identified within that group, or indeed have a different but equally serious health condition that places them at increased risk, and their employer be unaware of their underlying health condition as there has never been a need to disclose in the past. The current situation places some in the unenviable dilemma about having to share sensitive personal information about their health that they may wish to have kept private, or to risk their well-being by returning to a workplace where they are at increased risk, in order to preserve their privacy. This is why we are keen to tell our clients that they should assume nothing - just because you do not know something now, does not mean it is not the case. Always remember that any information about an employee’s health is subject to the highest protection under the Data Protection Act so how you act upon any new information must comply with the guidelines or you risk a serious breach of privacy laws.
A thoughtfully developed long-term plan for a return to normal is essential. We have spoken in a number of our blogs about the importance of workforce communication during these challenging times and this will be even more critical as a company considers how it is going to scale back up. Just flipping a switch back to how everything worked before Coronavirus will not be possible, so deciding what functions need to be where and when and who is impacted by those changes will have to be thought through. Employers should handle employee concerns sensitively, make time to gather and hear feedback on proposals from their teams, and be ready to adapt to different approaches if the need arises, not forgetting that underlying employment law remains in place, and taking heed of new view that come to light. Health and Safety legislation is a core component of the workplace contract and therefore being confident that you have assessed the workplace risks and put in place plans to mitigate their impact is essential. In many cases, employers will need to go back to their risk assessment process and look again through different eyes, considering what unique challenges the Coronavirus situation brings. Can you adequately social distance? What measures are in place for cleaning and disinfecting? Do employees have sufficient hand-washing facilities? Are their further risks associated with shared service buildings that need to be taken into account?
Without question, for many businesses’ technology has provided the means to keep oerational. Never before have we seen so many people working remotely - almost overnight. The debate about where work is actioned, whether you can really be a core part of the team if you work from home, and whether you are as productive out of the office as in, has raged on for years. If nothing else, the impact of Coronavirus will redefine the way we work for years to come. It has been clearly demonstrated that many roles can be successfully carried out remotely and that really at the core of this is a question of trust and the need for better leadership and management when employees are not in the office.
New leadership will have to start measuring output rather than input. Valuing output has never been more necessary as we ask people to manage significant competing priorities such as home-schooling children alongside work commitments. What will be interesting is how employers consider requests to work flexibly in the future as it will be difficult to dismiss requests out of hand where an employee has demonstrated over recent weeks that their work can be delivered equally effectively from home. We have been asked to adjust to a new “normal” version of our home and work life in an unbelievably short timeframe; the question of what normal will look like in the future is anyone’s guess. The psychological impact of so much change on people in a relatively short space of time has yet to be fully understood, and employers will need to play a critical role in supporting the mental health of their workforce as we navigate through these changing times.
In many cases, returning to an optimal working situation is going to take considerable time. For businesses that can benefit from flexible working, this is likely to involve a blended set of solutions including continuing to use technology alongside a phased return of the workforce to respect social distancing requirements. What is not in question is that decisions about how to operationalise will be complex when considering external interdependencies such as when schools can return, in turn freeing up employees from childcare responsibilities for example. All this will require significant thought which is why we urge our clients to begin debating this issue in the near term and we encourage you to reach out to us for help in formulating your plans. We also advise talking to the workforce and asking them for their views as many will be surprising; this sets up a good start to the planning process.
HR departments and teams need to be communicative, creative and responsive and use their influencing skills on hard data not assumptions.
If you’d like some help with the planning process and the various ramifications, do please get in touch.