This Coronavirus lockdown didn’t come with a huge amount of planning time. Businesses had to react to news as it happened. Most were hoping it wouldn’t happen. With the government announcing their plans to re-open the economy post COVID-19, now is the time to start making plans for the future.
Many businesses don’t know exact details or dates for when they can re-open and we don’t have specific plans for schools, but we do know enough to make plans to continue your business.
This is a crisis for both our health systems and our economy. The health crisis cannot be ignored as we start to consider plans to re-open. People have experienced very sudden changes and a period of anxiety around their own health and wellbeing, as well as that of their family and friends.
Our April 2020 article on Preparing for a Post-COVID-19 World made some educated guesses around what businesses are likely to face in the future as a result of the pandemic. This article aims to provide some more practical advice for what you can do proactively within your business now that we’re starting to understand how a world coming out of lockdown may look.
What does getting back to work mean for your business?
Are you reopening premises? Is that to employees only or does it include customers? Are you bringing people back from furlough to work from home? Are you bringing people back into the workplace from furlough or homeworking?
Do you expect to experience higher or lower than normal work levels? Will this impact your required staffing levels?
Understanding what the next stage means for your business is an important first step. It is appearing unlikely that the country will suddenly bounce back to the normality we knew before.
The government guidance states that it is highly unlikely this virus will be eradicated and will need either a vaccine or effective treatment to bring it under control. This fits with the messages we have heard for some time that social distancing is likely to be long term. Plans should be made on this basis. We’re not looking at temporary measures for a couple of weeks so focus on what this means for your business in the longer term. What do you expect the next period, however long it may last, to look like?
Health and Safety
If your future business plans require people to return to your premises then you have a duty of care for your employees, as well as a duty to make the workplace safe. Health and safety duties will also apply to members of the public visiting your premises. The government and HSE have issued guidance to support business with this.
This guide is not intended to be an exhaustive health and safety guide so we strongly recommend you take specialist health and safety advice. Government guidance requires employers to produce risk assessments and expects those with over 50 employees to publish their risk assessments.
The Prime Minister himself has hinted he is surprised at quite how well the stay at home message has worked. This message has been drilled into us. Our mindsets have changed and we have come to know our homes to be our only safe place. As an employer you will need to overcome this. Communication will be essential to this so a message of reassurance will be essential. Inform employees of the measures you have taken, and will continue to take, to make the workplace safe. This could include a video walk through to demonstrate the measures taken. This will be useful not only to reassure your employees but also their families and even your customers.
Guidance remains for those who can work from home to continue working from home. There is no indication this is likely to be lifted any time soon. Employers are responsible for their employees’ health and safety even when working at home so you must ensure that they have the right equipment to work safely and effectively. Build homeworking into your on-going plans for the business where possible.
Consider not only the health and safety of your employees at work but also how they get to work. Support them to find safe ways to get to work. This may be a good time to introduce cycle to work schemes or provide suitable showering facilities for people to cycle to work, although consider also how this will work if lots of people require showers before starting work.
Speak to your employees and seek their ideas. If you engage them in the process of making the workplace safe then they are more likely to feel safe returning to work. Address their fears and put in place solutions to overcome them where possible.
While a focus on physical health and safety is essential, don’t forget the mental health of your employees. This crisis has been challenging for many people and will remain to be. Individuals have been impacted differently and some will have experienced bereavement. Recognise this and look at ways to support employees or provide information and signposting to relevant support.
Good communication is essential and that must not just mean broadcasting! Communication with employees must be two-way. As mentioned earlier in this article, engaging employees in decision making will help to get people on board with your plans.
Speak to employees about their experiences during this period. Start these conversations now. Don’t wait to see people in person - pick up the phone and have a conversation. If your employees are working at home, make time for “informal chat” so you can ask them how they are.
Find out about the circumstances your employees find themselves in and how easing lockdown arrangements might impact them. Schools re-opening might sound great but could present new challenges to parents if children are only attending school part time, potentially with siblings attending at different times. Non-standard schooling arrangements could be more challenging than having children at home full time. Make plans that take these challenges into consideration. If parents have no alternative childcare options then they may be entitled to time off for dependants.
Speak to people about how they travel to work and what alternatives may be available to them. In parts of the country public transport is the main commuting option. Public policy has for many years focused on getting people out of their cars and onto public transport. This will present an on-going challenge to the government as the environmental threat from people driving cars remains, whilst the risk of travelling on packed trains is obvious.
As the lockdown eases, government messages may become increasingly confused, particularly if decisions have to be made about different parts of the country and as different industries are opened at different rates. It is even more important that your business communication is clear and accurate. Your employees should know who key information comes from. Make announcements to avoid the rumour mill and encourage people to ask questions and seek clarification.
Consider your language carefully. Don’t describe a return to physical co-location of staff as “returning to work” if you’re talking about or to people who have been working from home. These people have been working so don’t devalue their hard work during the crisis by talking as if they’re just starting working again. On the other hand, your furloughed workers may be concerned about their future with the business. Offer reassurance where you can. You may need to resolve tensions between those who have been furloughed and those who have continued working.
Whilst getting the economy running again, reopening, building, adapting or continuing business may be good for everyone, don’t forget this is in the context of a health crisis. Be cautious about forcing people to work under duress. If people are fearful of returning to work then understand their point of view and work with them to support them to return. Sharing the health and safety measures taken will help to demonstrate the workplace is safe, as will understanding the personal circumstances of employees that may make them additionally fearful of returning.
It’s not just health and safety policies and procedures that should be reviewed and changed. Now is the time to also review your employment and operational policies, particularly where changes in business will be long term or more flexibility needs to be built into procedures.
The start of the lockdown for many meant sudden and dramatic changes to work, including moving office work into peoples’ homes and for others closing businesses. Traditional workplace rules can be restrictive to flexibility, initiative and creativity. They often don’t adapt to changing needs.
Now is a good time to review your policies, procedures and documentation to ensure that you can be flexible going forward. Adapting your business will require your people to have flexibility and creativity in the way they carry out their role. We don’t know yet how the economy will look long-term. We don’t know what the impacts will be on business and how businesses will need to adapt to a new world. Building in flexibility will be vital to being able to react and adapt.
Key policies such as attendance may need to be changed. Traditionally we’ve worked towards getting people to attend work, potentially even when they feel ill. In the current climate that would be inappropriate. Government guidance is that those with symptoms must self isolate as must others in the household. Sickness and absence policies must reflect this guidance in order to provide safe workplaces.
Employers will need to be flexible in discussions they have with employees around attending work. Challenges such as caring for vulnerable people, having children at home or requirements to use public transport may impact people’s ability to attend work. Draconian instructions to attend work at all costs are not useful in the current climate. It is not going to be good for moral and employee engagement to have people working under duress. Communication will be essential to balance the needs of both the organisation and individual employees.
Flexible working policies and procedures may need to be reviewed. It will now be very difficult for employers to turn down requests to work remotely when it has been demonstrated to have worked over the past few weeks and months. Flexible working is likely to be essential to allow people to attend work going forward, particularly where employees are juggling childcare and vulnerable relatives. Alternative working patterns may also be essential to the business to ensure people are coming in and out of work at different times - for example having breaks at different times and using public transport systems in quieter periods.
Redundancy, Restructure and Changing Working Patterns
Whilst the furlough scheme is helping businesses to keep employees, at some point companies may find themselves in a position where redundancies become a requirement. There may also be a need to restructure as the types of work being done changes. You may need to change people’s working patterns to make workplaces safe or meet new business requirements.
Regardless of the fact we are going through a pandemic and experiencing a lockdown, the fact remains that we cannot take away or ignore any of the employment law around these issues.
Prior to dismissing an employee due to redundancy you must consider alternative options which may include changing working patterns or offering part-time work as alternatives. Consult with your entire workforce. You may find you have people who would rather not come back to work at the current time and that this can help you to avoid redundancies and potentially keep people available for work when it picks up in the future. Should circumstances change again or not pick up in the way that you had hoped, redundancies could be considered at a later stage if this solution doesn’t provide sufficient cost savings.
There may be alternative cost savings to redundancy. As an example, working from home could reduce the need for office space and therefore reduce the costs associated with that. Now is the time to consider all of the options. Consult with your employees and encourage them to come forward with suggestions. They may come up with something you haven’t thought of.
Where changing work patterns is essential to enable people to return to work safely, you must still consult with employees. This will be a change to their terms and conditions, either on a temporary or permanent basis. A change to individuals terms and conditions requires agreement. Reach agreement by discussing the options and listening to their views. Outline why the business believes the change to be essential and what the consequences may be if agreement cannot be reached.
DIfferent organisations and Industries are impacted so differently that it’s impossible to write a single guide that will provide answers for everybody. The aim of this guide is to provide an overview of the things you may need to consider and changes you may need to make to plan for the future of your business. Now is the time to be thinking creatively on how you can adapt to the changing circumstances and return to work or keep working safely.
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Article last updated: 12 May 2020
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