Back to work but not to ‘normal’: Navigating the lockdown let-up

As discussed in last week’s blog, our prime minister Boris Johnson says people should be ‘actively encouraged’ to return to work.

But this is just the start of the new ‘normal’ which will continue to shift and change, much like the virus and its global journey.

In these circumstances, it would be sensible for businesses to consider all the options and have the capability to move quickly from one scenario to another.

What will change for employers after Coronavirus?

Many people will be concerned and anxious about being in work or travelling to work. They will want to know that their organisation is thinking about and prioritising their physical and mental health.

Communication with your staff is key. Keeping people informed of what your business is doing – whether it is good or bad news for individuals – will help them to make their own decisions and give them some degree of security in very uncertain times. 

Employers should pay specific attention to staff who have particular requirements (e.g. health issues, disability, childcare or other caring responsibilities).

They may not be in a position to return as quickly to ‘normal’ working. Be aware that some employees who had a reasonable adjustment before may need a different one on their return to a workplace.

Similarly, many individuals who didn’t previously have a mental health condition may have experienced mental health challenges and need to discuss changes to help them overcome any barriers and fulfil their role.

What will change for employers after Coronavirus?

It is difficult to predict with any certainty what the long-term impact of Coronavirus might be. However, from a HR / employment law perspective, our expectations are that in the short-term we might see some or all of the following:

  • Restructures: The impact of the current social distancing and lock down measures has meant that employers are having to find ways to operate as efficiently and leanly as possible and so we may see employers re-assessing their methods of working and restructuring staff hours and roles on return to work. This is likely to result in large scale restructure and redundancy exercises across many businesses further down the line.
  • Redundancies: Unfortunately, the financial impact for businesses may also result in redundancy exercises. Although there are some financial assistance programmes for businesses and the availability of furlough leave, these are short-term and the loss of pipeline work for many businesses may mean that financial recovery is slow.
  • Increased flexible working: Another impact of the current social distancing and lock down measures is that employers are having to facilitate more flexible working including employees working from home where possible. It is likely that we will see a surge in flexible working requests from staff who have been working on adjusted hours or working from home and would like to continue to do so. Where this has worked well, employers may be more open to this – or find it more difficult to justify not being open to it.
  • Increased use of “lay off” clauses: The discussions around furlough leave have revealed that a surprising number of employers still don’t have contracts of employment in place and don’t see the potential value in having them (although they are a legal requirement). For employers who do have contracts of employment, we have discovered that many do not have “lay off” clause allowing them to forcibly put staff on to unpaid lay off – this is because until this pandemic arose an unpaid lay off clause was generally unused and unheard of outside of manufacturing. We anticipate that many employers may wish to introduce/ amend contracts to give them the option of using unpaid lay off should a significant event arise again in the future.
  • Reduced company sick pay: Many employers pay more than Statutory Sick Pay when their staff are off sick. However, the planning for this ‘Company Sick Pay’ assumes that only a small proportion of the workforce will be off sick at any one time and such schemes quickly become unaffordable and unsustainable when a large proportion of the workforce falls sick. There is also, unfortunately, the potential temptation for staff who are short of money during a period of furlough leave or self-isolation, to try and claim ill-health under the ‘Company Sick Pay’ scheme in order to try and boost their income. We anticipate that many employers may look to amend their schemes by including a provision that payment may not be made where a large proportion of the workforce may fall sick and claim within a short period such as during a pandemic.
  • Changes to management: This situation has been a true test of leadership and some managers have come through, while others have (quite understandably) struggled with their response to what has been a difficult and unprecedented situation. We anticipate that there may be some shifts in senior management team structures as a result and that some managers may welcome an opportunity to work on their personal resilience and response to adverse events. This is something that Vanessa wrote about recently and that we work with individual managers and leadership teams on, on a regular basis. Vanessa’s article is here and if you think that you or any members of your management team might benefit from some one to one leadership development and coaching then just let us know and we can talk to you about the options available.
  • Increased concerns in relation to resilience and mental health: The risks to people’s health from this pandemic are psychological as well as physical. These include anxiety about the ongoing health crisis and fear of infection, as well social isolation due to the lockdown. Many managers will already know who is struggling in their team and who was more likely to be affected by the situation but many others many will have experienced challenging domestic situations, such as juggling childcare or caring for a vulnerable relative, as well as financial worries if a partner has lost their income. Some will have experienced illness, or bereavement.

Even if staff have carried on working and participating in video meetings, they will still need to get used to working in a shared environment with colleagues again.

Some may take more time than others and it’s likely that most people will need a period of readjustment.

Managers and leaders need to acknowledge that many employees may find that they are still coming to terms with the significant change which society has seen, and the familiar workplace routines could feel very different.

Communication with your staff is key. Keeping people informed of what your business is doing – whether it is good or bad news for individuals – will help them to make their own decisions and give them some degree of security in very uncertain times.

We hope you have found this advice timely and useful. For more help regarding Coronavirus or any other HR matter, please get in touch.