Life after lockdown – HR implications of moving to ‘new normal’.

The UK entered lockdown on 23 March, and the support measures introduced by UK employers included the creation of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) and the term furlough became a household word. We track what has happened since then.

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The CJRS has now been extended on three occasions. The latest extension being announced on 12 May which effectively extends the scheme to the end of October. From June the scheme will become more flexible and allow employees to return to work on a part-time basis. At present, some 7.5 million employees are benefitting from the scheme at a cost estimated to be in excess of £10 billion.

The aim of the scheme is to avoid redundancies and to ensure that when work is able to recommence, there is a trained workforce ready to resume where it left off. As we all know, the longer this goes on, the more prevalent the changes in the economy will be, which may make it less likely that the original aims will be realised. We are witnessing changes to the way in which we all work, which will have a major effect on our lives in the future. Apart from how we actually perform our work, the reduction in take home pay for some will have a major effect on the strength of the economy. Not all sectors will be affected equally, as those closer to their respective consumers, have suffered the most.

As the lock down restrictions begin to be removed albeit cautiously, employers are considering their workforce requirements both in the immediate and longer term. Already, some employers have decided that the jobs will not exist when work resumes and their workers are being made redundant. Others are asking a number of questions, including:

  • Are all the existing employees still required and if not, are redundancies the correct course of action to take? 
  • Can some employees remain on furlough whilst others are asked to return to work?
  • What is the correct way to take employees off furlough and do they return to work with their previous terms and conditions?                                                                                         
  • What changes do we need to make to the existing way of operating?                       
  • Will any of our terms and conditions need to be amended?

Another pivotal issue to consider is the right time to reopen? Whether further remote working is preferable to employees and how the new legal requirements for workplaces can be accommodated. Employers might also plan for a staged return to the workplace, over what is now likely to be a prolonged period (especially for those employees who are vulnerable or shielding). The guiding principle should be about taking care of employees and safeguarding their health and well-being. Most employees are concerned about both returning to work and travelling to and from their work. The government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has recently published a set of documents (click here to view) about how to work safely in different types of workplaces. The documents set out guidance and identify the practical considerations which all employers must give thought to before deciding on a return to work. They address: managing the risk, carrying out risk assessments and importantly, how to share this information with employees. 

The documents also consider who should return to work at this stage, stating that workers should work from home, where possible. Only workers whose roles are critical and cannot be performed remotely should be considered for a return. Even then, their number should be kept to a minimum so ensuring that social distancing can be observed throughout the workplace. Areas of consideration covered in the documents include those workers who are at higher risk, those who need to self-isolate, moving around a workplace in a safe manner, staggering starting and finishing times, holding face-to-face meetings and keeping in touch with remote workers on their working arrangements. This should include their welfare, mental and physical health and personal security.

For businesses in some sectors, it is not just workers that need to be considered, but the safety and well-being of customers/clients. 

In addition, it is important that all the actions are taken in the light of current employment legislation, not just the legislation that existed prior to lockdown. Since then, various forms of guidance have been issued to assist employers with employment topics. The most recent of these has been issued by BEIS and covers guidance on how holiday entitlement and pay has been affected during the present pandemic.

It is worth emphasising that in considering the various issues affecting the return to work, it would be very easy for employers to overlook that almost every employee’s circumstances are unique and a uniform policy shouldn't be implemented. Employers should remember that circumstances vary whether it is in travel to work, ability to work remotely, responsibility for dependants, age, personal health issues (such as vulnerability, emotional and mental well-being). To ignore individual circumstances could lead to an employer being in breach of employment legislation resulting in expensive litigation. Employers must be very careful to consider the needs and circumstances of all their workers and not just to assume that differences in personal circumstances can be ignored. As is always the case, it is not sufficient to say that they have been taken into account, strong evidence that they have been considered must be kept.

It is certainly very true that imposing a lockdown is far easier than lifting it. The challenges faced in returning operations to ‘degrees of normal’ are considerable and further lockdowns may be imposed depending upon the path the virus takes and the success of government strategies. Depending on the nature of the business, many employers may decide to delay a return to work and to keep employees working remotely. Clearly, for some, this is not an option and so the considerations detailed will assume a greater importance. However, throughout the whole process, it is very important to consult with staff and to seek agreement over the proposed course of action.

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