Business Essentials

Life after lockdown: future ways of working

Life after lockdown: future ways of working

Friday, 07 May 2021

Thousands of businesses are now reopening and preparing to welcome back their staff – but this new normal will bring challenges.

As lockdown restrictions continue to be lifted, many businesses will be bringing staff back off furlough, or considering permanent flexible working, with all its implications. Others still have pivoted and will be drawing up new policies and procedures that weren’t there pre-Covid-19.

 

All these issues need sensitivity, reasonableness and, crucially, planning to ensure a smooth transition back. This was the message from ‘Life after lockdown: preparing for the end of furlough and future ways of working’, a webinar hosted by Mentor sales director Helen Easton and a panel of Mentor experts.

 

The end of furlough

 

“The government’s 80% wage support reduces to 70% in July and 60% thereafter, but furloughed employees must continue to be paid 80%, with employers contributing the difference,” said Jenna Carberry, Mentor employment law and HR adviser.

 

Sadly for some firms that can’t return to full capacity, the end of furlough may mean redundancies – and they need to plan for this.

 

“Think about timescales,” she said. “Consultation may take longer if you’ve selection criteria to think about. You could enter into a potential minefield of discrimination or unfair dismissal. The chances of employees making tribunal claims right now is a lot higher.”

 

You should also be aware furlough payments don’t cover notice periods – so you must pay the redundancy notice period in full.

 

Returning staff

 

Workers who do come back may have been off for a year, so how can you make their return easier?

 

“There’s no minimum notice period to bring employees back from furlough,” said Carberry, “but it makes sense to give reasonable notice.

 

“We can all be hazy after a holiday so think how rusty some staff might be after a year. Do you need to provide training refreshers or revisit inductions? Some staff may feel overwhelmed – how can you support them?

“Returning managers and HR staff may find it hard, too, to come straight back into issues around absences, performance issues, sickness, conduct. Do they need refreshers around employment law?”

 

Homeworking

 

Whether you want your staff in the office or working remotely, neither option will suit everyone.

 

“Some staff will be keen to return,” said Kelly Allen, Mentor senior business partner in employment law and HR, “perhaps because they feel work relationships have suffered. Many with mental health conditions report lockdown made it worse. Some may have limited space at home, or live in shared accommodation – some are even at risk of domestic abuse and it’s dangerous to be at home.

 

“We’re seeing more examples of hybrid working – at home some days and in the office others. Above all, ensure you’re acting reasonably and consider every individual case on its merits”Jenna Carberry, Mentor employment law and HR adviser

 

“Talk to staff about who can and wants to work from home, which roles it suits, how often it would be done – and examine the business pros and cons.

 

“If a returning staff member wants to work remotely, ask them to submit a formal flexible working request. If it’s granted, the employer must monitor it and if the employee subsequently doesn’t meet required performance, have an open discussion about what can be done on both sides.

 

“But keep an open mind,” added Allen. “Don’t make assumptions, consider your employees’ well-being. If they’re working successfully flexibly, they’re more likely to be productive and motivated. Whether they want to return or not, the thing is to act reasonably – if you do that, you can’t go far wrong.”

 

Compromises might also be reached. “Could you put in shared spaces or satellite hubs for those who want to return?” asked Carberry. “We’re seeing more examples of hybrid working – at home some days and in the office others. Above all, ensure you’re acting reasonably and consider every individual case on its merits.”

 

New ways of managing

Whatever your employees’ future working looks like, it’s important they’re productive – and it’s your job to support and motivate them to ensure this.

“The key thing is trust,” said Allen. “You need to trust your staff to do as you ask. Of course there will be issues – communication is harder, potentially different working hours and feelings of isolation will all cause challenges for managers.

“Spend time on team building, through informal meetings or group activities, such as physical challenges where they can go away and come together to share results – sessions that are not necessarily geared around work, which help everyone get to know each other and keep on top of how everybody is.”

Ask employees themselves how they want to be communicated with, Allen added: “For instance, a barrage of emails on a daily basis is not always helpful – video calls can sometimes be better, particularly if you’re starting a new piece of work or giving feedback.”

And when you evaluate productivity, balance this with staff well-being: “Try measuring employees in outputs, the specific things you want them to achieve, rather than their hours. Ensure you provide regular feedback, especially what’s gone well alongside any suggested improvements,” he advised. “Make sure any negative feedback is constructive, objective and specific and be clear in your performance expectations so you can nip any issues in the bud. It’s vital to understand any reasons for poor performance – it could be temporary – and agree any support for improvement.”

 

Ensuring a safe workplace

 

Covid has changed everything, which means the first task for returning businesses is to update – or implement – a Covid-19 risk assessment.

 

“Look at social distancing,” advised Mentor health and safety consultant Darren Heather.

 

“Can you maintain 2 metres – or 1 metre with mitigating factors such as masks, side-to-side or back-to-back working? Can your tasks be done more safely, or redesigned?

 

“The government has extended its mantra to ‘hands, face, space, fresh air’. Look at your natural and mechanical ventilation, bearing in mind appropriate working temperatures must be maintained and written into your risk assessment. If you’ve not been on site for a while, some systems may need review – consider water, heating, lighting, fire alarms, security alarms.”

 

Covid testing and vaccinations

 

“Decide how often you ask employees to take a test,” added Darren, “depending on the occupation of premises and your type of work. But tests supplement your Covid control measures – they don’t replace them.”

 

Some employees may also be reluctant to return if they’ve not been inoculated. So how do you help them feel safe?

 

“Speak with them,” said Carberry, “share risk assessments, assure them you’re doing everything for their safety. If employees still refuse, suggest they take unpaid leave, which can incentivise them. But take advice – if you dismiss an employee over health and safety concerns you can face an unfair dismissal claim. It may not be reasonable for them to refuse, but the onus is on you to ensure you’ve done everything possible to be Covid secure. If they’re happy to return after their vaccine, perhaps offer temporary solutions such as alternate duties, or homeworking in the short term.”

 

Changes to terms and conditions

 

Many businesses have changed pay, hours, structure, location and benefits. “Many employers will have a genuine business case,” added Carberry, “but tread carefully. Always ensure you’re acting reasonably and consult – employers that force through changes can face claims of breach of contract or unfair dismissal. If you’re planning T&C changes and you don’t have agreement, take advice. If you do have agreement, get it in writing!”

 

And finally – be confident your staff are safe.

 

“We have the vaccine but this pandemic is not over yet,” said Heather. “Don’t fall into the trap of thinking we’re okay now. Do everything you can to make your staff safe – and feel safe – however they are working.”

 

 

As lockdown restrictions continue to be lifted, many businesses will be bringing staff back off furlough, or considering permanent flexible working, with all its implications. Others still have pivoted and will be drawing up new policies and procedures that weren’t there pre-Covid-19.

 

All these issues need sensitivity, reasonableness and, crucially, planning to ensure a smooth transition back. This was the message from ‘Life after lockdown: preparing for the end of furlough and future ways of working’, a webinar hosted by Mentor sales director Helen Easton and a panel of Mentor experts.

 

The end of furlough

 

“The government’s 80% wage support reduces to 70% in July and 60% thereafter, but furloughed employees must continue to be paid 80%, with employers contributing the difference,” said Jenna Carberry, Mentor employment law and HR adviser.

 

Sadly for some firms that can’t return to full capacity, the end of furlough may mean redundancies – and they need to plan for this.

 

“Think about timescales,” she said. “Consultation may take longer if you’ve selection criteria to think about. You could enter into a potential minefield of discrimination or unfair dismissal. The chances of employees making tribunal claims right now is a lot higher.”

 

You should also be aware furlough payments don’t cover notice periods – so you must pay the redundancy notice period in full.

 

Returning staff

 

Workers who do come back may have been off for a year, so how can you make their return easier?

 

“There’s no minimum notice period to bring employees back from furlough,” said Carberry, “but it makes sense to give reasonable notice.

 

“We can all be hazy after a holiday so think how rusty some staff might be after a year. Do you need to provide training refreshers or revisit inductions? Some staff may feel overwhelmed – how can you support them?

“Returning managers and HR staff may find it hard, too, to come straight back into issues around absences, performance issues, sickness, conduct. Do they need refreshers around employment law?”

 

Homeworking

 

Whether you want your staff in the office or working remotely, neither option will suit everyone.

 

“Some staff will be keen to return,” said Kelly Allen, Mentor senior business partner in employment law and HR, “perhaps because they feel work relationships have suffered. Many with mental health conditions report lockdown made it worse. Some may have limited space at home, or live in shared accommodation – some are even at risk of domestic abuse and it’s dangerous to be at home.

 

“We’re seeing more examples of hybrid working – at home some days and in the office others. Above all, ensure you’re acting reasonably and consider every individual case on its merits”Jenna Carberry, Mentor employment law and HR adviser

 

“Talk to staff about who can and wants to work from home, which roles it suits, how often it would be done – and examine the business pros and cons.

 

“If a returning staff member wants to work remotely, ask them to submit a formal flexible working request. If it’s granted, the employer must monitor it and if the employee subsequently doesn’t meet required performance, have an open discussion about what can be done on both sides.

 

“But keep an open mind,” added Allen. “Don’t make assumptions, consider your employees’ well-being. If they’re working successfully flexibly, they’re more likely to be productive and motivated. Whether they want to return or not, the thing is to act reasonably – if you do that, you can’t go far wrong.”

 

Compromises might also be reached. “Could you put in shared spaces or satellite hubs for those who want to return?” asked Carberry. “We’re seeing more examples of hybrid working – at home some days and in the office others. Above all, ensure you’re acting reasonably and consider every individual case on its merits.”

 

New ways of managing

Whatever your employees’ future working looks like, it’s important they’re productive – and it’s your job to support and motivate them to ensure this.

“The key thing is trust,” said Allen. “You need to trust your staff to do as you ask. Of course there will be issues – communication is harder, potentially different working hours and feelings of isolation will all cause challenges for managers.

“Spend time on team building, through informal meetings or group activities, such as physical challenges where they can go away and come together to share results – sessions that are not necessarily geared around work, which help everyone get to know each other and keep on top of how everybody is.”

Ask employees themselves how they want to be communicated with, Allen added: “For instance, a barrage of emails on a daily basis is not always helpful – video calls can sometimes be better, particularly if you’re starting a new piece of work or giving feedback.”

And when you evaluate productivity, balance this with staff well-being: “Try measuring employees in outputs, the specific things you want them to achieve, rather than their hours. Ensure you provide regular feedback, especially what’s gone well alongside any suggested improvements,” he advised. “Make sure any negative feedback is constructive, objective and specific and be clear in your performance expectations so you can nip any issues in the bud. It’s vital to understand any reasons for poor performance – it could be temporary – and agree any support for improvement.”

 

Ensuring a safe workplace

 

Covid has changed everything, which means the first task for returning businesses is to update – or implement – a Covid-19 risk assessment.

 

“Look at social distancing,” advised Mentor health and safety consultant Darren Heather.

 

“Can you maintain 2 metres – or 1 metre with mitigating factors such as masks, side-to-side or back-to-back working? Can your tasks be done more safely, or redesigned?

 

“The government has extended its mantra to ‘hands, face, space, fresh air’. Look at your natural and mechanical ventilation, bearing in mind appropriate working temperatures must be maintained and written into your risk assessment. If you’ve not been on site for a while, some systems may need review – consider water, heating, lighting, fire alarms, security alarms.”

 

Covid testing and vaccinations

 

“Decide how often you ask employees to take a test,” added Darren, “depending on the occupation of premises and your type of work. But tests supplement your Covid control measures – they don’t replace them.”

 

Some employees may also be reluctant to return if they’ve not been inoculated. So how do you help them feel safe?

 

“Speak with them,” said Carberry, “share risk assessments, assure them you’re doing everything for their safety. If employees still refuse, suggest they take unpaid leave, which can incentivise them. But take advice – if you dismiss an employee over health and safety concerns you can face an unfair dismissal claim. It may not be reasonable for them to refuse, but the onus is on you to ensure you’ve done everything possible to be Covid secure. If they’re happy to return after their vaccine, perhaps offer temporary solutions such as alternate duties, or homeworking in the short term.”

 

Changes to terms and conditions

 

Many businesses have changed pay, hours, structure, location and benefits. “Many employers will have a genuine business case,” added Carberry, “but tread carefully. Always ensure you’re acting reasonably and consult – employers that force through changes can face claims of breach of contract or unfair dismissal. If you’re planning T&C changes and you don’t have agreement, take advice. If you do have agreement, get it in writing!”

 

And finally – be confident your staff are safe.

 

“We have the vaccine but this pandemic is not over yet,” said Heather. “Don’t fall into the trap of thinking we’re okay now. Do everything you can to make your staff safe – and feel safe – however they are working.”

 

Our Partners:

Sponsored by Specsavers Sponsored by NatWest