Navigating the new normal at the workplace
By Anna Youngs, partner, Clarke Willmott
The United Kingdom has faced a public health crisis unlike any seen in the last century, the economic impact of which is likely to be felt for some time to come.
For many businesses, the impact on working arrangements and staffing cannot be overstated. So what are the key areas that businesses are considering or should consider as the nation takes steps towards recovery, taking into account that the pandemic is far from over?
Where it is decided to bring staff back to work premises, there are a number of health and safety factors to consider. The Government has different and evolving guidance for different sectors, but common to all employers is the duty to take reasonable steps to protect workers and others from coronavirus. The HSE, and Government, require employers to undertake risk assessments, and then follow through on the measures identified, to demonstrate their compliance in this regard. For some business, measures will be working from home for many or even all staff. In various sectors we are seeing Perspex screens being installed, increased hand sanitising facilities, staggered start times and, of course, social distancing, among other things. In the shorter term, limiting the numbers of staff in the workplace could also limit the extent to which measures are required to make office space ‘Covid-secure’, but as more staff return to work, reviews of the measures implemented will need to be carried out.
Reviewing the work space requirements
The change to remote working demonstrated that technologies are available to effectively work from home for many organisations. Whilst many businesses would not necessarily encourage a purely remote working model, and clearly it is inappropriate for some businesses, it is likely that organisations will promote a blend of remote working with being present on site as the restrictions ease. Immediately, this will be necessary on account of social distancing, but organisations are bound to question whether or not they require their current Leasehold commitments in the event that staff can effectively work from home.
As businesses try to find a “new normal”, the continued financial pressures caused by COVID 19 coupled with the flexibility afforded by working from home will impact on staff and staffing requirements. Longer term, whereas pre-lockdown many businesses would not have supported large-scale working from home, we have now seen both the extent to which it can work as well as the limitations. Businesses will want to consider what if any working from a company site is required, what is lost by not meeting face-to-face, and which staff are most impacted and why? Centralising certain functions may be more feasible now, leading to cost-saving restructuring. Businesses may be able to attract staff who live further away, or perhaps make themselves more attractive to parents or carers, because a presence on site is no longer essential.
For some businesses, there will be a necessary reduction in headcount, or negotiation with staff to reduce pay and/or working hours. Although many staff are still furloughed, with the furlough scheme due to end in a matter of weeks, the pressures on business are about to increase and increasing numbers of redundancies are likely. Where it is proposed to dismiss 20 or more employees at an establishment by reason of redundancy, or in order to effect a change in terms and conditions, the law requires that employers engage in a minimum period of collective consultation with “appropriate representatives”. The penalties for failure to do this, or failure to do this at an early enough stage, are significant, so early strategic consideration of these matters will be key.
Where possible, staff need to work with their employers to try to find alternatives to redundancies, as we all look to future recovery.
If you have any queries about any of the issues referred to above, please contact Anna Youngs