Uncertainty is something the UK boardroom is becoming accustomed to. Covid-19 followed hot on the heels of Brexit and neither is quite over yet.
The second half of 2020 is likely to be dominated by headlines about a “Second Wave” (including the concept of localised lockdowns) and a “No Deal Brexit”, presenting business leaders with the challenges of how to manage both the health of their company and the wellbeing of their staff.
Looking at the commercial practicalities first, there are a number of issues that directors need to be mindful of as they plan strategically for a more flexible future.
One way that some bosses have managed the impact of Covid-19 on cashflow has been to reduce salaries. However, PAYE may still be due on the full amount, given PAYE liabilities are based on the amount of pay an employee is entitled to. If you are considering pay cuts as part of your business continuity planning, make sure that an agreement (as opposed to an imposition) is in place prior to the change coming into effect and that the contract amendment is in writing.
Whilst we are on the subject of contracts, now is an appropriate time to review the employment contracts of all staff to accommodate the potential need for flexibility in the future, should it be needed. Operationally, there may be a number of steps that could be taken to assist your business to respond to future uncertainty, such as introducing clauses to allow the company to require staff to work from home or lay-off terms to manage demand, such as when the government’s furlough scheme is no longer available.
Covid-19 caught us on the hop, with many employees suddenly finding themselves working from home, whether they liked the idea or not. Since then, those employees have put up with doing their job from the kitchen, the sofa or even the dressing table, in the company of children, dogs, cats and other distractions. This was perfectly acceptable in an unprecedented emergency situation, but staff will be expecting a more structured and managed approach in the longer term.
There are a number of considerations to bear in mind, not least the health and safety implication for individuals having to spend many hours a day at a substandard workstation. Back problems, headaches and other ailments may not be occurring in the physical office, but they are still happening at work. Guidance on “temporary” working from home arrangements is currently under review, and in cases where home working might transition from temporary to regular, employers need to be prepared because the duties of care and for providing a safe system of work, continue.
Now is the time to introduce a robust Work from Home policy, and not just because some of your staff have rather enjoyed ditching their daily commute. Covid-19 has shown us all that we need to expect the unexpected. Resilience and agility are key to business survival and a well-thought-out policy, that enables staff to work from home easily and manages the compliance implications of this “new normal” will protect the entire organisation from future crises, whatever they may be.
Such a policy should ensure that the personal circumstances of each employee and how this affects their ability or desire to work from home, as well as the equipment they use to do their job remotely, are taken into account. I would like to suggest that it bears in mind (no pun intended) also takes into account the mental health of remote workers, which brings me neatly to my next point.
There is overwhelming evidence that lockdown has taken its toll on the mental health of the nation. Your employees will undoubtedly be looking forward to a return to some degree of normality and any future uncertainty could adversely effect on their wellbeing.
I would like to challenge all boards to ask themselves what support they have available within their organisation to support colleagues who are or maybe struggling. Bearing in mind the fact that procedures you may have had in place within the workplace are unlikely to translate to home working, how are you protecting the wellbeing of remote working staff? What measures can you put in place to ensure they do not fall through the cracks as you reorganise your working practices?
I have spoken before about some of the steps that can be taken when employees return to the workplace, including in my article about How bosses need to look after their own mental health in order to support their team. One suggestion in that article focused on the ‘back to work’ interview. This is something that could also be used to discuss future needs, should something similar happen again. Sharing your own thoughts and plans for any future scenarios from a business perspective can be reassuring and, above all, can give the employee an opportunity to vent their own fears and frustrations. One-to-one sessions like this can be an invaluable way to kickstart communication after a period of isolation and major change.
Finally, I would urge employers to manage the expectations of their employees and provide clear direction as to what is expected of them going forward. Uncertainty in the world is hard enough to cope with. Uncertainty at work can be even tougher. Communication is key.