13 Jul 2020

At our recent People Summit Series online event, we set out to explore how businesses are preparing to re-open or ramp up their operations as lockdown is eased and how recent events are re-shaping their longer-term people strategy.

Our attendees came from a range of organisations, from emerging companies to global corporations and social ventures. They spanned several sectors, including technology, media, retail, manufacturing, R&D, investment, recruitment, professional services and agriculture.

This article explores some common themes across our group discussions.

Where we are now

As employers look to re-shape how work is organised to meet both Government guidance and customer demand, they may need to start by untangling what is currently in place. The immediacy of lockdown measures required businesses to put in place contingency arrangements at short notice, to keep things going as best they could, whilst large parts of the economy shut down.

The current landscape sees businesses dealing with staff across various categories:

  • On-site: employees who are site-critical and have continued to attend their normal workplace during lockdown.
  • Working from home: employees whose roles are needed but the work can be done from home (even if it was not before).
  • Furlough: employees who are not currently required to work but whose jobs are being retained, with financial support provided by the state through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.
  • At risk: employees whose roles will likely cease to exist, whether because of the financial impact of lockdown or the emergence of a new way of doing things.

The current Government guidance remains clear that employees should continue to work from home, where it is possible to do so. Where workplaces are open (or re-opening), employers are required to carry out detailed, sector-specific risk assessments and consult with employees in advance, to ensure that their premises and working practices are “COVID-19 secure”.

We also now know that the furlough scheme will be gradually phased out by 31 October 2020, with employers asked to take on more of the financial burden from August onwards.

Flexibility vs. business need

Many organisations are grappling with how to manage a wide range of individual circumstances, in the context of running an efficient and cohesive operation.

Some employees who are currently working from home would like to return to the workplace as soon as possible. This is particularly the case for more junior or inexperienced staff (who often need greater levels of interaction, supervision and learning through observation) and those for whom the workplace is an important social hub. We also heard that some senior managers struggle with managing teams remotely and much prefer the increased levels of day-to-day oversight that office working brings.

Conversely, many employees feel liberated by the ability to work from home – which allows greater flexibility to balance their jobs with home life and avoid long (and often unproductive) commutes. For some, there is also the short-term issue of childcare and home-schooling, which may make it difficult for them to return immediately.

We discussed the tensions that this may cause, particularly if different groups of employees (or even individuals within teams) were treated differently.

Many employees will have a clear sense of how and where they would like to work in the future, having had a prolonged period of working from home or furlough. We have heard several examples of employers using periodic pulse surveys, to gain a snapshot of employee opinion on how they have coped with lockdown and what they might like to see in the future.

This is a sensible and valuable part of the planning process. However, we think employers should exercise caution in going beyond this and giving employees a wide discretion to dictate their preferred permanent working arrangements, unless it is an inherent part of the organisation’s culture to offer maximum flexibility. Some large businesses, such as Twitter, have told all staff that they can work from home permanently, if they wish to. But not all businesses have operations that are suited to that approach, or have the scale and infrastructure to absorb any inefficiencies that it may create.

The risk is that employee preference is considered at the expense of what the business actually needs (and what individual teams need) to operate effectively. In many cases, it will be employers who need to retain flexibility, as they adapt to new ways of working and changing government guidance.

Consultation with employees is an important part of the return to work process, particularly when the employer proposes to re-open the workplace. It is also a necessary part of any risk assessment. However, we think it will be imperative for most organisations to develop a clear plan for how they will operate post-lockdown, before they engage with staff on how it impacts them individually.

Start with what you need as an employer, rather than what each employee would like. This will then allow you to consider and accommodate personal circumstances within a clear business-oriented framework where appropriate.

If there is some scope for flexibility within your planning (for example, regarding the number of days employees will be expected to attend the workplace), you can say that. But any such flexibility should work both ways. There will likely be a period of trial and error for employers who introduce “hybrid” working from home / office working arrangements, so be clear that it is subject to change.

Strong and visible leadership

In these uncertain times, people are looking for transparent leadership and decisive action.

If they are returning to the workplace, they want to know that it is safe and be told exactly what they can and cannot do. If they are working from home, they want to know what plans (if any) there are for them to go back to the office.

If they are remaining on furlough, they want to understand the long-term future of their role, what may be needed of them and when. Or they may want certainty over whether furlough can be extended until at least September, to enable them to get through the school summer holidays.

And if they have been asked to take a pay cut, they want to know that everyone is being treated in the same way (including those at the top of the organisation). Our anecdotal experience is that employees have been willing to share some short-term financial pain, as long as they are reassured that everyone is in it together.

A sense of fairness is very important, as is regular communication about the state of the business, particularly when news reports suggest difficult times ahead for our economy.

Many employers have a weekly (or even daily) bulletin from management – and video is often a good medium to deliver such updates. We have also heard of “Ask the CEO” webinar sessions, during which the head of the organisation answers questions posed anonymously by staff.

The importance of mental health

Mental wellbeing was a significant theme across all of our sessions, particularly in the context of Mental Health Awareness week.

The combination of upheaval at work, challenging personal circumstances (including caring and home-schooling) and the heightened panic caused by a frightening public health crisis has placed many employees under significant emotional strain. There is also a recognition that the signs of mental health issues are far more difficult to spot when managing staff remotely.

We heard a variety of ideas for putting in place social and support structures, as well as encouraging people to speak up if they are struggling. For example, some employers have introduced a “buddy” system in addition to team-specific interactions, under which every employee must call someone else they would not normally work with to check in. Although managers have a responsibility to ensure the well-being of their team members through regular individual and group interaction, employees at all levels across the business can be encouraged to take responsibility for looking after each other.

There has been increased signposting of mental health support services, whether offered by the employer (such as a helpline or Employee Assistance Programme) or through publicly available sources. And now the most stringent restrictions are being lifted, more colleagues are starting to meet up for socially distanced walks in the park, where geographically feasible

Many employees find the ubiquitous online quizzes and social events very helpful in maintaining a sense of team spirit and collegiality. However, individual channels of communication are often seen as the most effective. Encourage people to take the time to check in on each other and ensure that managers / team leaders see it as an integral part of their role. And ensure that there is support in place for those at the top as well.

What does the future hold?

As we now begin to emerge from lockdown, employers have some big decisions to make about how they wish to operate in the future.

We have heard several gloomy forecasts about the furlough scheme merely delaying the inevitable wave of mass redundancies that will hit over the summer and autumn. There are already reports of significant job cuts (particularly in hard-hit sectors), as businesses look to survive before they can thrive.

But we also know from experience that cutting too hard, too fast can bring greater pitfalls. Where it is financially possible (even if it is not financially optimal in the short term), there is a good case for businesses to hold their nerve and minimise redundancies. Make full use of the flexible furlough scheme where you can and take the time now to work out what you really need in the long-term.

For forward-thinking organisations, there is an opportunity to steal a march on competitors and embrace what the future of work has to offer. It is a time to think deeply and creatively about what skills your organisation needs, who already has those skills or is best equipped to learn them and where gaps may best be filled by intelligent recruitment.

If geography becomes less important for your business operations and more work is conducted remotely, this potentially opens up a wider talent pool. Jobs will no longer be limited to those within commuting distance of your workplace. They could be done anywhere, whether in the UK or internationally. Having individuals based from home in unfamiliar jurisdictions does not need to be a complicated or expensive exercise, as long as you have a broad understanding of the regulatory landscape and access to good advice.

Smart investment in technology and a refreshed look at your real estate strategy may allow you to re-organise where work is done, perhaps moving to a permanent hybrid office-work/home-working arrangement as the norm. You may already have had some good insight into how remote-working has impacted mental health, innovation and organisational culture – and many good ideas have been shared across our People Summit Series sessions.

Continue to use these temporary or transitional working arrangements as a testing ground for what works best for your organisation.

At Taylor Vinters, our mission is to help our clients get the best from their workforce globally. There has never been a better time for employers to focus on doing this. 

Dominic Holmes is Partner and Head of Employment at international law firm, Taylor Vinters.

The Taylor Vinters People Summit Series brings together strategic decision-makers, experienced HR practitioners and senior executives responsible for managing, retaining and attracting talented people. If you would like to participate in future events, please contact Kathryn Alger.