Businesses have reacted quickly to constantly changing circumstances to adapt to the unprecedented pressures that coronavirus has caused. Many became ‘virtual’ businesses overnight, grappling with the practicality of mass home working and workplace closures.
For businesses whose staff were unable to work from home, the Government’s Job Retention Scheme provided significant financial support. However, as the guidance has evolved on a weekly basis it also has caused additional headaches for business leaders who need to act quickly.
It is, however, now apparent that the outbreak will have a far deeper and longer effect on the economy.
What’s next for businesses?
Whilst some companies will be able to maintain ‘business as usual’, those operating within more heavily impacted sectors will need to consider the ways in which expenditure can be reduced or if the structure of the workforce is right for the changing landscape.
In adopting cash protection strategies, many employers will be forced to consider making redundancies or implementing permanent changes to terms such as pay and/or working hours. Those doing so will need to bear in mind their obligations to carry out individual and potentially collective consultation of between 30-45 days with affected staff.
Collective consultation is triggered by a proposal to make redundant or dismiss and re-engage 20 or more employees employed at any one establishment in any period of 90 days. Broadly speaking an establishment is a place of work, so each site a business operates will typically be an establishment in its own right.
Commencing consultation quickly will be key for those who have furloughed staff, to ensure as much of the consultation process is completed before the anticipated expiry of the Job Retention Scheme (30 June 2020 at the time of writing). Conducting consultation remotely will raise practical hurdles that we are helping employers to overcome.
Life after lockdown
Further challenges may arise when lockdown begins to be lifted and employees are able to return to work.
Some employees may refuse to return to work on the basis of health and safety concerns, particularly those that are vulnerable and have to face the prospect of commuting on the tube, train or bus. Others may refuse to work or carry out certain duties if they consider the measures that their employer has taken to ensure their safety to be insufficient. For example, how do you keep staff who work in a pod of four desks 1 or 2 metres apart?
Employers will have to handle such concerns sensitively in light of the applicable legislation, whilst attempting to remobilise their workforce as soon as possible. Businesses wishing to operate a staggered return to work will need to carefully consider the order in which staff return, utilising objective criteria and avoiding inadvertently discriminating against protected groups.
Regardless of the approach adopted, an open and transparent dialogue should be maintained about the impact of coronavirus on business, in order to manage expectations and reduce the risk of protracted and expensive tribunal claims. Indeed, the next few months will be crucial for employers, and the approach taken may make all the difference.
The longer-term impact
It is also a time to take stock of some of the longer-term impacts, principally the way large numbers of employees have been able to work productively remotely.
We are likely to see an increased demand for flexibility from employees, which will be harder to refuse. As such, it is prudent to consider what flexibility has worked and how this could be advantageous (for example, reducing travel costs, office space etc.). Preparing for this, and adapting policies and contracts, will get you ahead of the curve.
At a time when events are moving quickly and fluidly, it has never been more important to plan for and address those matters which we can control.