By Floyd Graham
FOR the last two decades the notion that innovations in industrial and manufacturing processes and a digitised professional services industry would lead to a shorter working week and increased leisure time has been a common feature of work analysis in the United Kingdom.
The idea that we may all be required to work less or, at the very least, differently has now been brought back into sharp focus by the current COVID-19 pandemic. On 31 January, the UK saw the first reported case of viral infection and it can scarcely be believed that by 20 March, all restaurants, pubs, clubs, and indoor sport and leisure facilities were ordered to close.
On 23 March these measures were tightened further, with wide-ranging restrictions made on freedom of movement, enforceable in law. At the time of writing, it is inconceivable that there will be any relaxation of the current lockdown in the near future.
What does all of this mean for the world of work?
The arrival of COVID-19 took away control of the working environment and created an acute balancing act between economic survival and employee health and safety. The government’s introduction of the furlough scheme offers short term support for the current suspension of commercial activity but not a solution.
In the meantime, employers will be occupied with thoughts of business survival and once this is achieved some very real considerations as to what form the structure and dynamics of the workforce will take in a post COVID-19 era.
Will working from home become the new norm? Will there still be a need to have offices and the cost of maintaining them?
If nothing else, COVID-19 has ignited a massive experiment in working life and is allowing businesses to test the various scenarios to see how well they would cope if the current enforced changes became a permanent reality in some form or another. Change of this magnitude will certainly require a cultural and psychological shift on both sides and great preparation will be required if it is to have any chance of success.
For most businesses, having an office is not merely a place to house its workforce, it is also seen as a symbol of success, serving as a magnet to attract custom and to recruit the brightest and the best. Some employers hold the view that true team working requires physical proximity which cannot be achieved through working remotely. It remains to be seen whether the experience and lessons learnt from imposed home working changes that view.
What about businesses with production processes that cannot be performed from home?
Will the push to drive down costs and recover commercial stability result in permanently reduced wages, reduced head count, and increased outsourcing? These are only a few of the vexed questions employers will need to address during and post lockdown.
The exploring and review of all scenarios begins now and employers are well advised to create, maintain and retain the figures and statistical information on which reliance can be based.
It should also be part of the current HR strategy for any employer with employees on furlough leave, to have an established method of global communication with them. COVID-19 has presented businesses with a sea of uncharted water to navigate and this will be the same for employees who are not only pre-occupied with staying safe but will also be concerned with what the future holds. Regular contact has an invaluable role to play in maintaining morale and motivation.
What is the position of the law in all of this?
The government has been keen to point out that the emergency measures introduced to tackle COVID-19 do not displace existing employment law. Even in these challenging times, employers that disregard existing law, do so at their own peril and at a time when they can ill afford to get it wrong.
It has come as no surprise that employers caught with the suddenness of the COVID-19 lockdown and the immediate impact on revenue have put employees into the furlough scheme with a 20 per cent reduction in pay. Employees faced with the prospect of losing jobs have agreed to this reduction with the mind-set that when they eventually emerge from furlough leave, wages will revert to their pre-furlough position. From an employer’s position much will depend on the terms of any agreement put in place to vary the existing contract at the time furlough leave began.
While it may be possible for employers to argue that any change was for a substantial reason justifying the change, maintaining that position in the absence of a proper consultation process may, post-lockdown, result in a demotivated workforce at precisely the time when full engagement is required. This, added to the cost and inconvenience of claims from employees, will become a major and unwelcome distraction.
The acid test will be when the 80 per cent of government support is no longer available in the form of furlough leave, as to the level of redundancies that may take place in businesses as a result. At this point, processes will become vital if conflict is to be avoided.
The spotlight will largely be on consultation obligations, individual and collective. The accuracy of information held in personnel files will also be of paramount importance in effecting risk-managed change.
It is a safe bet that the road to recovery will be long and challenging for both employers and employees. Returning to an optimised way of working will require enormous effort. Individuals may well be affected by bereavement, while the uncertainty over the normal operation of schools will undoubtedly present challenges for employees with children. All factors which will need to be considered and managed when normal service is resumed.
For information and support do not hesitate to contact Floyd Graham or a member of the Employment Law Team of FG Solicitors or visit our website for answers to frequently asked questions relating to COVID-19.