Another u-turn, as the media like to tell us? Or is the Government reacting like you, as business owners and leaders.
The PM’s statement in Parliament, Tuesday 22nd September, on raising the UK’s Coronavirus Alert Level to 4 had not yet ended and employers were asking the question – “does that mean all office staff are working from home again?”
It is a political and media frenzy, with everybody pushing their views about the Government and their Advisers; who in reality are responding to the ever-changing numbers of cases and the overwhelming amount of information that is being produced about COVID-19.
For employers, however, the Government has probably given its clearest message since the easing of the national lockdown started regarding working conditions, and the need for UK business to carry on.
“5.1 Who is allowed to go to work? Source: UK Gov – FAQs – Updated 22nd September 2020
With the exception of the organisations listed in this guidance on closing businesses and venues, the government has not required any other businesses to close to the public – it is important for business to carry on.
To help contain the virus, office workers who can work effectively from home should do so over the winter. Where an employer, in consultation with their employee, judges an employee can carry out their normal duties from home they should do so. Public sector employees working in essential services, including education settings, should continue to go into work where necessary. Anyone else who cannot work from home should go to their place of work. The risk of transmission can be substantially reduced if COVID-19 Secure guidelines are followed closely. Extra consideration should be given to those people at higher risk.”
The health, safety and wellbeing of the workforce is paramount for the UK population and overall economy. Exemplars in the retail, construction, financial and leisure markets are all used as best practice models and are setting standards and following the rules to keep their employees safe and well. However, according to the Government (January 2020) SME’s (those with 0 to 249 employees) accounted for 99.9% of the business population and many do not have the resources to put in place complicated processes and high-tech apps and are constantly having to react day to day to new rules, trying to keep their business afloat and their staff employed. Yet these SME’s are coping and surviving by following the principles set out by the Government and taking advice and counsel from their trusted partners.
So, whilst it looks like the Government has said all employees who “can” work from home, should work from home, there are numerous issues for the employer to address. Who answers the telephone, who collects the post (yes mail still gets delivered), who makes sure the building is secure, what if the employer is concerned about the productivity and performance of some or all of its employees, how does the employer even begin to track the productivity of employees, the list goes on.
One thing is clear though, one size does not fit all for the employer or indeed the employee; not every employee wants to work from home, they may not have the right environment or tools to work from home and they may be genuinely concerned about their own productivity. The key to how to cope is set out in the second line of the aforementioned Government guidance – “Where an employer, in consultation with their employee, judges an employee can carry out their normal duties from home they should do so.”
Although the qualifying criteria of working effectively is lacking in this sentence, it’s reasonable to assume that its inclusion is implied. Furthermore, ‘effectively’ needn’t be restricted to productivity and could be applied to other key aspects of the role, e.g. there may have been no decrease in the number of calls an employee has dealt with from home, but if the employer considers their quality suffered due to a lack of in-person supervision and / or colleagues to bounce things off in real time, it would be open to the employer to conclude that the employee cannot work ‘effectively‘ from home and so require their return to the office (subject to it being COVID secure and there not being other reasons why the employee shouldn’t be required to do so).
Therefore, discussions with employees are crucial – if it works then carry on, but if it doesn’t or didn’t work with the employee working from home, talk to them, be honest, explain what you intend to do to address this and listen to what they have to say about it and adapt your proposals as necessary and appropriate.
Many businesses have actually survived the first lockdown, and coped with the challenges of carrying on normal operations, including for example, sending entire call-centres home to work overnight (Santander), furloughing large numbers of employees and then beginning to open up under challenging conditions and now they are faced with more uncertainty.
What now I hear you ask?
Well; the health and wellbeing of the UK’s population is critical above all else and the survival of the UK economy and your business as part of that is key. So, follow the advice from the Government – Coronavirus Outbreak FAQ’s – what you can and can’t do. As a business, consider the lessons you learnt from the first lock-down in March 2020, when you had never faced such a challenge, and remember that your employees and workers are generally behind you all the way.
Most of all be prepared for it to change again. Businesses are, despite the media hype, actually very creative and resilient when it comes to tackling changing scenarios and solving problems. Remember we are at now at Level 4 and that is only one step away from the final level and another national lockdown.
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