Ten issues for HR to consider when the coronavirus lockdown ends

Author: Sarah Byrne

HR needs to begin planning how it will manage a return to work when government coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions are lifted. Here are 10 areas to think about now.

1. Health and safety

Health and safety concerns will remain at a heightened level as employees return to work, and employers need to provide reassurance that they have safeguarding measures in place. Clearly visible signs and posters, and the continued availability of hand sanitisers, is essential. Employees may also be anxious about travelling to work on public transport if there are no alternatives available to them. One solution may be to provide additional flexibility such as allowing staff to start work earlier or later in the day to avoid the busiest times. Employers will also need to manage the return of equipment that has been borrowed for homeworking.

2. Business premises

While social distancing remains in place, it may not be possible to accommodate all employees in the same space at the same time. A phased return to work may be one option, with some people coming back earlier than others. However, employers could encounter resistance from employees who feel that they are being recalled too early and from others who are unhappy that they have not been recalled sooner - so a clearly reasoned and well-communicated plan is important. Practically, workplaces will need to be made ready. In an office environment, many organisations do not have sufficient space to seat people two metres apart. There may be a need to rearrange furniture or install partition walls. It may also be possible to maintain a distance between desks by alternating the days or times that different groups occupy the workplace, minimising the number of people present at any one time. Other restrictions may be needed, governing for instance how many people can use a lift, share a lunch area or be in a meeting room.

3. Handling complaints

Grievances may to come to the fore and could be wide-ranging. Conflict could arise between employee groups with different experiences of lockdown: for instance, employees who have/have not been furloughed; workers who have/have not been redeployed; and staff who have worked from home/continued to go in to work. Grievances might relate to differences in pay, reductions in salary or changes to contracts. Employers could face discrimination claims if, for instance, a predominantly male group continued to go in to work and was given a bonus for doing so. HR will need to handle such complaints swiftly and effectively. Employers could consider having a specific structure or team to deal with these grievances and ensure that they are managed consistently, sensitively and in a timely way. There will need to be a balance between maintaining confidentiality and being honest and transparent. The challenge will be to reintegrate different groups into the workplace and ensure unity.

4. Recruitment and retention

The lockdown has thrown up a multitude of issues relating to hiring new staff and retaining existing employees. Some organisations have had to shelve recruitment plans entirely, while others such as the NHS and food retail have had to increase their workforces in direct response to the pandemic. With many organisations having significantly increased the range of work people do online, it is possible, particularly while social distancing restrictions remain in place, that more interviews will be conducted via online video, and that new starters will go through induction remotely too. Redundancies are also inevitable, and although the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme offers a short-term alternative, when it ends many organisations will have to reduce their workforce. This raises the question of how best to move employees from furlough to redundancy. Employers also need to think about the best way to reintegrate workers coming back from furlough whose positions are being retained. Similarly, employees that have been redeployed to alternative roles may be recalled to their original jobs and adjusting to this may take some time. In addition, organisations may lose employees who decide that they no longer wish to return to their pre-lockdown job or way of working.

5. Flexible working

In the weeks and months ahead, employers could see an increase in requests to work flexibly from staff who were previously based at the business premises but who have since adapted to homeworking. More flexible working practices may have made it easier for workers to manage caring responsibilities and to save on the cost and stress of a daily commute. Line managers who previously resisted remote working may recognise that employees can be efficient when out of sight. However, if an employer suddenly receives a significant influx of flexible working requests, it could prove difficult to prioritise them. Following a return to work, managing employees' new expectations and balancing the needs of the business could be particularly challenging. Alternatively, the impetus towards increased flexible working may come from organisations themselves as they decide which elements of current working practices to continue after the lockdown. With office space at a premium, some organisations may find that it is more cost effective for employees to continue to work remotely.

6. Annual leave

For many employees, annual leave will continue to accrue during lockdown despite the myriad of changes to working patterns. The Government made an announcement on 26 March that workers for whom it has not been reasonably practicable for them to take annual leave as a result of the effects of coronavirus will be able to carry over up to four weeks of statutory annual leave entitlement into the next two leave years, following the introduction of the Working Time (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020. However, this does not necessarily provide a one-size-fits-all solution. As one respondent to our recent coronavirus pulse survey said: "Our organisation does not include any key workers so the Government's announcement to allow leave to be carried forward for two years is not helpful to us. Staff do not understand this and are not going to be happy about being forced to take leave when they don't want to." The challenge will be to reconcile a potential influx of annual leave requests at the end of the calendar year with managing business needs.

7. Mental health

HR teams have done a lot to support employees' mental health during lockdown. The need to continue doing this will continue as people return to work, and HR should think through how the support on offer needs to change. Employees may have been ill or have suffered a family bereavement as a result of coronavirus. Others may have to come to terms with the death of a friend or colleague, which makes returning to work particularly difficult. It is crucial that employers treat people with compassion, and that they remind employees of the support and resources, including employee assistance programmes, mental health first-aiders and counselling, available to them.

8. Training needs

New employees entering the workplace for the first time will need to be trained and accredited where appropriate. But retraining and reaccreditation may be needed for employees who have not been working during the pandemic, for instance in roles involving manual handling, physical fitness or other specific skills that have not been used for some time. There will also be a need to resume fire drills and issue reminders about first-aid arrangements and other office protocols.

9. Reputational issues

Organisations may need to consider the impact of decisions made during the coronavirus pandemic on their brand, and take the opportunity to capitalise on any positive impressions they have made. When the pandemic is over, the way in which the organisation is perceived by its employees and by potential new recruits may differ from how it was previously considered. Some employees may start to look for alternative employment if they feel that their employer did not handle the situation well, or they may feel less secure in their current role, and potential new recruits may be deterred.

10. Contingency planning

Looking ahead, employers should make contingency plans in case there is a second wave of coronavirus and limits are reintroduced. From the first government restrictions in mid-March to the lockdown announced on 23 March, many organisations had to react quickly and implement new measures in an almost impossibly tight turnaround time, often developing solutions as they went along. What are the learning points from this and what steps could be taken now to ease the transition if it becomes necessary to do it again?