A return to working from home - five things for HR to consider

Author: Graham Brown

Latest announcements from the UK Government on managing the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic include recommending employees should once again work from home and new measures to subsidise wages. Graham Brown looks at the implications of these new announcements for employers and how HR can ensure they and their organisations are well prepared for the possible introduction of further strict lockdowns at a local or national level.

The coronavirus pandemic has placed huge strain on organisations and HR professionals, with rapid changes to the rules and regulations on what they, their employees and their customers can and cannot do. Latest announcements mean the Government's previous plan of getting people back to work was reversed when Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that employees should once again work from home wherever possible. Furthermore, many areas of the UK are currently under local lockdowns restrictions, and a second national lockdown cannot be ruled out. It is important, therefore, for HR to be as prepared as possible for every possible scenario.

Monitor infection rates in the local area

The first thing all HR professionals should do is monitor infection rates in their local area, so they can anticipate if and when a lockdown may be imposed. Local lockdowns have already been implemented in various towns and cities across the UK in recent weeks, including Leicester, Birmingham, Aberdeen, Caerphilly and areas of Greater Manchester, and additional lockdowns in Northern Ireland. We have seen that the Government can introduce these local lockdowns suddenly, with little prior warning - so it is good practice for HR to monitor the situation in their area, using data from the Coronavirus Infection Survey, published weekly by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). HR should also monitor their local council websites, as these are frequently updated with the latest information on the impact of COVID-19 in their area, including any imposition of lockdown rules and/or changes to services such as public transport.

A risk assessment of what impact a local lockdown might have on the business should also be done - is it likely to require the business to close, for example, or to shorten its opening times? Local lockdown rules recently imposed on businesses in Bolton, for example, have prevented venues such as casinos and bowling alleys from opening at all, while cinemas, theatres, beauty salons and various other leisure venues must close between 10pm and 5am each day.

HR should also know where its employees are based. Even if the organisation itself is not in an area where restrictions are imposed, some of its employees may live in areas covered by lockdowns that might affect their ability to travel to work. Currently, no areas with local lockdowns in place have placed restrictions on people entering or leaving these areas to get to work, but future lockdowns could impose stricter rules on movement.

Ensure employees are able to work from home

On 22 September, the Prime Minister announced a return to the Government's advice that had been in place during the national lockdown that "workers should work from home if they can". To make sure people are able effectively to work effectively from home, HR should look to review what happened under the national lockdown and learn from their experiences. Did everyone have the equipment they needed to work from home, for example? Were there any issues in communicating with staff during this time? While office and IT equipment are not always HR's responsibility, HR professionals are often well placed to check that employees have everything they need to work effectively from home. For example, Laura Reilly, Head of HR and Compliance at Nicholsons Chartered Accountants in Lincoln, has been heavily involved in her organisation's planning for a future lockdown. "I'm a member of what's become known as the 'war cabinet' within the business, which is meeting regularly to make sure we are prepared," says Reilly. "Just last week we signed off on the purchase of some laptops and other IT equipment, such as printers and broadband dongles, to help make sure all of our employees will be able to work from home."

HR should also be liaising with managers and employees to identify any training needs related to working from home, such as how to use video conferencing software and other remote working technology.

Kelly Swingler, from HR consultancy The Chrysalis Crew, has spent the last few months helping clients prepare for a return to homeworking, She emphasises the importance of preparing managers to lead their teams remotely. "What now needs to happen is the training and development of managers and leaders who are not used to leading remote teams, and who are struggling without micromanaging and command and control type behaviours," she says. "Trust and autonomy are key, and many still do not have this at the core of how they work."

Support employee wellbeing

As well as offering practical support for employees to continue working from home, HR should also be putting plans in place to provide support for employees' wellbeing. Some employees might be anxious about the prospect of having to return to working from home, or of another full lockdown being implemented. They might be concerned about losing their jobs, or uneasy about the prospect of having to travel into work when infection rates are high. HR should be alert to these concerns and should seek to provide support for employees' mental health.

Some of this will take the form of providing training, such as resilience courses for employees and mental health awareness workshops for line managers. These can help give employees the skills they need to cope mentally with returning to homeworking, or with being asked to continue coming into work while others work from home. They can also help ensure that managers are able to identify and provide support to individuals who appear to be struggling.

HR may also need to make long-term plans to allow employees to follow their own preferences about where to work. This might involve enabling individuals who want to work from home to do so, while also providing a safe workplace for anyone who wants to continue coming in. Nicholsons Chartered Accountants, for example, is implementing plans that will allow a 'hybrid' model of working. "From a wellbeing and health point of view, I don't think some of our employees will cope well with just being at home all the time again," says Reilly. "We've decided to get some Perspex screens installed in the office, so that if people choose to carry on coming into the office, they can work safely alongside their colleagues. Regardless of whether we have another lockdown, this is the model we are moving towards - to have enough hotdesking space for people to come in and have socially-distanced meetings, while ensuring everyone has the equipment and support they need to work from home. We want to give people the option of doing what works best for them. Our long-term aim is to have a 50/50 split between people working from home and working in the office, so that we can be more agile as an organisation."

Swingler shares these concerns about the impact a return to working from home might have on some employees. "Wellbeing is going to be key moving forward. Introverts seem to have loved lockdown, extroverts not so much. The lack of interaction and collaboration is affecting energy levels, productivity, confidence and motivation for some employees. So we need to do something about this, particularly as we move into winter with shorter days and longer nights accompanied with bad weather and less sunlight," she says.

Focus on developing a flexible workforce

While it is important for HR to provide flexibility for employees on where they choose to work, businesses also stand to benefit from building a more agile workforce. Even without further lockdowns being imposed, workforces are facing huge disruption. From 28 September, people in England will be required by law to self-isolate if they test positive for coronavirus or are instructed to self-isolate by NHS Test and Trace because they have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive. There will be fines for those breaking the rules, starting at £1,000 and increasing to £10,000 for repeat offenders. If an employer knows that an employee has been instructed to self-isolate, it will commit an offence if it requires or allows them to attend the workplace.

Any employee experiencing coronavirus symptoms is required to stay at home and self-isolate for at least 10 days - and, if they live with others, the whole household must self-isolate for 14 days. Anyone who has been identified as being 'clinically extremely vulnerable' due to having underlying health conditions, such as cancer or severe respiratory conditions, is still being advised to carry on working from home wherever possible. Moreover, quarantine rules currently require people to self-isolate for 14 days when arriving into the UK from certain countries, while the NHS 'Test and Trace' system also requires people who have come into contact with someone who has had a positive test result for coronavirus to self-isolate for 14 days.

These self-isolation rules mean it is important for employers to have cover in place should any of their employees be unable to work. One way of doing this is to 'cross-train' staff to fulfil more than one role. Employers should look closely at which parts of their business were most affected by the national lockdown and make sure they have employees who they can redeploy to these areas if needed. "During the national lockdown, we brought some of our accounts team over to payroll to help us calculate furlough payments," says Reilly. "We recognise how useful this was for us, so we now have some cross-training going on between our accounts and audit teams, which means that people will be able to transfer between these departments if we need them to."

Become familiar with the new Job Support Scheme, lay-offs and redundancies

On 24 September, the Government announced a new Job Support Scheme (JSS) to replace the previous Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) - or 'furlough scheme'. The JSS will open on 1 November, the day after the CJRS closes, and it will run for six months, until the end of April 2021.

Under the new scheme, an employer will be able to put its employees on 'short-time working' by reducing the number of hours that employees work each week. The employer will continue to pay its employees their normal wage for any time they work but their pay for any hours not worked will be split between the employer, the Government (through wage support) and the employee (through a wage reduction). The Government will pay for a third of the employee's hours not worked at an employee's usual hourly wage - up to a maximum of £697.92 a month - with the employer also contributing a third. This will ensure employees earn a minimum of 77% of their normal wages (ie at least a third of their hours will be paid normally, and they will receive two-thirds pay for any hours not worked).

The JSS will not be open to all employers, however. In particular, large employers will only be eligible if they meet a financial assessment test that shows their turnover is lower now than before they began to experience difficulties related to coronavirus. There will be no such test for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). What constitutes an SME under the JSS has not been specified, but the Government typically defines these as any company that meets two of the following three criteria: an annual turnover of less than £25m; fewer than 250 employees; and/or gross assets of less than £12.5m. HM Treasury also expects that any large employers using the JSS will not make dividend payments or share buybacks while accessing the grant.

Moreover, employees must also meet certain criteria to be eligible for payments under the scheme. They must have been on their employer's Pay As You Earn (PAYE) payroll on or before 23 September 2020 and, for the first three months of the scheme, they must work at least a third of their usual hours. After three months, the Government will consider whether to increase the minimum hours threshold. Employees will be able to cycle on and off the scheme and they do not need to work the same pattern each month, but each short-time working arrangement they commit to must cover a minimum of seven days.

However, not all organisations will be eligible for the new JSS and not all employers will want to use it, as the Government grant is not as generous as was the CJRS. Many employers may instead opt to temporarily 'lay off' their staff, or make them permanently redundant.

An employee who has been laid off continues to be employed but the employer's contractual obligation to provide work or to pay full salary is temporarily suspended. In a short-time working arrangement, employees work fewer days or hours than normal. Employees are still entitled to some pay even on days they do no work at all - the minimum 'statutory guarantee pay' that employers must provide is £30 a day for five days in any three-month period, unless employees usually earn less than £30 a day.

Implementing such arrangements is not straightforward, however. Employers can only impose a lay-off or short-time working arrangement if there is an express or implied contractual right to do so. Where there is no contractual right, employers must seek the employee's express consent to a period of lay-off or short-time working. An employer will be in breach of contract if it lays off employees or puts them on short-time working arrangements without the contractual right to do so or without their express agreement. Furthermore, employees may be entitled to apply for redundancy if they are laid off or put on short-time working for either four weeks in a row or six weeks in a 13-week period.

Given the issues involved in implementing lay-offs and short-time working, many employers are looking at alternative options. "Our clients have been getting creative and implementing a range of options to avoid redundancies or lay-offs," Reilly says. "For example, one client has introduced 25% salary reductions for the executive and leadership teams for three months to make savings and keep jobs in place. Another has implemented periods of unpaid leave for senior leaders and senior managers who can afford to do so. And others have reduced pensions contributions, cancelled bonuses for this year or moved people to part-time working where possible."

Of course, some employers may have decided that they will have no option other than to make staff redundant should another lockdown be implemented. In these cases, HR should actively review their redundancy policy to ensure it is fit for purpose and arrange any necessary training for line managers on managing the redundancy process.