Blackouts: Your HR questions answered

Author: Bar Huberman

The UK National Grid has warned that the war in Ukraine combined with very cold weather could result in three-hour power cuts on very cold evenings in January and February 2023.

While we understand that such blackouts are unlikely, the ramification for businesses could be significant, with potential planned and unscheduled power cuts on the horizon.

We look at how HR professionals can help their organisations to prepare for these eventualities.

If an employee is available for work, but forces outside their control mean work is not possible, they should be paid. Therefore, you would still need to pay most employees if they cannot work because of a power cut.

In some industries, contracts of employment may allow the employer to "lay off" their employees or place them on short-time working where they decide to shut down for a short period. You may also be able to use these tools where there is no contractual provision, but you reach an agreement with employees.

Short-time working is more likely as short power cuts are envisaged.

Lay-offs and short-time working

If an employee is prevented from working due to outside circumstances, are they still entitled to payment?

How to implement a lay-off or short-time working

Employees would not be entitled to be paid for the time they are not working in these circumstances, but they may be entitled to a guarantee payment.

When deciding whether to implement these tools, you should take into account that employees may already be experiencing challenging circumstances due to the cost of living crisis.

2. Should I ask employees to work during a power cut and what are the alternatives?

Whether or not you ask employees to work through a power cut will very much depend on the kind of work that they are doing and the workplace itself.

Questions to ask include whether there is enough light and warmth in the workplace to keep people safe and well, as well as whether people will be able to get home safely. It would be a good idea to consider risks well in advance through a risk assessment.

Risk assessments and disaster planning

Workplace risk assessment form

Disaster contingency plan

Asking people to work from home, where appropriate, could be an option, although again, you would need to question if people have sufficient lighting, power and internet connectivity.

In some circumstances, people may prefer to come into the workplace, for example where heating, lighting and power is available there but not at home. You might consider making the workplace available to employees who ordinarily work from home.

You could decide to require employees to use their annual leave during such periods, although whether you will be able to give sufficient notice will depend on how much notice there will be of power cuts, something that is as yet unknown.

Another option is to ask people to work flexibly, for example to change their working hours during these periods. Whether or not this is feasible will, again, depend on the kind of work people do and whether people are able to adapt so easily - not everyone will have the capacity to change their working pattern. Any such requests will need to be considered carefully and discussed with employees.

The importance of communicating with your workforce about your anticipated approach to power cuts cannot be overstated; this will help them to prepare and will ease concerns.

Bar Huberman, XpertHR

If blackouts do occur, bear in mind that people may have serious concerns outside work, such as keeping warm and feeding their families, particularly as power cuts are envisaged for 4pm-7pm. They may also need to cope with additional difficulties, such as children being sent home from school and childcare facilities.

Particularly if power cuts are short-lived, it may therefore be better to decide not to require people to work and to communicate this decision clearly.

3. What can I do as an HR professional to make sure my organisation is prepared for blackouts?

Consulting with business leaders at an early stage to decide on your approach is key. This will then give you time to communicate your approach to staff in advance of any such planned or unplanned power cuts.

In your communications with employees, you could remind them to make sure their mobile phones, laptops and other devices are fully charged. You could also issue guidance on using alternative methods of internet connection that do not involve Wifi.

It may also be prudent to work with your line managers to help them plan and manage expectations.

They could start thinking about what other kinds of work people could do that does not require power or internet connection. If people are in the workplace during a power cut, perhaps use this as an opportunity for team building events. Finally, line managers should communicate that they will not have the same expectations around performance during blackouts.

You should also work with business leaders and line managers to see if any equipment, such as generators or other power supplies, can be purchased in advance to ensure business continuity, particularly for priority areas.

4. What support can we give employees during a power cut?

Communicating with employees to let them know what your organisation's approach will be to all the issues outlined above will go a long way towards settling their concerns.

However, above all, communications from senior leaders and line managers should emphasise that employee wellbeing and safety is the organisation's priority.

Further guidance on wellbeing

Developing and implementing a wellbeing programme: Why employers need to invest in employee wellbeing

Health and wellbeing policy

To go above and beyond, you could issue health, safety and wellbeing guidance around power cuts, perhaps reissuing guidance from health and safety agencies.

People may feel isolated and worried, particularly if they live alone, so your communications could include guidance on how to stay in touch with news outlets, or you might put in place and trigger methods for employees to contact and check in on one another in a crisis situation.

It would also be a good time to highlight the organisation's wellbeing support, such as an employee assistance programme (EAP).