After the dust has settled – The new normal
Updated: May 14
The HMRC portal for claiming under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme opened on 20 April 2020 and, by now, most employers who are taking advantage of this scheme will have accessed it and submitted their first claim. This week, we are expecting further information on how the lockdown will be eased with talk of staggered work times and social distancing in the work place.
Because of this, businesses need to start to think about what happens after the scheme has ended and lockdown begins to be eased. It is sensible to start putting in place plans and options for the post-lockdown future.
It's clear that over the rest of this year, things will be happening gradually and the new normal will progress as the virus containment and contagion is managed. Not one single business will open their doors and be operating as they were prior to February 2020.
Some businesses will not survive this and there will, inevitably, be redundancies. Other businesses may survive but have dramatically reduced demand for their products and services. Other businesses such as dentists, hairdressers and opticians will have more demand than they can handle due to both ongoing social distancing requirements and the sheer volume of people wanting to access their services.
And with this is the need to manage a workforce who will be anxious about their future and their health. It won't be easy but by considering options and putting plans in place now, you may be ahead of the curve in keeping your people engaged with the way forward and feeling positive about how you have managed the situation.
Regardless of how your business will be impacted once lockdown begins to be eased, the chances are it will result in some changes for your people and you will need to involve them in discussions about your plans. We don't know if the government will relax the need for businesses to adhere to current consultation requirements so it is best to assume that they remain in place unless we hear differently.
The extension of the Job Retention Scheme to 30 June 2020 addressed some of the issues employers were facing about consultation timings but a lot of people are saying it is unlikely to be extended again so businesses will have to start thinking about how to consult meaningfully. UPDATE: Job Retention Scheme has now been extended unchanged until 31 July and there will be further support from August to October although the details of this are yet to be confirmed. We expect this will be confirmed at the end of May and I will do a new blog to reflect the details.
Let's look at some of the basics of consultation. What does it mean? It means that you share with your people your plans, why you need to take action, how it will potentially impact on them and get their views on your proposals for achieving your aims. Any consultation must be meaningful i.e. genuinely seeking people's views and not presenting it as a fait accompli.
When up to 19 employees are impacted, there is no minimum consultation period. For 20 – 99 employees, the minimum consultation period is 30 days and for over 100, it is 45 days. In the latter two categories, you should collectively consult with elected employee representatives or recognised trade unions as well as individually consulting. You will also need to notify the Redundancy Payment Service (RPS) using an HR1 form if you are proposing more than 19 actual redundancies.
I'm not going to cover the consultation process in detail here but I am going to flag some areas that need to be considered in the current circumstances.
In normal circumstances, consultation would be face-to-face but clearly we are not in normal circumstances so careful consideration needs to be given on how any consultation can be efficiently and effectively carried out. More and more people are understanding how technology can be used to engage with each other and there is no reason, so long as it is done professionally, why consultation can't take place using video conferencing where this is available. If video conferencing isn't the right solution, it may be possible to arrange a venue for the meeting while still observing social distancing. Whichever solution you settle on, it is important to check that the people you are consulting with are comfortable with the approach and consider any concerns they have seriously.
Where it has been identified that the business is not going to survive after this or will need a longer shutdown while the new normal is being established, it may be difficult to see how consultation can be meaningful. After all, if there is no business, there are no jobs for people. However, it is still important that you do discuss this with your people and get their views. They may have ideas on other markets to access while waiting for a fuller recovery. Also, if there is a possibility that you can establish your business again in the future, you may want to rehire employees at that point – how you handle this will be left in their memory going forward.
If you are a business where demand has reduced and you need to reduce your workforce, consultation on how to achieve the reductions is important. Can you offer shorter hours working and effect variations to contracts temporarily? Do you have any volunteers who would be happy to opt for redundancy? How will the jobs of those remaining people have to change?
Where demand for your product or services is outstripping the capability to meet the demand, business owners may have to be creative with how to address this fortunate challenge. Social distancing will still be in place so it isn't as simple as recruiting additional staff although this may be one option for some businesses. Longer opening hours and separate shifts may be an appropriate solution. Weekend working could also address the time restraints. Any changes to your working hours or methods of working are likely going to need a variation of contracts, if only in the short-term. While the consultation requirements attached to this might be less stringent depending on your contracts, it is still important that you get views on any plans so that people are engaged with the way forward.
When an existing business is making changes, it is important to remove the uncertainty for people as quickly as possible because you want minimum distractions from the day job. This is why many organisations try to stick to tight, transparent timescales when consulting with their people. I'm going to suggest that the current situation is different in that the day job for many isn't happening so there may be benefits in taking another approach.
If you can see that some changes may need to be made in the future, it could be worth beginning to discuss these with your people now, irrespective of minimum timescales. It may be that you don't know the exact impact or what the outcome will be for your business but you know there will be changes. Beginning these discussions now, as a precautionary measure, may be something that is appropriate for you. Seeking early views could help form the future plans. This may feel counter-intuitive as it could cause unnecessary concern and anxiety for your employees but people are likely to be wondering about the future already. Seeing that you are thinking about what the options are rather than leaving a vacuum for the worry to build could have the opposite affect.
Whichever approach is right for your business, the key to success is the messaging and the tone of your communications as well as ensuring your people feel heard. If you need any support with any part of the changes your business is facing, 2020 HR can help.