The last 6 months has, of course, seen unprecedented times for employers, most of which have been forced by Covid-19 into making some very difficult decisions and that includes just about all of our clients to a greater or lesser extent. So we've seen reorganized supply chains, the setting up of remote operations and a raft of tough financial decisions, mainly cost-cutting exercises, often directly impacting on staff. We all know the reality is that until we get an effective vaccine the uncertainty is set to continue, and so are the challenges. The difference however, now that we are 6 months on, is we can look back, see what has worked and take a more proactive and sure-footed approach going forward based on strategies that have worked, or at least helped to some degree. Back in March, at the start of the lockdown, businesses were reactive mode. Now, 6 months on, the same businesses are looking ahead, planning, and taking a much more proactive approach with the benefit of being able to see what other businesses have been doing during that time, different strategies, different approaches. To that end, to help, last month we sent out a Covid-related questionnaire to clients to gather data about steps our clients have taken, and are still taking, to decisions around furlough, flexible working, reduced hours, pay freezes, holiday entitlement and so on. We had a great response and gained some really valuable insights to share with you. Rebecca Sulley from our Birmingham office put this together and I caught up with her over the phone to discuss the findings:
Rebecca Sulley: “One of the main topics was furlough, as you'd expect, and the survey showed that around 80% of our clients who we surveyed had furloughed some of their workforce, with the majority furloughing up to 20% of the entire workforce. Most employers, where they did have plans to reopen the workplace, were now starting to look at doing that and bringing people back to the office over the next three months and where those that were furloughed were being asked to return on a part time basis, over 50% of employers had agreed to top up their wages to 100%, which is obviously quite generous. The furlough schema clearly provided a lot of assistance to employers, with only 18% saying that they had to put employees who have continued to work on reduced hours. So most people who were working were on full time hours. We also asked where employers have no plans to reopen the workspace at this time, what was happening with their employees, and 88% were permitting employees to continue to work from home with the remainder either keeping them on furlough or asking them to attend the workplace on a part time or shift rotation basis. With the fact that employers are looking to increase getting people back to the workplace, we also asked what they were doing in relation to those who were vulnerable or who were living with someone who was vulnerable, and where they were refusing to return to the workplace as this is quite a common thing that we've been seeing, and the majority of employers said they would still continue to permit them to work from home. Other popular alternatives to that were agree and they could take holiday, treating them as though they were on sick leave, or in some cases agreeing that they could remain off work on unpaid leave. With employees returning to the workplace, we're also expecting to see a rise in concerns being raised by employees about health and safety issues, potentially also an increase in whistleblowing claims, and in the survey, almost 60% of employers said that they'd already provided guidance to managers about how to spot these red flag type issues associated with COVID complaints. Therefore if companies haven't already done this, then we advise that it is a sensible approach to take to make sure you're aware of these risks and what managers can do to help spot them and bring them to your attention. As would be expected, employers have noticed other legal issues arise as a result of COVID. Challenges include things such as hearing disciplinaries remotely, people refusing to return to work, grievances being raised about being or not being furloughed, and then challenges about health and safety in the workplace and we do know that a number of clients have started to receive COVID-related tribunal claims coming in and the tribunals themselves have confirmed that they're expecting a large influx of claims, especially when the furlough scheme ends next month. So whilst there were a clearly a lot of negatives that have resulted from COVID, one thing that every single employer surveyed agreed on was the fact that the pandemic will result in increased home working and flexible working going forward. It has, and it will, fundamentally change the way people work. I think the overall message to come out of this survey is that employees have had to adapt really quickly to the challenges that COVID has brought in place, and they're putting things in place for future lockdowns, future instances of such pandemics that may will happen and sadly whilst there has been an increase in the likelihood of having to make redundancies and the number of tribunal claims you'll probably expect to see coming in, employers are also looking at new flexible ways of working and many employees are likely to welcome that."
We have put a link to that survey on our website for you. If we can be of help in relation to any of the issues raised in the questionnaire, or more generally, then please do get in touch.