Welcome to the second in this series of Blog Posts from my HR Insights Podcast
In this post, we're going to answer the more immediate questions concerning the reintroduction of staff to work. And we'll be covering the following, how to decide on which employees to bring back, re-boarding staff on their first day back to work, changes to terms and conditions of employment, what such changes might involve and how to implement them successfully. Some of the policies that might need to be changed to reflect the way in which we work, which will be different, including reporting and managing sickness absence, flexible working patterns, other leave, including compassionate leave and bereavement leave, data protection and recruitment and selection.
And finally, I'm going to cover managing staff annual leave. At the end of this post is the transcript of my interview with Lorraine Smith, a fellow HR consultant and owner of Bravo Zulu HR.
We know that opening up the workplace is not going to be straightforward. And clearly managers and staff need to communicate really well. Staff should be encouraged to be very open about how they feel about coming back to work. Equally, managers and business owners need to be open minded to realise that staff are going to need a lot of reassurance. Understandably so. We need to take into account individual personal circumstances.
Some people's circumstances might mean that they have spent locked down shielding loved ones or caring for people who've been very ill. Employers who don't approach staff with this in mind may do more harm than good in persuading people to return. Some staff may be at higher risk than others. For example, those who are pregnant or who have an underlying health condition. Some may be vulnerable for other reasons, including those who have been advised to continue shielding relatives or who have been asked to self-isolate.
Some staff may need a phased return to their role, which the flexible furlough scheme allows for. So how are you going to decide who will return to work? Well, how you manage a return to the workplace will firstly depend on the type of arrangements that've been operating over the past three months. And then who you bring back first will also be guided by, I think, the three key tests that need to be met before bringing people back to the workplace.
This was recommended by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. And these three tests are, is it essential? Is the job that they do essential i.e. is it essential for this person to come back to work? Is the workplace sufficiently safe? And is it mutually agreed? If they can, staff should continue to work from home, but bear in mind, this doesn't suit everyone. Again, there is no one size fits all approach here. Much of this will be decided by the skills you are needing, but you must be mindful of not discriminating against certain groups such as part time workers, women or those with a disability.
Be clear what skills you are needing and why. Consider personal circumstances of staff and be fair and inclusive when determining who you will bring back to work first. The guidance given by the Scottish government in their framework for decision making document is underwritten by the values of kindness, compassion, openness and transparency, which I feel will be at the heart of every workplace over the next few months as we strive to get back to business. You need to be fair when considering who should return.
So, don't make any assumptions in trying to protect staff. Discuss returning to work with all staff. Explore the options with them before making any final decision. One final and quite important factor to be aware of are the arrangements for schools opening up. At the time of writing, there are differences between England and Scotland and the English schools now look to be opening up gradually. Scottish schools are only opening for specific year groups, and for small groups, at a time.
This is going to have a very significant impact on your staff who have school aged children. The timing and nature of government announcements and updates and further changes all mean that things can change quite quickly. It is therefore sensible for businesses to consider all options and remain flexible. Once staff are beginning to come back to work. They will need to be welcomed back in a similar way to if they were returning to work from a long-term sickness absence. I recommend a one to one meeting takes place between manager and every employee, similar to a return to work interview.
My Return to Work Interview template can be downloaded here. This reboarding discussion should be a sensitive and open discussion. It can cover everything from the commute to work. Health, safety and well-being changes physical changes within the work environment, including personal hygiene and use of toilets, changes to services or procedures at work, and changes to duties or tasks. This is going to be an important discussion. So, take your time. Make sure you listen and be flexible. Respond to your staff's concerns and ensure they are comfortable returning to work.
If your staff have access to an employee assistance program, remind them that they have the opportunity to speak to a trained counsellor about any concerns they have. There's likely to be flexibility needed on both sides to accommodate different working times or schedules as part of the return. Some things you need to consider when you're bringing staff back include can staff maintain the appropriate social distance from one another? That might be different now, depending on what sector you’re working in. So, check the up to date Government guidance.
Changing working hours, such as a phased return or part time working. Staggering start to finish times to avoid unnecessary busy times in foyers, lifts, stairwells, car parks, etc, and consider grouping people into teams to work together consistently. Keep in good communication with staff and make sure they feel supported. Ensure that staff in the higher risk category have been contacted personally about their return and any specific measures required, particularly if you need to make reasonable adjustments for someone with an underlying health condition, which could be a disability.
Make sure that you keep under review all measures put in place and keep engaging with staff. In order to get feedback, it might be an idea to introduce a way in which staff can put forward suggestions to keep them engaged in the discussion about opening up the workplace again. In order to make changes to working hours or days or shift patterns, it's important to be aware that these all form part of an employee's contract of employment. So, any discussions about changing their days of work or hours of work or even the workplace will lead to a change in their terms and conditions of employment, however temporary the measures will be. It is strongly advised to speak to staff first and explain the changes you need to make and the reasons for the change. This may well now be a virtual meeting, but the employee still needs to be afforded the opportunity to meet with you. As part of the discussion, you'll need to take the employees individual circumstances into consideration. It may be difficult for some staff to agree to changes to their work patterns, for reasons I've already mentioned.
Always try and work with staff to gain agreement and agree for how long the change will be made. This might be quite difficult at present, but even a review date is a good thing to agree on and include in the written follow up letter. All changes to terms and conditions of employment must be put in writing for clarity and openness and as a record of what has been agreed.
Be aware that there may be some of your regular HR policies that might need to be changed to reflect the different ways we will now be working.
These will include sickness absence, particularly with regards the changes related to Covid 19 specifically. So firstly, remind staff of the actions they need to take if they start to feel unwell with Covid 19 symptoms. The symptoms being a cough, a temperature or loss of or change in taste or smell. Staff need to know what to do if they become unwell at work and at home. They need to know what action to take, if they need to self-isolate, because they've been told to do so via track and trace or because a family member has Covid 19 or has tested positive.
Or if they feel unwell with Covid 19 symptoms and they need to know that they will receive SSP when self-isolating. All of these are going to need changed in your sickness absence policies. Flexible working patterns are now going to be much more commonplace, particularly including working from home. And so, your flexible working policy is likely to need to be refreshed to reflect that. Other leave including compassionate leave and bereavement leave will also perhaps be more likely to be requested. Whilst deaths from Covid 19 are fatefully comparatively rare, it is possible you may have staff who have suffered a bereavement of a close friend or family member.
There is no statutory right to bereavement leave other than in the case of the death of a child. But I would recommend you are sympathetic to requests for additional time off and would recommend that you pay full pay.
A Data protection policy may well need updates, particularly if you have to introduce testing for Covid 19 as part of your workplace operating model. But also, if you have people working from home, there are additional data protection considerations for that, and your policy should be altered to reflect that.
Recruitment and selection
We're going to have to recruit and select differently, maybe using virtual platforms for some time. And so your recruitment and selection policy is likely to need to be refreshed.
Managing annual leave
In terms of managing annual leave, there are a number of issues you need to be aware of. Firstly, managing annual leave of staff will depend on whether or not they've been working or been placed on furlough. For staff who have been working and who have been unable to take some or all of their leave, the working time regulations have been amended to allow workers to carry forward an untaken amount of the basic four weeks annual leave entitlement into the following to leave years. Furloughed staff continue to accrue entitlement to annual leave, and they can take holiday during the furlough period. Employers should be mindful that the purpose of holiday, as stated by the European Court of Justice, is that such leave must enable the worker to rest and to enjoy periods of relaxation and leisure. It remains to be seen whether the taking of holiday during a period of UK wide lockdown is a period of relaxation and leisure.
You should be aware of the personal circumstances, such as having to self-isolate or shield family members, which might prevent them from resting, relaxing and enjoying leisure time. Therefore, they could carry forward some holiday to next holiday year. I recommend that managers encourage staff to take holidays, particularly those who had previously agreed holidays already booked and staff who are continuing to work as it feels that the ways we are now working can certainly be quite stressful. A break from such work and the pace of work will certainly be beneficial.
I also recommend that managers and leaders do lead by example in this respect and take and are seen to take holiday themselves. If you require staff to take holiday, you can do this by giving the usual statutory notice periods. That means giving twice the amount of notice to leave days. So, by way of example, that would be two week’s notice for, say, one week of annual leave. It's advisable for you to engage with your staff and explain reasons for wanting them to take leave.
I don't think it's unreasonable to ask staff to at least take a proportion of their holiday entitlement during their furlough period, because when you want them to return to work, you will want to return to productivity rather than the period of holiday. And finally, remember that those who were furloughed and who are receiving less than their normal pay when they are taking holiday, their pay must be made up to the higher amount of their normal pay.
In all these matters, it will be very important to be aware of the disproportionate effect Covid 19, has had on all of us. Some people have been on furlough. Some people have been working. Some have been made redundant. Some have experienced loss. And some are dealing with anxiety issues. So, in all your decision making, try to be as fair and inclusive as you possibly can.
Interview with Lorraine Smith of Bravo Zulu HR
Today, I'm joined by fellow HR consultant Lorraine Smith of Bravo Zulu HR Welcome, Lorraine.
First, Lorraine, can you just give us the background to the name of your company? Because it's such a lovely story.
It's a bit of a strange story. Actually, it came to me at 4.30 in the middle of the night one day when I was thinking about setting up as a consultant myself. And one of my careers was in the Royal Navy. I was in the Wrens and one of the military phrases in the Navy, if somebody did a job well, was Bravo Zulu. So I've always thought I'll do a job well done for my clients. And that's how I got the name, and it's rather stuck.
Oh, that's lovely. Thank you for sharing that with us.
So today Lorraine, we are thinking about the return to work. And I wonder if you could give us some top tips around engaging with staff prior to and on their return to work.
Sure. I think engaging is a really, really number one priority at the moment, particularly people have been sat at home on furlough. And people may be feeling a bit isolated, but I think generally there's lots currently to think about. So much government guidance, it's hard to keep up with what is coming out from them. And also, what the press is saying. Things are a bit different in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and England. So, if you've got a business that straddles all of those four nations, then you have to look at four lots of guidance.
But I think it's just always check the guidance. Don't assume and even sometimes in the press there reporting it wrong. So just see it in black and white, the guidance, before you start acting. The health and safety executive providing a lot of guidance around being Covid secure workplaces. So, again, that's a really good source of information. And generally, locking down happened very quickly and opening up is going to be a lot more complicated. It's going to be a marathon, not a sprint.
Employers have a duty to provide safe working environments, but it's not possible, as you can imagine, to define rules for every circumstance. Although I'm sure your employees will expect you to do that. But it isn't possible. Social distancing doesn't come naturally, and we're used to mixing with each other. But each of us has a responsibility to keep ourselves and others safe. We've had that through lockdown and will continue to be the case when we're back at work. So really, employers should, first of all, start asking questions of themselves, of who is essential to have back in the workplace? That's your first starting point and where will that be and how will that work? And then once you've decided that, then you can start engaging with your staff.
That's helpful. Do you have any tips in terms of how to engage, how best to engage with staff?
Well, you certainly can't beat having a conversation with people. I think we sometimes forget having a conversation when there's all this electronic gizmos around to help us communicate, but actually just talking to people, pick up the phone and even a WhatsApp video call with your employees or a Facebook message or video call or something, it's good to see a face. And I think really this is a really good opportunity to ring through, ring round your staff. You don't have to do it all yourself. Get somebody else to help you but take the chance to check on how they're all doing. Explain where the business is at the moment in broad terms, what a return to work might need to look like. You're going to have to make a Covid secure workplace with various risk assessments which need to be written. And although there’s some templates around. It's actually the workers who know the detail of every job. So really ask them for their ideas on how to make the workplace secure, Covid, secure. What needs to be adjusted? They're the ones, after all, that are going to have to make it work. All of you will have to do that. So, involve them from the off. You might want to provide a skeleton risk assessment, but just get them to think about these things as well. Don't just all have it on your own shoulders as the business.
Thank you. That's really helpful. So, are you able to share a practical example of advising employers with their return to work from some of the experiences that you've already had?
Yeah, sure. I mean, some of the risk assessments have been quite interesting. There is government guidance out there, which is actually very sector specific. So, go and have a look at the government guidance for starting point. There are some really good templates. And obviously, the health and safety exec, again, there's some really good templates to get you started. But for example, one of my clients has got field service engineers and it's also got office staff. Getting their field service engineers out there to their clients has been a priority, but they've been very much led by what their clients need. So, again, it's about you talking to your clients, talking to your suppliers. If you're sharing a building which is a shared building. Talk to the other businesses in that building or nearby. You've all got to work at this together, so don't do it on your own. Just get talking to people.
But certainly, with that particular business, we've done the risk assessments for the field service engineers first and the home working admin are as they are at the moment. We still got some people furloughed as well. So, they've got a bit of a mix and match approach going on. But we've prioritized the risk assessments for those that you definitely need in the business first really. So that's one example of how you how you do it. But don't forget to talk to your suppliers and to customers and understand what they expect, and that will help you inform what you need to do.
I think that's helpful sometimes we're so focused on the internal people and staff that we forget about our external partners and suppliers and who we are actually doing business with.
Sure. And they're going to have the same dilemmas as you have. We're all in this together, literally. So, they might actually have some really good examples to share with you, or you might have some to share with them. And again, it's all about just working together because working together and being flexible together is what we're going to need to get through this.
Thank you. Finally, if you have to give three messages to employers today to consider or actions for them to take, what would they be?
I think it's a really good chance now to, as I say, already ring round, contact them, e-mail them, instigate a conversation with them. That is definitely the number one thing. And the sorts of conversations we might be wanting to have with them is around, you know, who who's got childcare issues, because with the schools not having gone back and the summer holiday activity clubs not running, there's gonna be a fair few employees who are in a dilemma that actually furloughs helping them at the moment because it's providing them with the opportunity to have childcare. So, check who who's got that dilemma. Check who is still shielding, although the shielding restrictions are likely to be lifted shortly. Some people are just gonna be plain scared to come back to work. So, understand what people are sort of dealing with. And then that will, I think, help you. The other thing is as well, some people are going to be going stir crazy, being at home and they're dying to get back. So, I think they're going to have to the priority as well.
So that will help you often you deciding who comes back first. Just get a feel for what it is they're expecting. You know, who is expecting to come back first and that sort of thing.
Super. Any other tips?
I think. Take your time. I think I said at the beginning of this podcast, it's a marathon, not a sprint. And you're going to need probably baby steps to see what will work. I know the need for cash in the business is going to be big on your mind, is going to dominate, but there's no point in rushing things to then find your Covid secure way of working doesn't work and then you have to close again. Part time work is a really good starting point if you're not sure how things are going to work out. Flexible furlough, really helpful with that, that comes in on the 1st of July. You might want to stagger your shift time, so people come in in earlier and later. So, there's less people in the workplace. You might have a blended approach where some people are working from home and some people are coming onsite. I've even had some people where they've mentally found it really difficult to work at home. So, they may have been allowed to come into the workplace one day a week and then work at the home another few days of the week. So just take it baby steps and see what works and just keep talking to employees because they will have really good ideas.
That's very helpful. We need to start somewhere. We might not always get it absolutely right. But just try it. Any final top tips for employers to consider?
Yeah. And I think that just try it attitude is going to be required of employees as well as the business owners. And the message I I've certainly given to my clients that I've worked with and in any of the letters and documentation I've given to people is to just explain in black and white flexibility, uber flexibility is going to be needed by everybody. And you're going to have some of your employees who are just plain scared. Some will just be awkward because that's what they like to do. Others will be wanting to work with you. Expect all of those things, but just engage with them. I think also it's probably a time to be writing to them as well to tell them that now we're going to go to a flexible furlough situation and just give them some of your thoughts. Be honest with them about, you know, you're not a crystal ball gazer as a business owner. You're trying your best to keep the business going and keeping them in a job. Just be honest. Don't be frightened of being honest about it. I think that'll be my main thing.
Thank you Lorraine. So, if people want to get in touch with you. What's the best way of getting in touch with you?
Thank you for joining us today, Lorraine.
Thank you, Caroline. Thanks very much for having me. And good luck to all the business owners out there trying to make this work.