As people are heading back to work where it is safe and necessary to do so, the extension of the furlough scheme has also been announced to support businesses during this period.
This development raises two key questions to examine:
- How can the furlough scheme evolve and operate to continue to support businesses without there being a cliff edge of financial support?
- What are the different approaches being used to support employees and make them feel safe in businesses, especially in construction and manufacturing that are being encouraged to go back?
How can the furlough scheme evolve and operate to continue to support businesses without there being a cliff edge of financial support?
Amongst the most generous schemes in the world, the furlough scheme offered by the UK government has been a lifeline for businesses during this period, helping them to weather the storm and avoid mass redundancies.
The extension of the furlough scheme highlights both the current and potentially sustained economic conditions facing employers within the UK. Many will applaud the government’s continued support so that employers can retain their talent.
The scheme is extended until the end of July. In August, to avoid a cliff-edge of financial support to protect millions of jobs and adapt to the planned reopening of the economy, flexibility will be introduced, enabling employers to build up towards a return to full capacity.
Some argued that the initial scheme was unnecessarily inflexible, requiring employees to not do any work at all as a furloughed worker. Many small businesses in particular reported that they would have preferred to have the option of furloughed employees being able to work part-time, so whilst the revised scheme addresses this, some are cautioning that flexibility needs to be introduced sooner rather than later.
For smaller organisations, such as Associations and Institutes, single jobholders are often responsible for whole department activities, e.g. Digital Marketing Managers and Diversity and Inclusion Officers. Therefore, furloughing these individuals for the three week minimum means that there is no activity in these areas, so a flexible scheme will minimise wider disruption to their operation.
The revised scheme
The number of employers offering 80 per cent or 100 per cent of their salary to furloughed employees has started to decrease as people realise that this phase of tackling coronavirus will go on for longer. Employers are starting to offer a staggered approach based on salaries, with creative strategies to determine their furlough pay. Some organisations are ensuring senior people who are above the £2,500 cap are fully covered, whilst offering a sliding scale to 80 per cent depending on experience and skills.
Being productive in furlough
Some employers are still offering training during the furlough period, which is permissible. This is one option to best utilise furloughed staff who can be asked to organise and attend training. This is not mandatory as this would be against the spirit of the scheme, but is a good way of offering holistic support for employees, including those who wish to focus on their personal development during this period.
The challenges raised by furlough
Volunteering for furlough has been a popular approach to ease the pressure on employers to select individuals, which may impact team morale, and to enable certain employees to balance home life with work. Some may actively want to be furloughed whilst for others, being furloughed will cause anxiety. In the Construction industry, there has been a mixed approach with some furloughing employees, whilst others have examined whether contracts of employment allow for reduced pay and/or hours.
Some employers are providing financial aid if they are asking for pay cuts. They are making debt management services and advice on reorganising bills available, as they strive to think about pay cuts and redundancies from an employee’s viewpoint.
2. How can employees be safely brought back into work?
The challenges facing HR have evolved rapidly throughout the pandemic. In March, when remote working was made mandatory for most of the country except for key workers, this raised logistical challenges and HR was dedicated to getting up to speed with the new normal. After the shock of national lockdown came the announcement in April of the government’s furlough scheme and organisations had to identify who should come into this definition. Now the challenge is to fairly and safely reintroduce employees into the workplace.
Health and safety compliance
Key worker organisations had to quickly introduce safety measures, such as plastic visors and safety equipment for supermarket workers and enforcing social distancing measures inside production sites. The question for schools set to reopen in June is how to safely increase the capacity of children in classrooms. In office spaces, new practices have been outlined that contradict previous trends, such as hot desking. Sharing of equipment and workspaces will be prohibited unless cleaning can be introduced between shifts, staggered working and one-way corridors have all been outlined by London’s financial district Canary Wharf to manage the return of employees.
As companies consider how they can implement social distancing, lessons can be learnt from the manufacturing and construction sector. They have been asking what vital skills are required for the job. Breaking up work streams into their essential skills, such as project managers or decorators for construction, may mean roles can be rotated and furlough can still be used for the interim period. In construction, with reduced timetables and use of roads during lockdown, rail and road projects have been particularly busy as they try to complete work within the parameters of health and safety guidelines.
This carefully managed increase in workers will be closely monitored, but many CEOs are noting that the widespread experiment of working from home will mean that it becomes more accepted. CEO communication is something that can have a huge impact on employee morale, with strong messages also going out to customers at the outset of the pandemic to provide reassurance, remain connected with valued customers, and show the organisation is taking the situation seriously. The same importance and weight is attached to internal communications, so clear and reassuring communication from management encouraging open lines of communication can boost morale during this period.
A cautious and gradual approach
Cautious and staged re-introduction of employees in the next few months will be important to ensure organisations abide by the government’s message to ‘stay alert’ and work from home unless an individual’s role cannot be carried out. The furlough scheme provides crucial continued financial support and should be gradually phased out to support a staged return to work.
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