The coronavirus outbreak that originated in Wuhan, has lead to a global pandemic. Governments have shut borders and imposed quarantines, and companies have imposed travel bans. The human and economic impacts on businesses have been stark.
This epidemic has been a wake-up call for companies to carefully review the strategies, policies, and procedures they have in place to protect employees, customers, and operations in this and future epidemics.
With industries including travel, hospitality and retail under extreme financial pressure as a result of measures to limit the spread of coronavirus in the UK, many businesses are facing difficult decisions when it comes to the employment of staff.
The impact on businesses is already significant. Individuals have been told to avoid bars, clubs and theatres, and many events have been cancelled. Much of the UK’s car production has paused and airlines such as British Airways have advised staff to prepare for layoffs.
Some businesses have made it clear they are doing all they can to avoid making staff redundant. Former England footballer Gary Neville took to Twitter to assure his followers that although his two Manchester hotels would be closed to the public from next week, no staff would be made redundant or asked to take unpaid leave.
Employers needed to consider all options available to help them to manage workforce costs and avoid redundancies, said Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD. For some organisations this would mean considering measures beyond maximising home working and restricting overtime to keep people in jobs, he said.
Director of Epic HR, Gary Cookson, noted that all these measures will inevitably come with their own downsides, and there wouldn’t be a ‘one size fits all’ approach for all businesses, or indeed all staff members. Cookson advised organisations to talk openly to staff about the options, but added that HR “might be surprised by the [positive reaction among staff to] creative responses to the situation, particularly if it is made clear that the business wants to avoid redundancies”.
Updating Benefits Policies
The likelihood that increasing numbers of employees will be unable to work either because they are sick or must care for others means that companies should review their paid time off and sick leave policies now. Policies that give employees confidence that they will not be penalized and can afford to take sick leave are an important tool in encouraging self-reporting and reducing potential exposure. Our employer survey found that nearly 40% of employers have or plan to clarify their pay policy if worksites are closed or employees are furloughed.
While few companies outside of Asia have closed worksites yet because of the epidemic, about half of the Chinese companies we surveyed had shut down worksites at least temporarily. Such closures will likely become more common outside of Asia should the epidemic continue on its current course.
Most firms will treat Covid-19 in their policies as they would any other illness, and sick leave or short-term disability insurance would be applicable. However, exclusion from the workplace might not be covered by disability policies, and prolonged absence could last longer than available sick leave. Our survey found that more than 90% of employers in China paid their workers in full and maintained full benefits during furloughs. Companies should promulgate clear policies on this now and communicate about these with employees. Most will want to offer protections to their workforce to the extent this is financially feasible.
Ensuring employees can effectively work from home
While many jobs (retail, manufacturing, health care) require people to be physically present, work, including meetings, that can be done remotely should be encouraged if coming to work or traveling risks exposure to the virus. Videoconferencing, for instance, is a good alternative to risky face-to-face meetings. Nearly 60% of the employers we surveyed indicated that they have increased employees’ flexibility for remote work (46%) or plan to (13%).
Communicating with Employees on non-working Issues
Dangerous rumours and worker fears can spread as quickly as a virus. It is imperative for companies to be able to reach all workers, including those not at the worksite, with regular, internally coordinated, factual updates about infection control, symptoms, and company policy regarding remote work and circumstances in which employees might be excluded from or allowed to return to the workplace. These communications should come from or be vetted by the emergency response team, and they should be carefully coordinated to avoid inconsistent policies being communicated by different managers or functions. Clearly this requires organizations to maintain current phone/text and email contact information for all employees and test organization-wide communication periodically. If you don’t have a current, universal contact capability already, now is a good time to create this.
Cancelling Conferences & Rescheduling Meetings
Yes. There is mounting evidence that social distancing can delay the epidemic and potentially save lives, so most meetings and conferences should be converted from in-person to virtual. Some states and localities are banning meetings of more than 250 people. If you have a meeting, limit the number of attendees and encourage those who are older or have chronic disease to attend virtually. Provide room to allow attendees to sit or stand at least six feet away from others. Discourage hand-shaking and assure that proper handwashing facilities (and/or hand sanitizers) are easily available. If you have any questions about best practices, contact your local health department.
Prepare staff for other roles
With many organisations facing a significant drop in business as a result of social distancing measures, many staff may find themselves unable to carry out their jobs in the same way, either because they are not needed or because the nature of their role means they can’t work from home. To work around this, employers can consider offering different duties to those staff that reflect the new needs of the business, said David Harris, managing partner at DPH Legal.
But, Harris added, such measures were subject to employees having the right terms in their contracts. Anything that amounted to a variation in an employee’s contract needed their consent, he said, suggesting that in such cases employers should consult with individuals and come to agreements on a one-to-one basis. “Obtaining consent before you press ahead is important because otherwise you’re risking a claim arising,” he said.
Prepare staff to temporarily join other businesses
There are already some encouraging stories circulating of staff within the hardest hit sectors being redeployed to other now high-demand areas. For example, earlier this week (18 March), it was announced Inverness theatre company Eden Court was to work with its funders, the Highland Council, to find ways for its 200 employees to join the authority’s response to Covid-19.
The theatre was faced with laying off 200 staff, with 75 per cent of its income coming from ticket sales and bar/cafe takings. Details were still under discussion, but potential options included using the engagement team, who already work with children, young people and the community, to collaborate on the delivery of education projects for young people in the Highlands.
There are also recruitment platforms which are helping businesses with their vacancies – such as in the logistics sector for example – to be matched with companies faced with having to let staff go who might possess relevant skills.
One obvious option many employers have already looked at is reducing employees’ hours to share the salary hit fairly and evenly among staff. Martyn Dicker, director of people at Unicef UK, said this was something he’d had to consider in previous similar situations in the past, and something which could work well.
But Jo Stubbs, global head of product content strategy at XpertHR, warned employers attempting to reduce working hours unilaterally without such powers being written into workers’ employment terms, could amount to a fundamental breach of contract. “In these circumstances, the employee could pursue a claim for an unlawful deduction from wages, breach of contract or constructive dismissal,” she said.
Employers should speak to their personnel to gain voluntary consent for any cuts to hours outside of their contracts, and suggested putting any agreement in writing.
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