Businesses and employees not eligible for the furlough scheme or those needing a more flexible solution to meet demand, may find that a change in terms and conditions is more appropriate. “Whilst employers can make changes to the terms and conditions of employment, for example, reduced hours or place of work, employment law states that these can’t be unilaterally imposed on employees,” says James. “Agreement has to be reached, which to date has typically been an easy buy-in as staff are aware of the difficult national and global situation and there’s a sense that in agreeing to those changes, they are protecting the long-term viability of the business.
“However, with the financial effects of the pandemic on businesses likely to be felt for some time, and particularly as furlough ends, this could be a situation that more businesses find themselves in, and that buy-in may become more difficult to achieve. The key thing is to ensure you’re communicating clearly with your employees about how the business is being affected by the economic situation and your plans for addressing that, as well as their role within those plans.”
Communication is also vital for those businesses who find themselves in the difficult position of having to make redundancies. “The law hasn’t changed in this regard,” explains James. “Businesses still need to consult with all affected employees within statutory timeframes and objective and fair criteria need to be applied to the selection process.”
Maintaining health and safety
As the economy starts to reopen, businesses can face new challenges, says James. “Health and safety is a big one,” he points out. “Employers’ duty to protect workers from harm remains unchanged, but of course, there are huge changes to the way we work, with social distancing requiring adaptations in the workplace. Businesses need to review their health and safety risk assessments in light of the new controls required.
“There’s also been an acceleration in the adoption of technology and virtual or home working, which has meant a need not just to practically support employees with equipment to work safely, but also to extend the confidentiality provisions that employers typically have in place, address expectations around physical and online security of data, and protect the wellbeing of employees. The success of homeworking in many sectors means we’re anticipating government legislation down the line to make homeworking and the right to request it, easier, so businesses need to consider how that will affect them.”
Supporting employees back to work
As more normal service resumes, businesses may be ready to reopen workplaces but that can create additional issues. “A common difficulty employers face is workers who are unable or reluctant to return to work. This may be driven by practical issues such as the lack of childcare or concerns around their health.
“Whilst ultimately, if an employee isn’t willing to come into work, businesses can follow normal disciplinary procedures, we’d advise them instead to listen and reassure staff. Options include extending furlough if available, allowing staff to continue to work from home where possible, or providing assurances that safety measures are in place. The important thing is to be consistent, and make sure that all staff are treated fairly so resentment isn’t built up.”