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The last six months have been tough for most businesses and the next six look equally uncertain.  As the ‘Autumn term’ gets underway, employers will be considering how best to move forward.  While some will be keen to encourage those staff who have not yet returned to the workplace to do so, others will want to embrace the new ways of working that have emerged during lockdown.  

Some difficult decisions may lie ahead.  For example, if customer demand for certain products or services has shifted, many employers will be weighing up whether headcount reductions, or changes to employee terms and conditions, are needed to safeguard their business’ future.   As well as these challenges, the prospect of a ‘second spike’ in Covid-19 infections continues to loom.

In these unusual times, each business needs to find its own way.  So what could lie in store for your business over the next six months?  Here, we explore some of the issues employers may need to grapple with:

1. Contemplating the prospect of redundancies

We know that around 95% of our members, who are predominantly in the manufacturing sector, continued to operate in some way throughout lockdown (for example, keeping the supermarkets stocked and hospitals equipped with medicines and personal protective equipment).  That said, many have needed to furlough employees under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (the ‘Scheme’), which is currently due to close on 31 October.  With the end of the Scheme approaching, as well as the gradual tapering down of Government support levels placing increased pressure on finances, many businesses are having to contemplate staff cuts.  Make UK has been lobbying the Government, urging an extension to the Scheme for critical sectors, but even if an extension were to be granted redundancies may still be necessary.  

If redundancies are looking likely in your business, it will be important to plan for and execute those processes carefully (including following statutory collective consultation requirements where applicable).  Doing so will help to minimise the risks of employee tribunal claims, as well as making any headcount reductions as cost effective as possible (if consultation/notice periods are able to run while the Scheme is live).  Remember that if it appears that you may need to make over 100 redundancies within a 90-day period (triggering a minimum 45-day statutory collective consultation period), for consultation to run while the Scheme is still live, it would need to have started in mid-September. Similarly, if you may need to make between 20 and 99 redundancies within a 90 day period (triggering a minimum 30 day statutory collective consultation period), you would need to start consultation at the end of September if you wish to complete that minimum period while the Scheme remains live.  See the ‘How we can help’ section below for guidance on how our HR and Legal experts could support you with your plans.

2. Managing reluctant returners

The issue of how to manage returners is also a challenge.  Since 1 August, the Government has been encouraging more people to go back to the workplace.  In some cases, staff may be keen to return, but in other cases they may be more reluctant.  When managing reluctant returners, it is important for employers to avoid a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, as employees may have unique circumstances which need to be considered on an individual basis. For instance, some may have been shielding for medical reasons, or face difficulties returning due to childcare issues.  

By way of example, if an employee has been shielding, it will be particularly important to carry out thorough risk assessments and think about how to achieve a ‘Covid-secure’ environment for them (including how they can maintain social distancing within the workplace – potentially by allowing them to carry out an alternative role, or adjusting their working pattern, temporarily).  More generally, Government guidance urges employers to take time to consult with employees and outlines health and safety measures employers should consider so that all employees feel safe to return.  Examples of possible measures include: new procedures to manage the flow of people within the workplace; increasing cleaning provision; improving ventilation; limiting rotation of equipment; taking staff temperature checks; and revising seating plans.   Keeping an open channel of communication with employees and being prepared to make adjustments where necessary will be key to a successful return.

3. Re-introducing returners from furlough and looking after other staff

As well as managing any employees who may be reluctant to return, employers should give careful thought to how best to welcome back those who have been away from the workplace on furlough.  In some cases furloughed employees may not have worked at all since March, so they may feel out-of-touch with the business’ Covid-secure practices, be anxious about their futures and need reminding of the company’s expectations and procedures.  Ideally, the re-introduction to the workplace for those who have been away for some time should look much like it would for a new employee. Keep in mind that returners will need some time to settle back in.

Similarly, it’s important to make sure that clear policies are in place for all of your existing staff (for example, in relation to sickness absence and employee quarantine) so that they know how the business will operate in the new post-lockdown world.  If changes are needed to employees’ terms and conditions, make sure you meet the legal requirements, including for individual and/or collective consultation, and provide adequate warning of any changes.

Given that many employees have experienced an increased strain on their mental health due to Covid-19, it’s also worth reviewing the structures you have in place for managing staff wellbeing (for example, do you have mental health first aiders, or an employee assistance line?).  If you have had to make redundancies, consider too how you can keep up morale amongst those who have stayed on.

4. Moving towards (or away from) flexible working

The shift towards home-working that became necessary during lockdown means that the working-week for various roles looks markedly different now from how it used to. Lockdown has shown that remote-working and a move away from a strict nine-to-five schedule can offer significant opportunities: for employers to reduce their overheads; and for employees to achieve a better work-life balance. But shifting staff towards a permanent home-working arrangement demands investment of both time and money to make sure they are properly set-up to work remotely.  Cyber-security, GDPR and staff wellbeing will all need to be considered as part of any permanent changes and remember that trial periods can be used to test the viability of any new approach.  With this in mind, if you are considering allowing staff to work from home on a more permanent basis, now may be the time to put in place a formal home-working policy. 

Given that employers are likely to see an increase in statutory requests for flexible working, it’s important that managers and HR know how to deal with these.  Does your organisation have a formal flexible working policy, and do your managers know how to implement it?  Bear in mind that it may be harder than it was previously to decline requests for flexible working now that lockdown has already provided an unexpected ‘trial’ period. It’s important that managers are well-supported and trained on how best to deal with flexible working requests in line with regulations and in a non-discriminatory way.  

5. Preparing for a second wave and managing any outbreaks

Finally, as we move towards the colder months, there is increasing speculation about the prospect of a ‘second wave’, or ‘spike’, in the Covid-19 infection rate.  Although trials are underway, a vaccine seems unlikely to be found this year.  The Government has indicated that, moving forward, any outbreaks will continue to be dealt with on a more localised basis (i.e. via local lockdowns) but, as nobody can predict the future, another national lockdown cannot be ruled out.  Childcare issues may continue for working parents, as although schools are now going back and operating in ‘bubbles’, it is possible that all the children in a bubble – or even in a whole school - could be sent home if there are instances of Covid-19.  Given these various factors, it’s worth thinking about how you will deal with increased levels of staff absence moving forward. Are any changes needed, for instance, to your sick pay or travel quarantine policies?  Are you clear about how the Test and Trace process works? What will you do if someone in your workplace tests positive for Covid-19? 

It’s important to be clear about the internal processes you will apply and, where appropriate, communicate these to employees. Carrying out a detailed review of how your business dealt with lockdown the first time round could help you to reflect on whether there are any improvements you could make if it happens again.  Amid much uncertainty, one thing is clear: businesses will need to be prepared to adapt as we all find (and try to stay on) our feet in these new times.  

How we can help

Make UK has developed a suite of detailed downloadable toolkits to support your organisation in the following areas: successfully managing change; dealing with flexible working and statutory requests; home-working; and changing terms and conditions of employment.  

In addition, our experienced HR and legal consultants can give you the confidence to manage a redundancy process effectively, saving you time and money. Click here to see how Make UK can help, including training your managers and employee representatives on their roles. 

The Coronavirus FAQs on our website are also updated regularly and provide detailed guidance on furlough, self-isolation and other issues relating to Covid-19.  If you are a Make UK member, please contact your adviser with any queries you wish to discuss.  Alternatively, non-members are welcome to call us on 0808 168 5874, or email [email protected].

News / Coronavirus / HR & Legal / Redundancy / Managing Change