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As the nights start to draw in and the widely-predicted ‘second spike’ in Covid-19 infections becomes a reality impacting the economy, many employers will be considering whether they can make use of Government support (in particular, the recently announced Job Support Scheme (JSS)) and how best to manage their operations moving forward.  

Some difficult decisions may lie ahead. For example, if customer demand for certain products or services has shifted, some employers will be weighing up whether headcount reductions, or changes to employee terms and conditions, are needed to safeguard their business’ future. Equally, while some will be keen to encourage any staff who have not yet returned to the workplace to do so, others will want to embrace the new ways of working that emerged during lockdown.  

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 new JSS and 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 (‘furlough’), which will close on 31 October.  With the end of furlough fast-approaching, plus the gradual tapering down of Government support levels placing increased pressure on finances, many businesses are struggling and having to contemplate staff cuts.  

On 24 September, the Government announced the introduction of the JSS, which will be available to eligible employers from 1 November and aims to support ‘viable jobs’ in businesses which are ‘facing lower demand over the winter months due to Covid-19, to help keep their employees attached to the workforce’.  This new scheme should offer some comfort to both employers and employees - as it will offer financial support once furlough comes to an end - although the Government has conceded that it cannot save every job.  If you are contemplating using the JSS, you may wish to read our blog, ‘Is the Job Support Scheme for you?’ which explores various considerations for employers in relation to the new scheme.

In particular, the blog looks at what to do if you are currently in the process of making redundancies and the extent to which you may need to consider making use of the JSS as an alternative to your proposed redundancies.  We expect further guidance on the JSS to be published shortly and we will update our members when this becomes available.

If redundancies are looking likely in your business, as always it is 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. See the ‘How we can help’ section below for further guidance on how our HR and Legal experts could support you with your onward plans.

2. Re-introducing furlough-returners to the workplace and managing those who may be reluctant to return

The issue of how to manage returners to the workplace is a challenge. On 22 September (following a period of encouraging people to return to the workplace), the Government re-visited its guidance on working from home due to the resurgence in Covid-19 infections. Currently, the guidance states “To help contain the virus, office workers who can work effectively from home should do so over the winter. Where an employer, in consultation with their employee, judges an employee can carry out their normal duties from home they should do so…The risk of transmission can be substantially reduced if COVID-19 secure guidelines are followed closely. Extra consideration should be given to those people at higher risk”. 

That said, the end of furlough and introduction of the JSS mean that some businesses may now be looking to bring back to the workplace non-office based workers who may have been out of the workplace for a while.  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, even if they will only be working one-third of their usual hours under the JSS.

While some staff may be keen to return, others 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 concerns about returning for medical reasons, or face difficulties returning due to childcare issues.

By way of example, if towards the start of the pandemic an employee was placed on furlough leave as a shielder and they have remained on furlough to-date despite the relaxation of the shielding guidance in August, you may now be looking to reintroduce them to the workplace when furlough comes to an end. In this scenario, 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).  Keeping an open channel of communication with employees and being prepared to make adjustments where necessary will be key to a successful return.

3. Looking after all of your staff

It is 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 is now operating in the current circumstances. 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.

From a health and safety perspective, 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 be in the workplace where needed.  Examples of possible measures include: procedures to manage the flow of people within the workplace; increased cleaning provision; improved ventilation; limiting rotation of equipment; and revising seating plans. 

Given that many employees have experienced an increased strain on their mental health due to Covid-19, it is 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. Managing 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 working from home is not without its challenges. In particular, cyber-security, GDPR compliance and staff wellbeing all need to be kept under close review.

As noted above, current Government guidance states that office workers who can do so should continue to work from home during the winter months.  But when Government guidance inevitably changes again to encourage workers back to the office (which we assume may be towards the start of next year), it seems likely that employers may see an increase in statutory requests for flexible working.  If so, it will be important that managers and HR know how to deal with those. Does your organisation have a formal flexible working policy, and do your managers know how to implement it?  

When it comes to assessing requests for permanent flexible working arrangements, you will need to bear in mind that it may be harder than it was previously to decline such requests given that lockdown and the months ahead will have already provided a form of ‘trial’ period.  That’s not to say though that trial periods cannot still be used when a request for permanent changes is being considered, 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.  Shifting staff towards a permanent home-working arrangement will demand investment of both time and money to make sure staff are properly set-up to work remotely. It will also be 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. Dealing with the second wave and managing any outbreaks

Finally, as we move towards the colder months, the challenges of a ‘second spike’ in the Covid-19 infection rate become increasingly real.  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 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 to your business again (either on a local or national basis). Amid much uncertainty, one thing is clear: employers 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 downloadable redundancy toolkits giving you instant access to a full suite of redundancy support to enable you to manage a robust and fair process. The toolkits have been designed to take account of logistical and technical complexities that have been created as a result of Covid-19.  Click here to see how our Make UK HR and Legal experts can help you to manage a redundancy process effectively, including training your managers and employee representatives on their roles. 

In addition, we have 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.  

The Chancellor has stated that additional details on the operation of the JSS will be worked out with businesses and unions over the next few weeks, as was the case at the inception of the furlough scheme. Our Policy team will continue to work closely with Government to ensure that the interests of manufacturers are represented and we will keep members updated on any developments. In the meantime, our HR and legal experts have prepared three new JSS template letters, based on the limited guidance available as at 6 October 2020.  Once further guidance becomes available, we will also prepare some JSS-focused FAQs.  

Finally, the Coronavirus FAQs on our website are 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 / Make UK / Coronavirus