Temporary solutions won’t do – creative long term approaches are needed

Over the last few weeks HR have had to be agile and responsive to changing events, and come up with solutions to problems like enabling homeworking for those who don’t do it normally; working around childcare problems with schools and nurseries shut; accommodating shielding or vulnerable people, or those who have to self-isolate. Implementing a furlough scheme in circumstances that would have seemed virtually impossible if one had been advised in advance of the frequency of changes and lack of clarity it would involve. This has been extremely challenging but many if not most HR professionals and employers have responded well.

But what happens now? Many of the circumstances we’ve had to respond to felt temporary. Chucking everyone out of the office to work at home for a bit with a laptop and a phone to keep things going felt ok. Accepting a lower level of productivity from those who were wrangling toddlers and their job at the same time was the right thing to do. A vulnerable employee needing to shield for 12 weeks? We can accommodate that and work round it. No money coming in? We can reduce people’s pay by 20% and keep them at home for very little cost to the employer through the furlough scheme, fine. It was all about keeping things going as best we could.

But this is not a temporary situation, and these temporary solutions won’t be enough. The virus and the various challenges it presents in the workplace are not going anywhere. Workplaces may be starting to open again but the need for social distancing and extra hygiene measures is going to be the case for a good few months, meaning long term adjustments to working locations, hours and other arrangements need to be found.

Schools and childcare provision are starting to open, but most children won’t be back in anything resembling normal school provision until at least September, and those who are going back sooner are in most cases facing reduced hours, no wrap around care, no school transport, meaning it’s not ‘back to work as normal’ for their parents.

Care needs to be taken to be fair and not discriminate, but a balance will need to be struck in circumstances where the temporary measures put in place during lockdown are not something that can continue. A longer-term solution will need to be explored which may involve challenging discussions and difficult decisions for many families and employers alike. 

Those who have been shielding will still be very vulnerable – an arbitrary date on the calendar won’t change that, and it is entirely likely that even if they can ‘come out’ of shielding for a bit, there will be another wave or they will at least have to be much more careful.

Covering their work with other staff will not be sustainable and the question of the employment rights of shielding staff who cannot attend work long term will need to be addressed, either through legislation or through case law if they are dismissed. Again this will need to be handled very carefully, particularly as many shielding employees will be covered under disability discrimination provision, but that doesn’t remove the actual problem.

One good thing coming out of this is that many employers are discovering that jobs can be done with more flexibility and based at home. That’s great, but again a longer-term solution to this needs to be found, in terms of suitable equipment, health and safety provision (hunching over a laptop all day clearly not a good idea…!), ways of managing performance effectively and good communication.

And the furlough scheme is coming to an end. We know it will be in place as-is until the end of July but after that employers will need to contribute and many will simply not be in a position to do so, and even if they can, it will still only be an additional three months of support. Decisions will need to be made on a longer-term basis about whether continued employment is sustainable, whether the terms of this need changing, or whether redundancies are needed.

Many of the challenges outlined above are going to involve some of the most difficult aspects of working in HR. Trying to force through business-critical terms and conditions changes that will have a negative impact on employees. Making staff redundant. Having to bring things to a head where someone simply cannot fulfil their role due to circumstances beyond their control. Insisting that staff who are anxious about returning to the workplace do so in circumstances where correct health and safety provision is in place.

All of these situations (and the myriad others that HR professionals will be facing now and in the coming months) will bring challenges concerning legal vulnerabilities, employee satisfaction levels, performance levels, absence levels and will sometimes result in abuse for those involved.

Something HR professionals often have to face is being the ‘bad guy’. We’re really not. Most HR professionals are incredibly keen to do the right thing, and implement best practice in whatever arena they are operating, striking what is sometimes a terrifying balance between protecting the employer and engaging and supporting staff.

Doing the ‘right thing’ at the moment has to be about discussing right now how the organisation will handle the anticipated questions, and, where it is possible to come up with an overall approach, communicating that with staff early on. This will help alleviate some of the difficult conversations ahead and reduce their impact on the organisation in terms of disputes and confrontations.

And being as creative as possible in coming up with longer-term solutions will help address at least some of those challenges while enabling the organisation to recover and operate on a fuller basis. The need for HR to be agile, resourceful and innovative has never been as great.