HR 11 January 2021

What HR lessons did businesses learn in 2020?

Karen Bates from Foot Anstey

Karen Bates - Head of Employment Law at Foot Anstey
“Make provision for mental health support”

Name: Karen Bates

Job title: Head of Employment Law at Foot Anstey

Bio: Karen is a member of the Firm’s Management Board and is responsible for the leadership of a team of over 45 lawyers within the Firm’s commercial and employment teams.

Karen’s approach is to think about the bigger picture and advise clients on the best way to achieve their goals. Her main experience lies in complex people strategy and HR risk management as well as bespoke advice on the full range of people issues arising in business.

How did businesses navigate the furlough fiasco?

Initially by placing more people onto furlough than perhaps turned out to be necessary. Having never experienced lockdown it was impossible for some businesses to work out what the impact would be and most were very conservative in their estimations of impact on the bottom line.

As flexible furlough emerged, many manufacturing and hospitality businesses made use of this because the benefit outweighed the complexity of the agreement and payroll processing/claiming for them. Other businesses tended to stay clear of the complications of flexible furlough and instead gradually returned employees to work on a flexible basis.

As the CJRS scheme continued, understanding of the rules enabled business to make much more efficient use of them e.g. by requiring furloughed employees to take holiday, by claiming furlough during notice periods (something you can no longer do under the latest reincarnation), by flexing groups in and out of furlough in line with demand.

“The ones who navigated most successfully quickly established meaningful regular communication methods and had managers across the board doing a lot more pastoral management and support for those working from home or on furlough.”

There was also a big focus on employee wellbeing and greater investment in remote training and development to keep teams connected.

Many employers had to take a practical approach to employment law – there was not always time for example to agree everything with employees in the way it should technically be done but this does not always matter in a crisis of this scale so long as everyone understands what they are agreeing to and why (i.e. what the alternatives were / are).

As the restrictions and CJRS furlough scheme wore on, many businesses did find that they could function very well by working in a different way and, for some, with a smaller number of staff which was the cause of many of the redundancies that we saw (i.e. businesses cutting their cloth sensibly having learnt what they absolutely needed staff wise, rather than all redundancies being the result serious business loss or failure).

Many employers were paternalistic at the outset but have, from necessity, had to taper off that approach as the restrictions wore on throughout 2020.

What should businesses be doing to ensure they continue to work within legal HR structures when their workforce remains remote?

  • Establish regular communication at all levels – daily for line managers, several times a week for teams and monthly for business-wide updates.
  • Make provision for mental health support.
  • Make sure there are easy channels for concerns or comments to be filtered back – anonymously if possible.
  • Consider remote workstation assessment in respect of health and safety
  • Consider new ways of engagement. Employees are bored of Zoom quizzes and gin tasting – consider meaningful rewards for achievable work-related targets and practical aids to help make employees home working a more positive experience, including greater investment in IT support and hardware
  • Maintain appraisals – this is no longer a one-off crisis which employers can use to justify not doing the ordinary work with employees, you need to find an alternative way to get the normal employee support done (even if this is more briefly).
  • Ask your HR team what practical obstacles they still encounter with managing employee relations with home working employees – they need to enable them to complete the usual grievance, performance and disciplinary processes within regular timescales. The first lockdown saw many of these go onto the backburner, but it should more like business from home as normal this time round. It is the time to invest in software and communication tools that help with these processes (as they will streamline HR beyond the pandemic).
  • Make sure policies and procedures have been updated to correspond to new ways of working, for example is the data security policy giving employees the guidance that they need to safeguard sensitive data while working remotely? If not, what tools does the business need to invest in to reduce risk.

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