Ask The Expert: Alison Schreiber

The virus is still around so employers must make sure that people do not forget to socially distance and apply careful hygiene.

HR expert Alison Schreiber talks to EDB about the challenges employers face in moving forward during the COVID-19 crisis.

In every issue of East Durham Business, we focus on a particular company or individual to learn more about their area of expertise – the feature is called Ask the Expert.
This time around we chat to Alison Schreiber, Director of the HR Dept Durham, who writes a regular Human Resources related blog for the Peterlee and Seaham Business Park websites.

EDB: The pandemic has obviously been a very difficult time for employers which you have undoubtedly seen in your role supporting SMEs with their HR and H&S issues?
AS: Yes, it has been difficult for everyone in different ways. Most businesses have been affected but obviously some sectors – social care, hospitality and retail, for example – have been hit even harder than others.

EDB: What were the biggest challenges?
AS: Many businesses could not operate at all in the early stages so the Job Retention Scheme was a godsend. However, there are many different workplace situations and, at the beginning when details were sparse, it was difficult for employers to know exactly how it applied to them. We were able to keep our clients up-to-date as the scheme evolved and help them make the right decisions for their business. Some employers were able to continue to operate by asking employees to work from home but this often presented challenges in itself. Some employees work well at home, some find they are easily distracted and, of course, you’re missing out on that face-to-face interaction that is often important for effective teamwork. However, it was great that a lot of businesses worked around these issues and found creative ways to overcome them.

EDB: How is the second national lockdown going to affect businesses?
AS: Some sectors have been told they must close completely so this is naturally very hard when they were starting to see some signs of recovery. Luckily, the Job Retention Scheme has been extended and is back up to 80% contribution from the government so that should help. Part-time furlough is still allowed so that gives the possibility to get work done at reduced levels when it is available. Home-working, for those that can, seems set to stay for a while. If staff can’t work from home, it is very important to make sure you have carried out a risk assessment and have a “Covid 19 secure” workplace. You need to communicate the measures you are taking to employees and make sure they stick to them. As well as protecting employees, the last thing businesses need is for half the workforce to be off with the virus or because they need to self-isolate.

EDB: What are the challenges going forward?
AS: The Job Retention Scheme will be replaced by the less generous Job Support Scheme and that, in turn, will eventually stop. Employers are having to reassess their position and some difficult decisions have had to be made so, unfortunately, some redundancies are inevitable. However, I would encourage employers to be creative and first try to explore alternatives. For example, we’ve seen moves to a 4-day week or other reductions in everyone’s working hours, voluntary redundancies, sabbaticals, voluntary unpaid leave to add to paid holiday entitlement and other such initiatives that have helped to reduce or avoid compulsory redundancies.

Businesses may decide to make working from home a permanent working practice, either on a part-time or full-time basis, so employers can then evaluate whether they need the same workspace as they previously did and maybe make some cost savings there. Remember though, if people are working from home, the employer still has a duty of care for their health and safety so must do a home-working risk assessment.

EDB: If redundancies do have to be made, how do employers go about this?
AS: The important thing is to follow a fair process. There are minimum consultation periods for 20+ and 100+ redundancies but, even for less than 20, individual consultations are required. Employers need to document their business case and decide what positions are at risk then, unless the position is unique, determine the selection pool for each role. You then need to propose the selection criteria and consult with affected employees before applying any criteria and confirming the redundancies. Employees also have the right to appeal.

What I have stated here is a simplified description and each situation will be unique. If employers are not familiar with the process, we would always recommend they get advice – either from us or another HR professional.

EDB: What would be your advice to businesses to “bounce back” from this crisis?
AS: Naturally the pandemic has hit some companies harder than others but, from what I have seen, the businesses that have tended to fare better so far are the ones that, despite the unpredictability of the situation, have planned ahead as best as they could and been as creative as they can in doing this. Unfortunately, I would also say, although it is difficult to do and obviously awful for individuals affected, if you feel redundancies cannot be avoided and you have explored all of the alternatives, don’t delay the decision too long as this will put your business, and the employment of remaining employees, at risk.

The crisis has affected individuals in different ways so try to be supportive in helping people back to the “new normal”. Communication is key to “taking the pulse” of your workforce! In looking after your employees’ well-being, you will get engaged staff that will pull in the same direction as you to support the future of your business going forward.