Lisa Bryson: Back to the future of work
Lisa Bryson, partner and head of employment at Eversheds Sutherland in Belfast, explores what the re-opening of workplaces in Northern Ireland could look like.
Every day brings something new for us all to consider and today’s business leaders will need to consider a number of different issues when contemplating what tomorrow’s workplaces will look like. Last week, the Chancellor announced that the Job Retention (or ‘furlough’) Scheme will be extended until October and further guidance has been given on the interplay between furlough and holiday. The Northern Ireland Executive also unveiled its ‘Pathway to recovery’ and exit from lockdown with a five-step plan.
While employees and employers across the rest of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland now have an idea of likely return to work dates, this is not the case in Northern Ireland. There have been widespread calls from industry for greater clarity from the Executive on how and when local businesses will move through each stage of the five-step plan, before eventually returning to work.
While we all wish we could flick a switch and return to normality, there is no quick – or one size fits all – fix. Businesses will need to take a medium to long term view on re-opening measures, given that public health professionals are warning that COVID-19 is likely to be a risk for many months to come. For now, we must take each day at a time and in the short term focus on what we do know.
Employers have a legal duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of their employees and anyone else who may be affected by the employer’s business. Employers know their business. Employees also know the parts of the business in which they typically work. Employers should take this time now to risk assess their business and to engage with their staff about what health & safety measures might, could or need to be introduced. Involving unions and or employees in this conversation will, in turn, help build employee confidence and alleviate anxiety about returning to work when that time comes.
The HSENI has some very helpful tools online to assist employers to take a systematic review of their business. There are many different options and solutions being discussed to ensure health and safety in every workplace. Naturally these vary from industry to industry and location to location but include such matters such as changes to layouts of offices or factories; staggered start and finish times; changing shift patterns; closing canteens; additional car or bike parking facilities; one way systems; screens; temperature testing or screening and in some settings the provision of PPE. Each potential change will also have potential legal, practical, or cost implications for business and each of these factors will need to be addressed together. The UK government has set out eight different, sector specific, guidance notes which set out practical considerations sector by sector.
Whether employers are considering how to continue operating safely (if they have not had to close), or are considering how to move from furlough or ‘working from home’ back to site, communication and transparency will be key to maintaining positive employee relations. Nothing about the last eight or so weeks has been easy for anyone, and inevitably further difficult times lie ahead as society and the economy seek to recover from this unexpected setback.
What we do seem able to say with a fair degree of certainty is that our key workers, people, unions, businesses, industry groups, politicians, friends and family will work through this together with the common aim of enabling Northern Ireland to come back ‘better’.