Your Post-Pandemic HR World

Preparing for a return to work

No-one can yet tell when the lockdown will end and normality resume – if there can ever be a new recognisable “normality” again. The experience of China will be little help, as so few of us live in orderly command economies where even a sudden end to restrictions will mean a sensible and cautious response from the population. Moreover, in most countries outside China, the number of infections and fatalities will have to fall significantly for any country to safely relax measures.

In some sectors, such as hair salons and cafes, resumption will be immediate – as people seek relief from being locked up in their homes for so long. But other sectors will require a staged response. Manufacturing and processing often requires a complex start up procedure, whilst for other sectors demand will be sporadic, uncertain – and some businesses may never return.

We also have to face the possibility that there will be no final conquest of COVID-19 and that it is here to stay. As with flu – only much worse. This is likely because of its rapid mutation and high level of contagiousness. Even when a vaccine arrives it will take months – if not years – to vaccinate the World and because we are dealing with a nasty branch of the viral family any protection offered by a vaccine is likely to be very short-lived.

What employers are doing

Most large employers now have teams working on a resumption of work, with the first question being – what date should a resumption be planned to begin? Automotive manufacturers, such as Fiat Chrysler and Tesla, are working to a May 4th resumption date, but airlines are particularly hard-hit (with only 40% of planes in use) and may not resume full normal services until late this Autumn. For many the only option will be a takeover or bankruptcy.

The increased popularity of online shopping during the lockdown is going to raise big question marks for non-food retailers, as they plan a resumption of shop opening. What is likely to emerge is that major store groups move rapidly towards a reduction of outlets – confined to major cities –  and their redesign into being showrooms for products where shoppers can view, try, try on, match products, see them demonstrated or – in the case of clothing – modelled before the shopper orders them to be delivered. A hybrid high street model somewhere between Argos and IKEA will emerge, but with perhaps a cafe and catwalk built in.

In the Financial services sector the transition to home-based working has been relatively trouble-free. Banks have had to find ways to limit queuing at service desks and many have virtually closed all face-to-face services. Where staff are continuing to operate in offices, many banks have introduced temperature scanners monitoring all those entering the building. This has the advantage of staff reassurance as well as picking up other potentially contagious diseases suffered by staff and clients.

The working environment 

Persuading employees to return to work in open plan offices may pose a challenge, although those employers in rural locations hit less hard by the pandemic should find that employee fears have not been deeply implanted. The important task will be working with employees and their representatives to prepare for the resumption of operations. Representatives will be particularly concerned about workplace sanitary conditions and allowing employees time to pick up their tasks and get used again to work routines. They will also insist on reaching agreement about such things as personal protective equipment, health facilities, and improved sick leave and pay. Many will be calling for workplace childcare – although employers may wish to point out that locating such facilities so close to a large workplace may put children a greater risk and easily outweigh the convenience factor for working parents.

The huge enforced experiment in home working will have had its success stories, but most employers were not set up for working at a distance and many employees will have considered it just as an excuse for an extended holiday.  Not everyone has a home that is suitable for such an arrangement and is either too noisy or cramped. Moreover, those who have been subject to a temporary layoff and not allowed to work will find a resumption of employment duties particularly hard. On the other hand, there will be employees who have so enjoyed home working that they will resist a resumption of office duties – especially where they normally commute long distances. What will a company do then?

Those employees whose jobs have relied on business travel will have had to function in a very different way over recent months. It is possible that the importance of face-to-face meetings will have diminished during this time as executives get used to video-conferencing. In some cases, even union-management meetings have taken place over the internet. When things resume, it is going to be important to evaluate what this means to the way the business is conducted. Business travel is a huge cost to any company and can be a large area of “down time” and stress for those required to travel. Its reduction might therefore be welcomed on all sides – except, of course, by travel-related services themselves.

Although the car industry is at a low point, with few potential customers being able, or inclined, to venture into car show rooms right now, it is actually in a very good position to exploit the post-crisis World because a car is a naturally isolating mode of travel, unlike public transport. What manufacturers need to focus on is changing air conditioning systems to purify the air circulation in a way that protects the occupants from viruses and bacteria in the environment. They also need to address ways to separately treat the air of individual passengers. This will help make the car appear a haven of safety in an otherwise threatening world – instead of a moving metal box that could endanger life through a motor accident. It will also take attention from environmental issues during the transition to all-electric vehicles.

The changed agenda

A big barrier for any working parent will be the delays in reopening of schools and daycare facilities. If the relaxation of measures happens in the Summer, schools will be breaking for the Summer holidays and there will be no guarantee that the old support mechanisms for child minding (including friends and family), and events like Summer camps, will still be there.

With a staged return there is also going to be a need to monitor workforce health in a totally different way than before. Even before the pandemic there was a huge global problem with flu, especially in the Winter (600,000 deaths globally per year) and a host of other communicable diseases. Disinfection of facilities, regular health checks, improved on-site isolation facilities, face masks and respirators, retrained company nursing resources and a company emergency contingency plan are all going to be high on the list for HR managers in larger companies. 

Attention will also need to be given to employment contracts to ensure that there are clauses included (where legally possible) to permit force majeure measures. These will include temporary pay cuts and lay-offs, or short-time working; home working; flexitime (where none exists); radical changes in job roles; obligatory blood temperature – and other – tests. It is also going to be essential that the possibility will be minimised that a company can be sued for allowing, failing to protect or – in any way for exposing – an employee to infection.

Why things will be getting far tougher

As Agatha Christie once said “Hell is the truth, learned too late”. After this crisis is over there is also going to be a flood of virus-related litigation involving liabilities of all kinds – from employees, former employees, dismissed CEOs, the relatives of deceased workers and former contractors. This will, for instance, relate to circumstances such as those sent on overseas trips to countries of high risk, or where a sudden lockdown took place – marooning the employee; car hire companies claiming compensation because their cars were on the wrong side of borders which were closed; airlines refusing to give companies credits or reimbursements for lost fares; contractors claiming compensation for cancelled projects; insurance companies being sued for not paying out in respect to employer indemnity insurance; former employees claiming unfair dismissal for refusing to come to work; employees claiming that they were selected for temporary lay-off or redundancies on grounds of age, race, gender or sexual orientation; workplace accidents blamed on those later found to have tested positive to COVID-19, and people appointed to jobs that were either subsequently cancelled or not confirmed … and many more. In many cases – particularly in the USA – this will be in the form of class actions.

One thing that the lockdown will have taught companies is not only which jobs are essential to the business, but also who as a jobholder is loyal, honest, committed, capable, hard working and a natural leader in the face of adverse circumstances.

Who is essential and what jobs are essential – are not the same thing, and the mismatch will become startlingly evident. A majority of companies could operate at over 90% efficiency with less than a third of their former workforce, and how this can happen will be easier to determine after the crisis is over. The challenge will be to undertake the terminations in a fast, fair and dispassionate way. The law puts the interests of employees first, but the law of economics puts the survival and profitability of the company first.

Of course, in some countries – such as Hungary, Armenia, France, Hong Kong. Philippines and Ghana the health crisis has been a pretext to impose social control measures to overcome latent political threats, anti-establishment protests or simply in the name of despotic rule. It is therefore uncertain if, or to what extent, the former social freedoms will ever return. It will equally thus be up to employers operating in such countries to determine how much this is against their own interests and what it means for their existing HR policies?

Copyright: FedEE International 2020/05