How are employers reacting to a second lockdown in England?

People Management asked HR leaders in a range of sectors what the latest restrictions mean for them, including around office use and furloughing staff

It’s the second lockdown, or ‘circuit breaker’, that the government had resisted for some weeks – but which might, prime minister Boris Johnson said addressing the nation on Saturday night (31 October), just save Christmas in some capacity.

The latest rules, which come into force on Thursday 5 November if passed through parliament this week, are markedly different on several fronts to those rolled out in March. Schools, colleges and universities can stay open, for example, as can construction and manufacturing sites. But pubs, restaurants, gyms, personal care and beauty facilities, theatres and non-essential shops will have to close, with a last-minute extension of the original job retention scheme – whereby the government pays 80 per cent of a furloughed employee’s wages – announced to support all employers, whether forced to close or not.

Johnson’s instruction on attending a workplace was that this would be allowed where someone could not work from home, leaving this somewhat open for employers to interpret. While some large employers, including PwC, EY and KPMG, have told all staff to work from home unless there’s an essential business or personal reason that they can’t, Deutsche Bank, for example, announced it plans only to “substantially reduce” the numbers of staff working from its London office. 

So how are other employers approaching this and other matters, such as shielding staff and the job retention scheme’s last-minute extension? People Management spoke to top HR directors in a range of sectors – including hospitality, construction, education and retail – to find out what England’s second lockdown means for them...

“We’re keeping hotels open for business travel, asking all office staff to work from home and furloughing a large percentage of staff” 

Eugenio Pirri, chief people and culture officer at Dorchester Collection

“Deja vu and experience with the last lockdown is proving to be very helpful with this latest one, as it has allowed us to put plans in place quickly and mobilise our teams so work can continue. We will be closing all divisions of our corporate offices fully and reverting back to a full-time ‘working from home’ model. In evaluating the business both nationally and globally, we will be furloughing some of our people while having others work via the part-time element.  

“As we only just reopened all of our hotels in early September, we will apply the same principles to our three UK hotels as in France, for example, which will mean keeping them open for business and work travel requirements. However, we will close all our restaurants, bars and spas and provide in-room dining services only. This will result in the furloughing of a large percentage of our workforce during the new lockdown period. Overall, the hospitality industry has been brought to its knees and we are very hopeful these measures will do what is intended: reduce the R rate and save lives. This will hopefully allow our business and industry to reopen in time for the prosperous holiday season and allow families and friends to celebrate together; even if in limited numbers.”

“We’ve reinforced that work from home is the default unless someone needs to physically come in to do a task”

Anna Edmondson, head of HR at PowerON Platforms

“When the tier system was introduced, we asked employees to come into the office only if they physically needed to be there (for example, to work on hardware), or if they felt it was helpful for mental health. Our office was in tier one, but a number of employees who had been travelling to the office lived in higher-tier areas, and we didn’t want to encourage unnecessary travel. When lockdown was announced, we didn’t really need to change this approach but have reinforced the message that work from home is the default, unless there is a physical need to be in the office for a particular task.”

“Most staff will continue to work remotely until at least April and we anticipate using furlough again”

Kessar Kalim, director of HR at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) 

“For many employers, most of whom have spent the past few months ensuring their premises are Covid secure, the lockdown restrictions from 5 November will be a devastating blow. At LSHTM, we have been fortunate that the bulk of our workforce has been able to work remotely since March, and will continue to do so until at least April next year. Likewise, with students, we have already made plans for term one and term two teaching to be delivered online (except for essential face-to-face lab teaching). These plans were made in advance of the prime minister’s most recent announcement, as we needed to plan beyond the next few weeks. 

“We know uncertainty can add undue pressure and anxiety for people, in what is already a hugely challenging situation. We did not want to be in a reactive position from one week to the next, so a key priority for our leadership team has been to provide as much clarity and certainty as is reasonably possible. This has meant absorbing all the relevant public health advice and government guidance, and making key decisions that best serve our staff and student communities.

“The extension of the furlough scheme, while a positive development, was of course announced on the very day the scheme was due to close. At LSHTM, we have used the scheme on a limited basis since March, and will look to use it again. However, employers and employees would benefit from some longer-term planning from the government. Germany’s equivalent furlough scheme, for example – the ‘kurzarbeit’ scheme (or short-time working scheme) – has already been extended until the end of 2021, meaning employers can plan not just for the next few weeks, but for at least the next year. This will undoubtedly save jobs. A similar longer-term approach in the UK would not go amiss.”

“We will continue to support colleagues unable to attend work through no fault of their own”

Louise Stonier, chief people and culture officer at Pets at Home

“The news of the second lockdown will have limited impact on the way we currently operate since we have already put extensive measures in place to ensure all our workplaces are Covid secure. The wellbeing and safety of our colleagues, customers, clients and pets is always our first priority and this will remain so. For many of our colleagues, being in work is vital to their wellbeing, and so we’ll place continued focus on ensuring all our colleagues who are able to work have the opportunity to do so and have meaningful work to carry out. We will also continue to support our colleagues who may be unable to attend work through no fault of their own. Our colleagues have told us that they have felt supported through this challenging time, and feel that their wellbeing is as important to us as it is to them, which is great to hear. But we will we need to work even harder to ensure we are providing the right support for our colleagues as we face into these even more challenging times.”

“We’d been on a hiring drive – but now 99 per cent of staff will go back on furlough and we’re working out how to support new joiners”

Steve Rockey, people director at Limewood Group

"We opened back up on 4 July and by the end of the month the vast majority of people were back to full-time working. We’ve also been on a massive recruitment drive because the hotels became very busy very quickly – so this lockdown has been a bit of a kick in the teeth for the industry. As with the first lockdown, we have been listening to the guidance and going through scenarios of how different members of staff will be affected. At the moment hotels are still open and most people are still busy. But communications are going out today so that everyone knows what is happening after Wednesday. The majority of our staff will have to go back on furlough – 99 per cent will fit under the scheme and we’re going through the people who have joined past the RTI return date and working out how we can help.

“The other big focus for us is pulling together our mental health resources for the teams. Summer was great – the sun was shining and you could go out for your daily exercise. But it could be a different kettle of fish now that it’s dark by 4.30pm and the weather so far has been terrible."

“Our offices will remain open for those who need them, including for wellbeing reasons”

Danny Harmer, chief people officer at Aviva

“This next lockdown means uncertain and more difficult days ahead for many. Continuing to support our people, so they in turn can help our customers, remains our priority. The majority of our employees are already working remotely, and have been since the outbreak of the virus. But we also know that a small number of our people need to be in an office because of the role they do or, perhaps more importantly, to protect their mental or physical wellbeing.  While we can give all our colleagues office furniture and IT kit as needed, we also understand that some may simply not have an appropriate space to work. In all of these instances our offices are Covid secure and open for our critical workers who need access to them.

“I am also mindful that as so many of us continue to work separately from one another, finding ways to help our people feel connected and part of the Aviva community is so important. We’ll continue to find innovative ways to do this, such as our many online social community groups and our recently launched Aviva radio.” 

“Offices are being kept open but on an even tighter basis”

Harvey Francis, chief HR officer and executive vice president at Skanska UK

“We are certainly more prepared for lockdown second time around, and helpfully the government has been clear that construction work can continue. Our primary focus remains guided by our values, in that we will not compromise the health and safety of our people. We’ve made our sites Covid safe to enable our site teams to continue doing the work they love, and have provided those working at home with all the kit they need to work safely and comfortably – desks, chairs and of course IT kit such as monitors, keyboards and webcams.  

“We reopened our offices a couple of months back for people who were struggling to work from home for either personal or productivity reasons, and over the last couple of weeks we’ve had people starting to use the offices again for meetings. We have decided to keep our offices open but on an even tighter basis. This means for only those struggling to work at home and for any business-critical work that cannot be done from home. We are taking the same approach with our site teams; if you can do some or all of your work from home you must do so.

“I continue to meet virtually with my exec team colleagues every day to monitor the situation, and the business continuity team, of which I’m also a member, continues to meet two or three times each week. We have communications planned for the next couple of days to share with our people the decisions we have made about how we will operate during this second lockdown period, including a couple of communications from our CEO.” 

“Straightforward and transparent comms is now more vital than ever”

Sarah Morris, group chief people officer at Compass Group UK

“We’re well prepared for this lockdown with what we learned from the first one, with enhanced safety and a strong focus on mental health and wellbeing. We know that straightforward and transparent communication is more important than ever so we have established a rhythm of virtual town halls. My priority is the welfare of our frontline colleagues around the world who are providing essential services through the lockdown and so we’ve made sure they have all the right training, equipment, medical and mental health support.”

“We will keep our bakeries open for takeaway and communicate with teams clearly to build trust”

Miranda Burgum, people director at Gail's Bakery

“Over the coming weeks we will continue to support our teams, neighbourhoods and suppliers with care, purpose and passion. We will keep all our bakeries open for takeaway, and have safe trading and operating practices in place. Our team's wellbeing and livelihoods are fundamental. We communicate with our teams clearly and effectively to build trust and remove the ‘so what, how will this impact me?’ The lockdown has had a significant impact on the hospitality industry; we play such an important part in everyone’s lives. Despite this, we continue with our growth mindset and remain agile to retain as many jobs as we can while continuing to play our part in local communities.”