How should HR react to the latest lockdown?

People Management asked employment experts and people professionals how they’re handling the latest raft of Covid restrictions

More than nine months on from the first national lockdown, England and Scotland are once again under some of the toughest restrictions either region has seen – joining Wales, which has been subject to similar rules since Boxing Day. Non-essential businesses have been told to close, and individuals have been told to work from home and not to leave their homes for anything except essential purposes.

But this time around, the rules for employers are much clearer, says Alan Price, CEO of BrightHR. Employees can only go into work if working from home is ‘unreasonable’, which removes a degree of flexibility formerly afforded to firms around whether staff could work from home and do so effectively.

But Charlotte Dean, director of P3 People Management, points out that employers are also more prepared than when the first lockdown was announced. “Things are different than they were back in March 2020 and I would advise businesses not to panic,” she says.

“We have a few things to feel grateful for because we’ve done it before, and we can do it again. And this time, we have the tech in place to hit the ground running,” says Dean, noting that, for thousands of workers, the usual routine of video meetings will continue unchanged.

However, she also warns that complacency should be avoided – even in sectors that have not been dramatically hit by the latest restrictions – and employers should consider what worked in previous lockdowns, and what didn’t: “Many companies had staff working 60 or 70 hours per week from home, which resulted in burnout and demotivation. So take steps now to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”

Robert Hicks, group HR director at Reward Gateway, echoes that employee wellbeing is paramount, but this means “doubling down” on flexibility – especially for working parents who will be affected by school closures.

Get more HR and employment law news like this delivered straight to your inbox every day – sign up to People Management’s PM Daily newsletter

“Every employee can work in the way that best suits their circumstances in the short and long term,” Hicks says of his organisation. “We work hard to make sure employees know that they can do this. If a working parent needs to take a break during the day, they can, and if they have studying they need to do, they can.

“We do not operate a request process – they are empowered to manage themselves and work with their managers as needed.” 

Helen Astill, managing director of Cherington HR, agrees that supporting working parents has also been a top priority for her clients following the announcement: “This time the government has indicated that furlough is an option for eligible staff with childcare responsibilities who are unable to work if employers wish to use it,” she says.

The processes and structures businesses have already put in place will enable them to focus this time on fine-tuning what works and what doesn’t, says Neil Morrison, HR director at Severn Trent: “There is the memory of the experience and this is particularly true for those colleagues who will find themselves homeschooling at the same time as home working and in general are dreading the prospect.

“We are trying to be as supportive and flexible as possible to help them through this tricky period of time.”

Underpinning all of this is the vital importance of communication and social connection, says Sarah Dowzell, co-founder of Natural HR, who encourages employers not to forget the value of the little things. “Even if there are no business changes to update employees on, making sure they feel reassured has been – and will continue to be – vital for our team”, she says.

This was echoed by Sophie Harding, HR director at Last Verdict, who suggests that creating a spending pot to treat employees could help boost morale. “When you’re in the office, how many times has someone bought you a coffee, or come in with doughnuts? It’s a welcome treat that brings the team together and helps the workplace feel like more of a home,” she explains.

“A workaround is creating a spending pot where once a week you treat your staff to coffees and snacks before the meetings, or a reward scheme in which you give out vouchers for takeaways to hard-working staff members.” 

But she adds that it’s about more than just rewarding your staff: “It’s not just the treats – it’s creating a sense of normality and understanding within your team that everyone is missing at the moment.”