The government’s three-tier system: how five employers are responding

People Management spoke to HR leaders in ‘high’ and ‘very high’ alert areas to find out whether this has affected their approach to home working and staff safety

It was the system designed to reduce the confusion created by 50 areas in England previously being under an array of varying lockdown rules. Yet the government’s new three-tier system, introduced last week, has been dogged by controversy.

Most notable of course: Manchester mayor Andy Burnham’s (pictured) standoff with Westminster as he demanded greater financial support for the city to avoid the increase in “levels of poverty, homelessness and hardship" that being placed under the highest level of restrictions – tier three – would otherwise, he said, entail. Nonetheless, it has now been announced that Manchester will be moved into this ‘very high’ risk category on Friday (23 October), against the wishes of local leaders and without the £65m package of support they’d called for.

The first region to be placed under tier-three restrictions was Liverpool and Merseyside, meaning no household mixing indoors or outdoors in hospitality venues or private gardens; the rule of six applying in outdoor spaces such as parks; pubs and bars not serving meals being forced to close (as well as some other businesses such as gyms and casinos); and guidance against travelling in and out of the area. The region of Lancashire has also now been placed in tier three, with South Yorkshire – covering Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield – joining it from Saturday (24 October).

Areas currently falling under tier two (‘high’) restrictions – entailing no mixing indoors, the rule of six outdoors and people reducing journeys where possible – include London and Essex, Birmingham and the surrounding area, Leicester, Nottingham and the North East, including Newcastle, Gateshead and Durham.

Of course many employers in these tier two and three regions won’t fall under the category of businesses expressly asked to close. But has a heightened level of risk changed their approach to where employees are being encouraged to work, and instructions around travelling to work, for example? People Management asked five HR directors overseeing workplaces in ‘high’ and ‘very high’ alert regions to find out...

“We’ve had to consider the meaning of ‘reasonably necessary’ to assess what should now be done in offices”

Kate Griffiths-Lambeth, group HR director at Charles Stanley (offices across the UK)

“We have offices across the UK and so staff living in different tiers. If an employee lives in one tier but works in another, the rules follow the employee, so if they live in tier one but travel to tier three they need to comply with the higher restrictions. We have to be mindful of changing regulations in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England – just as you think you know what should be done, the rules change and we have to re-evaluate to ensure we are compliant and keeping people safe. We have key worker status, as we support vulnerable individuals and charities, so have had a few people going into our offices since 23 March, as there are some tasks that cannot be done from home. Until recently the number of individuals attending offices was rising, as employees were missing human interaction, found it an easier place to work and in some instances relied on this to support their mental health. Since June, the choice was a matter of government guidance not law. 

“But as soon as the tier system and accompanying regulations happened, we notified staff in impacted areas they could no longer car share to work unless in the same ‘bubble’ (though it does seem a bit silly they now have to take public transport with the resultant potentially higher risk). We have also had to consider the meaning of the phrase ‘reasonably necessary’ to assess what can and should be done in offices. We don’t view staff going into a Covid-secure office as ‘attending a gathering’, but it is possible a meeting might count as such – hence meetings at the office within a tier two or three area should be avoided. Meetings with clients have to pass the ‘reasonable necessity’ tests. We have had some staff diagnosed with Covid-19, and had to ask other staff who’d been in that location to isolate until they had negative test results. Working under the advice of local Public Health England protection teams, we have deep-cleaned offices to ensure no further risk.”

“The impact of Manchester being placed in tier three should be minimal as we’re discouraging office attendance anyway”

Colin Watt, global chief people officer at NCC Group (offices across the UK, HQ in Manchester)

“We have offices across the UK, including in London, Leeds, Edinburgh and Cambridge. Our head office is in Manchester. The impact, when the city is placed in the tier three category on Friday, however, should be minimal to our business. Although our Manchester building is technically open, we’ve been discouraging attendance and access is controlled via a ticket system and has to be approved. That system has been in place for all offices for months – and across a UK workforce of 1,200, we have less than a handful dropping in on any given working day. Those who do come in, it’s typically because of personal circumstances such as a cramped living space, house share or having young children at home who are not in childcare or school.

“Now Manchester is being placed in tier three, we will reinforce the desirability of home working and stopping non-essential travel. We have very few ‘critical roles’; we have more critical personal situations linked to wellbeing, such as the above, which we support colleagues with. We have a ‘permit to work’ system for any client requests, an office playbook/re-induction for any access to our spaces, and a work from home support payment for desks (all IT peripherals are free), and all underpinned by EAP and internal mental health first aiders. We are so fortunate that we can work 100 per cent remotely.” 

“We decided to return to home working with only essential staff onsite, and to prioritise mental health even more”

Kim Healey, people director at Everton Football Club (in Liverpool)

“We were one of the first football clubs to close all of our sites – a week ahead of national lockdown in March. We’d been scenario planning since January, so were able to transition to home working smoothly. With the return of football, essential staff have been on site at USM Finch Farm and Goodison Park and operating to the highest standards possible, following Premier League protocol, government guidance and our own risk and governance policies. Each of our sites has its own taskforce. We also decided, while the government guidelines had reduced social distancing to one metre-plus, we would be maintaining two metres across club sites for non-playing and non-coaching staff.

“We had started to bring some staff back into our Royal Liver Building site, adhering to very strict social distancing rules. However, as local infection levels began to creep up (before Liverpool moved into tier three restrictions), we decided to return to home working, with staff only onsite at the Everton Free School and essential staff at USM Finch Farm and Goodison Park to allow us to deliver the 2020-21 season. 

“The mental health of staff has been an absolute priority. Within 10 days of lockdown we launched Everton Connect, featuring live and on-demand sessions from wellbeing and mental health specialists and using our in-house talent, including nutritionists and coaches. We’ve even started our own ‘Blues Radio’ staff radio shows. We recently also launched staff mental health ambassadors trained in mental health first aid. These were already part of our plans for the year, but we brought them forward in response to coronavirus, and hope they will prove a valuable resource for anyone feeling anxious about the current tier three situation. Other activity has included promotion of our in-house counsellor and other benefits, and developing communications around seasonal affective disorder.”

“We will continue to be flexible and let people who need to attend our Gateshead office”

Alex Arundale, chief people officer at Advanced (offices across the UK, including in Gateshead and Birmingham)

“We have an office in Gateshead, which now falls under tier two restrictions. In response, we’ve opened up a conversation with our employees from this office around the future of working, asking them to consider all aspects of the positive and negative experiences they have had during lockdown. Our current approach is to continue to be flexible around our people and the tier systems in place, enabling those with exceptional situations to still utilise our safe spaces. 

“We also have an office in Birmingham, a city that was already under local lockdown but is now classified as tier two. Birmingham continues to thrive in spite of Covid-19 and we had really encouraging results from our ‘enable phase’, where we worked hard to build confidence for our workforce to come back in after such a prolonged period at home. We did this through a combination of re-onboarding videos and education, allowing everyone the opportunity to see the changed environment and signage in advance. We asked everyone to share their Covid-19 vulnerability status to give us greater understanding of their situation and fears. We also have PPE, new door handles that allow someone to open and close any door without the need to touch them, and a desk booking app that allows us to safely manage capacity and to track and trace.”

“We’ve had to manage the start of the academic year at the same time as going into the highest tier”

Paul Boustead, director of HR and OD at Lancaster University (in Lancashire) 

“Navigating the pandemic has been a very challenging period for us all, particularly for universities in the North West of England. We have had to manage the start of the new academic year and an influx of new students at the same time as large parts of the region going into the highest government tier and facing increased restrictions relating to staff mobility and safety. At Lancaster University, we have put a range of measures in place to allow us to continue to operate and deliver some face-to-face teaching to our students. This has been a huge collective leadership challenge.

“However, the process we have been through has enabled us to learn new ways of delivering services and education and also has expedited and transformed our approach to flexible and agile working. Do I think we will ever return to the traditional campus environment and ways of working? No. We have been able to increase our productivity, be more sustainable and offer more staff and student choice. Universities are notoriously slow to adapt and embrace change and it is amazing to think that in the midst of the current pandemic situation we have been able to put into place new ways of working that are enhancing the staff and student experience and catapult us into a more digital and agile world. The wellbeing of our staff remains a priority for us and we are operating a regular pulse survey and have recently agreed a two-week Christmas closure to allow colleagues to recharge and reset after what has been an extremely challenging year for all.”