Returning to work after Covid – the new normal

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The government has issued new guidance on how different workplaces should be made safe for staff during the coronavirus pandemic.

This follows the prime minister’s announcement that those who could not work from home should be “actively encouraged to go to work” in England.

Several key points must be followed, such as maintaining a 2m (6ft) distance wherever possible, cleaning more frequently and carrying out a risk assessment. CBI director general Carolyn Fairbairn told the BBC’s Today programme that employers would “welcome” the guidance.

“It is detailed, it is eight different work settings, it is consistent with what many employers are already practising in the workplace,” she said.

“It is very important that we do take these first steps and that we do take them in conjunction with unions and employee groups.” But many employees are still worried about what will change in the workplace.

So what are the new guidelines for different sectors?

1. Working outdoors

Prime Minister Boris Johnson highlighted construction and manufacturing as the sorts of industries where employees would now be explicitly encouraged to return to work.

On Monday, new government guidance said that bosses of employees who mainly work outdoors, such as in the construction or agricultural industries, needed to ensure that staff could work – even if social distancing was not possible.

It advised that additional personal protective equipment (PPE) which was over and above the normal helmets and other building site protection – such as face masks – was not required.

Other guidelines include

  • Staggering arrival times and providing more entry points to construction sites
  • Giving people single tasks for the day so the fewest hands touch the equipment
  • Separating sites into different “zones” to keep groups of workers apart to contain any potential spread of coronavirus
  • Limiting the number of visitors on-site
  • Sanitising all hand tools, controls, machinery and equipment after use

Adam Marshall, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said: “This is a significant step forward in terms of the information available for businesses, who will now need to digest the detail.

“The guidance signals big changes for the way that many businesses operate, and some firms will now need time to plan and speak to their employees so that they can return to work safely.”

2. Manufacturing and food processing

Factory and warehouse workers’ bosses need to make sure surfaces which are regularly touched are cleaned frequently and that there is plenty of hand sanitiser.

Shifts should have the same personnel and, as with construction, shared tools should be dropped off somewhere rather than handed over directly.

Deliveries should be larger and less frequent to minimise contact with outsiders.

The government also said “factory, plant and warehouse workers should not use PPE as a precaution against coronavirus, and not wear any more PPE than usual”.

3. Office workers

For office workers, employers should devise one-way systems to minimise contact amongst their staff.

Staggering arrival and departure times at work to reduce crowding should also be considered, as well as providing extra parking and facilities such as bike racks to encourage people to walk, run, or cycle to work if possible.

Meetings should also be held remotely – and only involve participants who are absolutely necessary. Meeting outside could be considered if that’s not possible, although the government still says those who can work from home should continue to do so.

Screens, barriers and floor tape should be used to keep people apart and help show 2m distances.

And the use of hot desks should be avoided. In call centres or training facilities where that’s not an option, workstations should be sanitised between shifts.

Staggered breaks and packed lunches will also help prevent gatherings of people.

But Michael Izza, the chief executive of the accountancy industry body the ICAEW said: “This is not a return to business-as-usual, and companies will note the government’s advice that employees should continue to work from home if possible.

He added: “Implementing the guidance will mean costs and changes which businesses will not find easy. In light of that, I expect many of them will think twice about reopening their offices.”

Much of the same guidance applies to those working in research facilities or labs.

But it is also recommended that arrangements should be made for how to clean expensive equipment that can’t be washed down. Additionally, in the event of an emergency, such as a chemical spill or fire, people do not need to stay 2m apart.

4. Shops

The new guidance applies to businesses that are currently open, such as chemists and shops selling food, as well as others which are still closed.

Mr Johnson said in his address to the nation on Sunday that if the circumstances were right, other types of shops might be able to open next month – such as fashion retailers.

The guidance suggests all of these businesses should use the following measures:

  • Define the number of customers that can follow 2m social distancing within the store
  • Take into account total floor space as well as “pinch points”, such as doorways or corridors
  • Limit the number of customers in-store at any one time
  • Remove services that you can’t do safely, or that would require close contact with customers
  • Consider whether changing rooms are essential, and ensure that they are cleaned after every use if they are kept open
  • Use floor tape or paint to clearly mark 2m distances
  • Ensure contactless payments can be made if possible

5. Working in a vehicle

Lorry drivers and couriers have been classified as key workers during the coronavirus pandemic.

Where social distancing guidelines can’t be followed while they’re at work, bosses have been told to consider whether that activity is critical to the business. One example includes heavy deliveries needing more than one member of staff.

Bosses of those working in vehicles should also:

  • Use screens or barriers to separate people from each other if working in the same vehicle if they can
  • Reduce the number of people each person has contact with by using “fixed teams”, so each person works with only a few others
  • Ensure regular cleaning of vehicles, in particular between different users
  • Minimise contact when customers are paying or signing for a package
  • Prepare for goods to be dropped off to an agreed area, for example through click-and-collect, to avoid transmission
  • Keep sufficient supplies of hand sanitizer or antibacterial wipes in cars or lorries so workers can clean their hands after each delivery or drop-off

6. Working in other people’s homes

The government also had particular advice for people who work in or visit other people’s homes, such as plumbers, electricians, cleaners and carers.

“We understand how important it is that you can work safely and support your employees’ health and wellbeing,” the advice says.

Workers should wash their hands and surfaces more and cut any activities where being 2m or closer to a colleague are needed.

If that isn’t possible, it suggests the several tactics:

  • Keeping the activity time as short as possible
  • Using screens or barriers to separate people
  • Working back-to-back or side-to-side, rather than face-to-face

If none of this is possible, businesses should assess whether the work can safely go ahead, and employees should raise their concerns if they think otherwise.

No work should be done in homes where inhabitants are isolating, unless it’s to address a safety problem, and where there are vulnerable people, face-to-face contact should be avoided.

Making sure customers know to keep 2m away is also a must, as well as cleaning surfaces which will be regularly touched.

7. Pubs and restaurants

On 4 July at the earliest, some businesses in England including pubs and restaurants, may be allowed to open as long as they can meet social distancing measures.

For now, all food and drinks outlets must continue to offer exclusively takeaway or delivery options, with all seating and bar areas remaining closed.

The new guidelines note that Covid-19 is a respiratory illness and is not known to be transmitted by exposure to food or food packaging. For takeaway and delivery services, it recommends:

  • Installing cleanable panels to separate workstations in larger kitchens, as it may not be possible to move equipment like sinks and hobs apart
  • Minimising the amount of contact at food “handover” points between staff and delivery drivers
  • Installing plastic screens between front-of-house workers and customers
  • Introducing zones where drivers can collect packaged food items
  • Encouraging customers to use contactless payments and order online, via apps or over the phone to reduce queues

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Thriving in the post-COVID-19 workplace

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  • Even before COVID-19, many workers around the globe lacked key skills – including digital capabilities.
  • Upskilling in preparation for the changes to come post-COVID-19 should be a critical part of response and recovery.
  • There are four steps workers and businesses can take today to prepare for tomorrow: Accelerate the move to platform, transition to digital/virtual work, assess your skillset and expand it as needed, and plan for the future.

The pandemic has accelerated the need to ensure that people around the UK have the necessary technology skills and access to do their jobs.

The current picture is bleak — and many parts of the UK are still feeling the pandemic’s full impact. However, recovery will come, so what should individuals be doing to make sure they can come back to the workforce stronger?

Shoring up skills

Many of the skills people need to be employable during and after COVID-19 are digital, which will enable, but not guarantee, resilience, creativity and the ability to collaborate with others. In areas where the pandemic is still an active threat, people need to be able to get work done while operating at a distance from co-workers. Managers and team leaders need the skills required to motivate and manage distributed teams. Job seekers may find themselves having to compete in a digital, fast-changing digital work with which they are unfamiliar.

Regional disparities will likely grow, with regions already left behind in the digital era experiencing increased hardship. Two such examples are rural areas, and some urban areas.

If surviving and thriving in the wake of COVID-19 are our goals as a society, where should we start – and how should we chart our future course?

1. Accelerate the move to platform

One of COVID-19’s most immediate economic effects is to accelerate efforts that businesses, governments and individuals were already making to not only digitalise, but also transition to a platform model.

A platform business takes an approach similar to that of technology giants. The platforms these companies have created comprise ecosystems of technologies, services and products that bring consumers and producers together, and which can scale quickly and encourage third-party collaboration, thus extending their reach.

Our collective ability to operate successfully in a platform-based world will become much more important now because linear models – the most basic example of which is the factory assembly line – are not agile or resilient enough to withstand major disruptions like COVID-19. Such disruptions will become much more common in the decade ahead, so the importance of preparing our businesses, governments and institutions for this cannot be overstated.

Not all sectors are wholly suited to the platform model, but many industries and companies that haven’t started to evolve in that direction will be forced to do so much faster. As an individual, if you own a business you should explore opportunities of adopting a platform-business model or partnering with a platform and should prepare to compete with them. And all of us – whether owners or employees – need to study platforms to understand how they affect our lives, our work, and our future.

2. Transition to digital/virtual work

The requirement that we engage fully in the virtual realm right now is pushing people in many areas of business to learn not only digital skills, but also to improve auxiliary skills such as collaboration, creative problem-solving and openness to new ideas. Managers and team leaders, for example, are having to learn how to motivate and engage teams from afar.

At work, everything that can be done online will be, while activities we can’t do remotely will have to be reconfigured somehow.

Here we get a glimpse of how well-suited existing platform companies are to surviving COVID-19 – and thriving afterwards. In an ecosystem, the players rely on each other collectively, while the virtual aspect adds critical flexibility overall, so weakness in some areas won’t necessarily sink the entire enterprise.

3. Assess your skillset and expand it as needed

For those who gain time in the day because they now work remotely and no longer have to factor in a commute, there’s an opportunity to use the time to gain new skills. If you have been displaced or lost your job as a result of COVID-19, this offers a way to round out your skills and increase your employability.

Of course, many people now have to spend time caring for children who are not in school or other family members. Nonetheless, as people get used to changes in the rhythm of daily life in a world where work and personal lives are happening in a shared space, they can and should build time to assess their skills – digital and otherwise – into their new routines.

At the same time, you’ve probably learned new skills to continue doing your job without leaving home. In the weeks of quarantine, you’ve likely had to bring different skills to your work: managing time to get work done and tend to others who are quarantined with you. Whatever reserves of resilience you have will likely have been tested – and you can draw on that as you move forward.

4. Plan for the future

Planning for the future in uncertain times is tricky at best, but we can extrapolate how things might shake out by doing some personal scenario planning, similar to the way businesses set strategy. The key is to begin thinking about where demand for work will exist and how best to prepare for those spaces, while realising that there are real uncertainties in the answers to those questions. The type of work that is robust across a lot of different futures is not a bad way to start.

And, in such times as these, it’s always good advice to bet on known trends, rather than try to anticipate what might be. For example, some parts of the world with demographically older population profiles – such as Europe, North America and Asia – may respond differently to these trends than populations in other parts of the world where there is a need for education and as they are about to enter the workforce. Finding ways to connect to these trends, and the implications for where there is likely to be work, makes sense.

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Covid-19 effect on the UK job market

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Millions of people across the UK have had their working lives upended because of the coronavirus pandemic.

While many are working from home, others have been furloughed for weeks or even made redundant.

So who has been affected most to date by job losses? And which sectors have been worst hit?

Jump in benefit claims

The UK unemployment rate was estimated at 3.9% between January and the end of March. That’s slightly down on the previous period, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The full extent of the impact of lockdown measures on the UK jobs market won’t be known for some time, given that these new figures only cover a few days after the restrictions were introduced on 23 March.

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The claimant count in April went up by 856,500 to 2.1 million. This figure doesn’t include everyone who is out of work, since not all can claim assistance. Which is a 1.9% increase in Unemployment across the UK.

Young people hardest hit

Young workers seem to have been most impacted by lockdown measures so far. New research by the Resolution Foundation think-tank suggests that 9% of those aged between 18 and 24 have lost their jobs altogether, the highest of any age group.

Meanwhile, a previous study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) found that sectors that are now shut down employed nearly one-third of all workers under the age of 25, or 25% of young men and 36% of young women. That compares to just one in eight workers aged 25 and over.

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The IFS said that young people, women and the lowest earners will be most affected economically by the pandemic.

Fewer hours worked

UK workers are clocking fewer hours as parts of the economy came to a standstill after lockdown measures were introduced on 23 March. The total number of weekly hours worked recently saw its largest annual fall in 10 years.

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Estimates based on returns for single weeks suggest that this was mostly down to the fall in hours in the last week of March, with a much smaller decrease in the previous week, the ONS said. In the final week of March, the total number of hours worked was about 25% fewer than in other weeks in the same quarter.

Sector shutdown

Many staff have been furloughed in sectors that have been forced to shut down during the coronavirus pandemic. Those include retail, leisure and hospitality, where a high proportion of women work.

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The largest proportion of the workforce being furloughed was recorded in accommodation and food service activities, which includes hotels and restaurants. That was followed by those working in the administrative services and manufacturing, according to one ONS survey.

The North East of England had the highest unemployment rate estimate for the three months to the end of March at 5.4%.

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The largest rise in the unemployment rate on the previous quarter was seen in the West Midlands and Scotland, both at 0.6 percentage points. One report by the Centre for Cities found that the economic pain inflicted by Covid-19 will be felt unequally across the UK, with workers in more affluent areas such as the South East able to work from home, for example. The coronavirus crisis risks widening regional inequalities, and frustrating government efforts to “level up” prosperity across the UK, it suggests.

Job vacancies dip

The estimated number of vacancies in the UK fell sharply during the 2008 financial crisis. Since 2012, they’ve generally been on the up, reaching a record high of 855,000 between November 2018 and January 2019.

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But between February and April, there were an estimated 637,000 vacancies in the UK, 170,000 fewer than in the previous quarter. New research by the IFS suggests that workers across the board could have fewer options due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Having analysed jobs posted on the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) website in real-time, it found that they had started to drop off around mid-March. By the time the lockdown was announced, firms had stopped posting new vacancies almost entirely. New postings on 25 March were just 8% of their 2019 levels.

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Sources: ONS, IFS, IFC, BBC

Being made redundant

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It’s the announcement you don’t want: your employer is no longer able to pay you and you’re being given the big heave-ho.

Redundancy means that your employer can no longer offer you work, either because they have run out of money or the work you do is no longer needed. You can’t be made redundant simply to get rid of you.

Redundancy can happen for a mixture of reasons.  These include:

  • Your company loses a big contract;
  • There is a fall in the demand of the product or service you offer;
  • Your organisation is relocating to another part of the country;
  • A change in technology means your skills are no longer required;
  • Your company has to cut costs to remain profitable.

Your rights if you are being made redundant

You are entitled to be told in writing that you will be made redundant, to have a meeting to discuss the redundancy, and then have the right to appeal if you think the redundancy is unfair. If more than 20 people are being made redundant at the same time, your employer should discuss the situation with a union or employee representative group prior to issuing redundancy notices.

You should be given the required notice for being dismissed, which is one week if you’ve been employed for one month but less than two years; two weeks for two years, three weeks for three years, and so on up to 12 weeks. 

Your employer should also give you reasonable time off to look for other work, including going for interviews. The amount of time allowed depends on the nature of work you do and how far you are prepared to look for that work; it may be worth agreeing with your employer what they see as reasonable.

You are still entitled to any holiday and statutory sick pay, even after you’ve been told you will be made redundant.

Redundancy pay

When you are made redundant you are entitled to redundancy pay, providing you meet the following criteria:

  • You’re an employee (being self-employed or a freelancer does not qualify);
  • You’re not a public service employee (e.g. you work for local government), as different rules apply;
  • Have worked for the employer continuously for at least two complete years (since the age of 16);
  • You’ve not reached the end of a fixed-term contract.

You will then receive statutory redundancy pay. This is the minimum you should get:

  • Half a week’s pay for every complete year you worked under the age of 22.
  • One week’s pay for every complete year you worked between the ages of 22-40 inclusive.

Your pay is calculated based on the gross (i.e. total before tax and national insurance) pay you receive per week at the time you were made redundant. Overtime won’t be counted unless you regularly receive it and it was compulsory. Commission should be included if it’s paid regularly. In cases of dispute, your weekly pay is based on an average over the proceeding 12 weeks (unless you’ve changed your employment terms during that time).

The maximum statutory redundancy pay you are entitled to is equivalent to £350 a week. In April 2009 it was announced that this amount will be raised to £380 a week. Redundancy pay of up to £30,000 is tax-free; although if you get more than £6,000 this can affect how much jobseekers allowance you are entitled to.

Alternative jobs

If there are other suitable jobs that you could do, your employer may offer these jobs to you. If you weren’t offered these jobs, you could claim for unfair dismissal. Each job needs to be appropriate to your skills, abilities and circumstances. It needs to be comparable with your current pay, status, hours and location.

You should be offered the job prior to your current job ending and be given information about what differences there are between the new job and your current role.

You can have a trial period of four weeks to find out whether the new job is suitable, without losing your rights to statutory redundancy pay. After this time, you can’t take redundancy.

You may lose your rights to redundancy pay if you don’t accept a suitable alternative job; however if the job is not suitable then you could claim unfair dismissal.

If you don’t get redundancy pay

Your redundancy pay should be automatically paid at the same time, or shortly after, you are made redundant. If your employer does not pay you the correct amount of redundancy pay then you should write to the employer first, and if they don’t pay you, you can take them to an employment tribunal.

Rules regarding redundancy are quite complex, so it’s worth contacting Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) on 08457 474747 or your local Citizens Advice Bureau.

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