Retaining your staff in the “new normal”

Promotional Business Feature: BPE Solicitors - Pictured, Sarah Lee, Partner in Employment
BPE Sarah Lee

Between August and October, the number of job vacancies rose by 388,000 to 1.17 million and the number of job-to-job moves increased to a record high (Office for National Statistics).

In this “jobseeker-friendly” labour market, where many have re-evaluated their careers and work-life balance following the pandemic, employers must work hard to retain staff. One option is to increase pay and benefits but what non-financial steps can you take to keep staff happy and engaged?

Managing returns to the workplace

Although you can require staff to return to the office if it is their contractual place of work, tread carefully to avoid poor employee relations and potential grievances and claims:

  • Acknowledge that returning to the workplace will be a huge shift for many staff who will all have been differently impacted by the pandemic. Engage with everyone individually regarding their return to work.
  • Consider exceptional cases (e.g. if someone is extremely clinically vulnerable).
  • Give reasonable notice of the change (to allow staff time to make logistical arrangements).
  • Properly consider any flexible working requests (e.g. to continue working from home).
  • Deal sensitively with reluctance or refusals to return, investigating the reason(s) for this and seeking a mutually agreed way forward, if possible.

Follow a re-onboarding process with staff, including a return to work meeting where you can communicate any changes, gauge how staff are and remind them of support available.

Consider offering a phased return to the workplace to allow time to readjust to daily routines, commuting and sitting in a busy office.

Consider ways to reintegrate furloughed and non-furloughed staff and workplace-based and home-based staff, as divisions may have arisen over the last 20 months.

In light of the new variant, numbers of cases and upcoming festive period, continue to take reasonable precautions to make your workplace as safe as possible, keep risk assessments and safety measures under review and share these with staff, to ensure they feel safe and comfortable in the workplace.

Plan for “Plan B”!

If the NHS is placed under unsustainable pressure over the coming weeks, the Government may introduce “Plan B”, including encouraging people to work from home where possible – again! If you already have systems in place, this should not be too disruptive. However, if not, be proactive, start planning for this eventuality now and agree a way forwards with staff. For example, do you have the contractual right to change their work location? If not, you will need their agreement to do so.

If you are not properly prepared for remote working, you may lose your staff to other, more flexible employers.

Focus on well-being and mental health

It is widely publicised that the pandemic has caused or exacerbated many mental health issues, which can lead to poor performance, absences, grievances, resignations and claims, so it is critical to keep this on your business’s radar:

  • Have (and communicate) a plan to support staff, whether remote or in the workplace.
  • Consider offering an Employee Assistance Programme and mental health first aiders, if these are not already in place.
  • Be open, honest and remove the stigma about mental health.
  • Educate the whole business about mental health.
  • Train and support managers, who play a critical role in spotting mental health issues and supporting staff.
  • Maintain regular communication with all staff, especially remote staff.
  • Encourage and model healthy habits – work “normal” hours, take breaks, do exercise!
  • Don’t send emails out of hours as this can cause stress and an inability to switch off.
  • Encourage peer support networks.

Deal well with flexible working applications

Following the pandemic, flexibility is now expected by many. In order to retain staff, it is critical to deal well with flexible working applications:

  • Comply with all statutory requirements.
  • Follow the ACAS Code and Guide on managing flexible working requests.
  • Be reasonable:
    • Keep an open mind – when you get a request, investigate and assess it properly, explore it with your employee and try to agree a way forward.
    • Don’t refuse just because of a minor level of cost and inefficiency.
    • Deal with requests consistently – ensure that no-one receives preferential treatment.
    • Deal with them in order – do not allow people to jump the queue.
    • Don’t reject requests on a technicality.

Embrace hybrid working – and guard against the associated risks

Many businesses are already embracing hybrid working, which can represent the best of both worlds for staff and businesses. To ensure effective hybrid working:

  • Agree a clear framework, which is communicated to staff. Do you want to fix core hours in the office or at home? Will staff be required to give advance notice and/or book desks to come into the office if you will have reduced office space?
  • Conduct formal DSE assessments for home workers:
    • Arrange formal desk assessments in situ, via technology or, as a minimum, via a questionnaire.
    • Take particular care in relation to disabled employees, who may require more adjustments to work safely from home.
    • Remember that, aside of your legal H&S obligations, staff won’t work productively if they don’t have a safe, comfortable environment.
  • Implement a Homeworking and/or Hybrid Policy which is accessible to all staff and which sets out expectations and parameters.
  • Revisit employment processes which may need adjusting to accommodate remote working, e.g. how to record staff’s working hours to ensure compliance with the Working Time Regulations and national minimum wage.
  • Consider any changes required to staff contracts.
  • Consult staff before you make final decisions regarding your hybrid arrangements.

Be mindful of the risks associated with hybrid working and guard against these as far as possible:

  • Avoid discrimination – staff with certain protected characteristics may be more likely to work remotely, for example, working mums, disabled or older employees. Ensure that remote working does not reduce their access to opportunities for training, development or promotion and/or cause them to miss out on learning and development from peers and seniors.
  • Ensure effective management of remote staff – It is more difficult and time-consuming for managers to manage remote staff. Avoid micromanaging, as trusting staff engenders loyalty and motivates them to go the extra mile due to the “give and take” demonstrated by their employer. Allow room in your managers’ schedules to facilitate regular 1-1s with staff to ensure they feel engaged and supported and offer your managers any ongoing support they need.
  • Avoid a two-tier workforce of office-based and remote staff – try to offer flexibility to all and keep staff connected with one another.
  • Avoid virtual presenteeism – ensure remote staff don’t feel obliged to remain online at home even after hours and consider a “right to disconnect” policy.

Be reasonable when managing accrued holiday and holiday requests

Employers are experiencing unprecedented levels of accrued holiday amongst staff due to the government regulations in March 2020 (which allowed staff to carry forward up to 4 weeks’ statutory paid holiday into the next two holiday years where it was not “reasonably practicable” to take it due to COVID).

Managing this against a backdrop of staff shortages and exhausted staff is a huge challenge for businesses, and holiday is, perhaps, a more emotive topic than ever after 20 months of lockdowns, travel restrictions and cancelled holidays. So how should you handle this?

  • Audit workforce holiday – assess whether it was/is practicable for staff to take holiday or whether they are entitled to carry it forward under the government regulations, and check whether staff have a contractual right to carry forward any additional holiday.
  • Hold 1-1s with staff with accrued holiday and agree plans for taking this.
  • Ensure that staff can take as much holiday as possible in the year to which it relates and can take any carried forward holiday at the earliest practicable opportunity.
  • Only require staff to take holiday (by giving them twice the length of notice as the period of holiday you want them to take) as a last resort, e.g. if you have staff who are uncooperative and refuse to take any accrued leave!
  • Be flexible regarding staff requests to cancel holiday. You are not obliged to permit this but it will generally be reasonable to do so.
  • Have a clear policy regarding holiday and COVID, communicate this to staff and treat people fairly and consistently in accordance with this. Staff can then make informed decisions regarding whether and/or where to go on holiday, aware of the possible implications, which should reduce risk of grievances or claims arising.
  • Assess holiday requests on an individual basis. Avoid imposing any blanket bans, e.g. regarding holiday requests where staff must quarantine on return, as that could lead to discrimination claims.
  • Where an employee needs to quarantine or isolate, allow them to work from home or their quarantine hotel, where possible. If not, they may have to take additional holiday or unpaid leave.

For help and advice in putting in place policies and procedures to retain staff or any other Employment Law matter, contact Sarah Lee at sarah.lee@bpe.co.uk or call 01242 248261

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