5 thorny questions you need to answer before reopening the workplace

Boris Johnson’s ‘sketch of a roadmap’ is of limited use.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 11 May 2020
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Down to business

Anyone expecting Boris Johnson to liberate us from lockdown on Sunday evening was always going to be disappointed. Some had, however, held a more reasonable hope for a clear path towards reopening.

What we got was a “sketch of a roadmap”, with promises of further details to come. From a business perspective, the government’s most important message was probably that staff who can’t work from home  - which largely means the manufacturing and construction sectors - should now return to work, but only if they can make their own way there without using public transport (while presumably ‘staying alert’ for an invisible, ubiquitous virus).

The government released more concrete plans on Monday evening, including guidance as to what constitutes a “COVID-secure workplace”. Nethertheless, there will still be many questions and tough choices that business leaders will need to consider. 

So who comes to work and who doesn’t?

It is not as simple as telling staff to come back to work, as individual circumstances differ widely. 

Parents will have childcare responsibilities that are likely to persist until schools and nurseries reopen (Johnson indicated some primary school pupils might return in June). 

Not all workers can drive, walk or ride a bike to work, and promoting a car share scheme is hardly going to comply with social distancing. 

Staff themselves will need greater clarity before they are comfortable to return to work and companies will need to allay any fears - but it is not (only) up to the employer to decide what constitutes an acceptable level of risk for their employees, and there are worries that staff may now feel pressure to come in, even if they feel unsafe doing so. 

What if staff refuse to come to work? 

Typically, if an employee doesn’t attend work, an employer could dismiss them, says Rustom Tata, chairman of City law firm DMH Stallard. However, in practice that is unlikely to happen in this situation. 

"A dismissal would almost certainly be unfair. In fact, employees who raise concerns about their safety in the workplace may be able successfully to claim unfair dismissal with increased compensation and without needing any minimum period of service.”

It could also bring significant reputational damage to the employer in question (see below).

What are businesses already doing?

A look at some of the businesses that are already undergoing the process of reopening offers a glimpse of what others can expect. 

The food-to-go chain Pret a Manger has been slowly reopening stores for takeaway since April 16 and now has over 100 open around the world. 

Only staff who usually work in the reopening shops have been asked to return (the majority of Pret’s staff have been furloughed), and will have to “undergo a thorough interview” beforehand. 

When asked to clarify this process, Pret told Management Today that this involves individual shop managers phoning team members to get an understanding of their current situation, general wellbeing and whether they’re emotionally or physically able to return. Those living with anyone vulnerable will not be permitted to come back in. 

The construction firm MACE is currently operating at around 40 per cent capacity nationwide, CEO Mark Reynolds told BBC’s Radio 4, with around 50 per cent of those outside London. Employees, now working across multiple shifts, have been told to avoid travelling at peak times, while “toilet capacity has been reduced” and on-site canteens closed. 

Is it worth it to run on reduced capacity? 

Both of those firms are clearly comfortable that they can operate effectively with reduced staff, but not every business will be in the same position.  

Mark Derry, the executive chairman of Brasserie Bar Co, admitted to the same Radio 4 show that reopening restaurants with a reduced capacity to enable safe social distancing is probably not feasible "without considerable support". The chain breaks even at 70 per cent of regular sales. 

There are also some industries, of course, where it is not even possible to operate a business while maintaining 2m social distancing - hair salons, for example.

For many, it may be the better option to keep staff on furlough until lockdown measures are reduced further.

Is it the right thing to do? 

It’s clear that many firms will have to make some changes before they’ll be allowed to reopen. These will differ across industry and business structure, but there will no doubt be significant logistical and ethical challenges facing firms over the coming weeks. 

Businesses will need to be flexible, given the uncertainty over when or indeed whether we will return to anything near normal trading and office life for the foreseeable future.

They will also need to be humane - a company’s reputation will be defined by its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, says Giles Gibbons, CEO of consultancy Good Business. The public (and potential employees) will remember those that put the interests of their staff and society first and those that don’t.  

Image credit: Tonywestphoto via Getty Images

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