What would an Italy-style lockdown mean for managers?

Bosses still have a duty of care if their staff are working from home.

by Francis Churchill
Last Updated: 20 Mar 2020

Italy has been in near total lockdown since 10 March. Schools and gyms are closed, travel is restricted and people are only allowed to leave their homes for essential visits to the shop. 

So far Italy has suffered more than 41,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and over 3,400 deaths. This compares to the nearly 3,300 confirmed cases in the UK and over 140 deaths. 

While the Government have so far ruled out the prospect of a total lockdown here - preferring its strategy of social distancing - the UK still might not be far from implementing a similar shutdown. 

Here's what managers and HR departments need to be aware of.

What would be the likely economic impact of a lockdown?

It is too early to know exactly what impact the lockdown in Italy is having. However, the disruption to travel and movement are widely expected to compound the country’s already shaky economy. 

Bank UBS has downgraded its growth forecast for the country from an increase of 0.3 per cent to a contraction of between 0.4 and 0.8 per cent.

In the UK chancellor Rishi Sunak has announced a £330bn package to combat coronavirus as part of his budget - suggesting the cost to business could be large - but some business groups remain unconvinced that it will be enough. 

Would all employers have to shut their workplaces?

The full extent to which the UK government would go to slow the spread of the virus is at the moment unclear. It has already taken the decision to indefinitely close schools and is pursuing a policy of “social distancing”, encouraging everyone to work from home if possible and avoid social gatherings.

That being said, the government’s stance on what defines “key workers” indicates that businesses vital to keeping society function will be kept open whatever the cost. These include supermarkets, manufacturers of important products and in some cases important financial services. 

Can I expect employees who have roles they can do from home to still work?

For the most part, yes. For employees that already work from home as part of their normal role, a virus lockdown is unlikely to change anything, says Paul Holcroft, associate director at Croner. However, for employees who have not previously worked from home, “it is an option you should consider exploring with them”, he adds.

But Rachel Suff, senior employment relations adviser at the CIPD, cautioned that an employee’s ability to work from home depended not just on their job, but their caring responsibilities.

 Employers should be flexible and prepare for possible skills gaps. Suff says: “This could mean training people in less essential roles to cover for more business-critical functions.”

Can I expect parents looking after children during a lockdown to work from home? If not, do I need to pay them?

Working parents already have the right to take unpaid leave to look after children in an emergency or unforeseen situation, either as emergency time off or unpaid parental leave. But this is intended to cover an employee for a couple of days, not the indefinite period that schools will now be locked down for the majority of children.

If, after this initial period, they still cannot work despite work being available, “you will need to agree with them as to what this period would be classed as”, says Holcroft. “For example, they could potentially consider taking it as annual leave.”

However, if the employee can work from home in some capacity alongside their childcare responsibilities, they would be paid as usual, says Suff. “Employers should be flexible where possible in this situation,” she reiterates.

If other parts of my workforce can’t work from home, do I still need to pay them?

If staff are unable to work from home, they would need to be placed on lay-off until the lockdown is over, says Holcroft. If there’s a lay-off clause in their contracts, staff would only need to be paid the statutory guarantee pay – currently £29 a day, increasing to £30 a day from 6 April.

If employees don’t have a lay-off clause in their contracts, staff must be paid in full. This also applies if there is no work to be done because of a potential lockdown’s impact on business, says Holcroft.

Another option is to ask staff to take annual leave. Employers do reserve the right to ask staff to take this at a specific time, but they are obliged to provide notice of at least twice the amount of time as the leave you want them to take. “For example, if you want staff to take two days, they would need at least four days’ notice,” insists Holcroft.

How can I maintain morale and productivity if the whole office is working remotely for an extended period?

Line managers need to maintain regular communication with their reports during a shutdown, says Steve Herbert, head of benefits strategy at Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing. 

One-to-one phone calls can help employees voice concerns, and group emails can make people feel part of a team. Maintaining a team spirit will help businesses “bounce back to full productivity as swiftly as possible once the immediate crisis has passed”, he says, adding that access to counselling remotely, video GP consultations and employee assistance plans would all be valued by employees in such circumstances. 

Suff also warns that employees could start to feel isolated under a lockdown. “So send out regular organisation-wide emails and intranet posts from HR and senior managers,” she advises. 

These should cover how the organisation is dealing with the pandemic and signal how much senior staff “appreciate everyone’s efforts in these exceptional times”. (Just make sure they sound heartfelt and genuine.)

What is my duty of care if people are working from home?

In a home working situation, an employer’s duty of care is generally the same as if the employee was operating in the workplace, says Holcroft: “However, the practicalities of home working are different and, therefore, may require an adjustment in your approach.”

Suff adds that employers should set up a remote-reporting process, for example by email or phone, to report any illnesses, and direct employees to call 111 if they suspect they may be at risk of contracting the virus.

The original version of this piece first appeared on our sister site People Management

Image credit:  ANDREA PATTARO / Contributor via Getty Images



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