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Scotland – Early workforce planning is essential to mitigate flexible furlough teething problems

Ann Frances Cooney, Legal Director - Addleshaw Goddard

It’s important for employers to engage in early workforce planning to mitigate flexible working teething problems. When the Chancellor announced the extension of the furlough scheme at the beginning of May, it raised a number of questions regarding the implications for businesses.

Further guidance was unveiled weeks later to clarify the extent of employer’s contribution to wages, and again on June 12th, regarding flexible furlough and part-time working.

May was as busy as both March and April with regards to legislative changes during the pandemic. In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon revealed that school children will return to classes on a part-time basis from August. Again, more questions were raised – how will this ever work for parents?

While it’s down to the individual councils to consider the implementation of this, it’s likely that we won’t know for sure what this part-time return to school will look like until nearer the time. Already, we at Addleshaw Goddard have had a number of discussions with clients on how best to future-proof ahead of these changes. Our advice is simple – it’s vital to start planning sooner rather than later, if employers want to mitigate any teething problems come August 11th.

What are the plans for a school return, and what issues might it cause?
Blended learning involves children being in school part-time and working from home the rest of the time. Whether it’s a case of some students attending for the first half of the week, and others the second half – with Wednesday reserved as a ‘deep-clean’ day – or a daytime split of different pupils in the morning and afternoon, we can say with some certainty that parents will be disrupted during conventional working hours.

Parents who are returning to out-of-home work, even part-time through the flexible furlough guidance, face a new dilemma. If their working days don’t align with their child’s ‘at-school’ days, how will they manage childcare needs? The option of support from grandparents is still advised against until at least phase two, and childminders are only able to practice with a limited intake – so are likely to be hard to come by. The prospect leaves many in a difficult situation.

Juggling childcare and working to regular office hours have the potential to damage productivity. Something as simple as children being at home in the morning, to be taken to school in the afternoon, or children at home three days out of five, disrupts the working day and leaves parents with an added stress of trying to maintain their child’s education at home.

Depending on team structures, these constraints may fall on the same days for a number of staff – making flexible furlough logistically tricky, and potentially resulting in an imbalance and additional workload for the remaining team members. Likewise, for businesses operating both north and south of the border, there is an additional logistical challenge in understanding workforce needs as each country emerges from lockdown at a different pace.

An additional consideration beyond schooling is the successful implementation of test and trace. It’s important that employers are prepared for the possibility of a member of staff being asked to isolate immediately following an alert – and for the consideration that this might mean an entire team is impacted and unable to work on-site.

What can employers do?
There will be no ‘one size fits all’ approach. We already know that the Scottish Government’s phased relaxation will allow some sectors to return more quickly than others, such as hospitality and tourism.  Looking ahead to their longer term strategy, including workforce demand and capacity requirements, is important to ensure the return to work is not a difficult one.

Employers must now consider their workforce needs. We advise taking stock of who can return to work without issue, and who may need a degree of flexibility. Communicate with staff and ask for their feedback to ensure a dialogue is established and remains open. Brush the dust from your flexible working policy and refresh the content to take account of the ‘new normal’.  Consider restructuring teams based on this information to avoid stress or resentment – or employees simply telling you they cannot return.

If this is not possible, we advise that employers explore the option for more flexibility in the working day. Which staff need to be available during the 9-5, and which staff can take a more ad-hoc approach to their work – working in the evenings and weekends instead? There is no doubt that businesses will have to adopt an open-minded approach to flexible working as part of the longer term plan.

Finally, while many sectors such as construction, manufacturing, hospitality and tourism cannot reopen until their workforce is able to physically return, employers that can should look seriously at extending at-home working for the foreseeable.

Test and trace
Bosses must have a contingency plan in place should one of their team members be contacted by the test and trace service. The test and trace service will contact those who have been in direct contact with this individual, but it would be wise for employers to independently identify staff who have also been in contact with such a person, swiftly implementing one of two options: facilitating ‘working from home’ for those who do not feel unwell, or placing staff on sick leave.

At this point, employers will also need to consider calling on additional staff to increase their flexible furlough hours to full-time in order to manage capacity, and implementing a deep clean of offices or spaces that the employee in question has visited.

It is vital, therefore, that staff are made aware that they can be called upon at a moment’s notice, and employers should check that the employment contract allows them to make such demands of staff to avoid being left high and dry if staff refuse to co-operate or complain that the employer’s insistence is unreasonable.  It is never too early to have these conversations and to take steps to address any shortcomings in existing staff arrangements.

It is worth noting that it falls to the employee to let their employer know if they are required to isolate, so open communication should be encouraged, and job security reinforced, to ensure you are made aware as soon as possible.

Early workforce planning is key
In the past, some businesses have been against at-home working for a number of reasons, but recent events have enforced somewhat of a trial run. As a result, bosses are beginning to come around to the fact that employees are productive and can get their work done whether they’re in the office or not. Some staff even view it as a breath of fresh air – giving them a chance to ‘come off the hamster wheel’ and utilise their time more wisely.

With the economy in dire straits, it’s important that those who can help keep the cogs turning, do so. It’s in the wider interest for both employer and employee to avoid redundancies and dismissals for not being able to work contracted hours, wherever possible. Early workforce planning is key. Future-proofing to allow a more flexible approach to work will ease pressure on both sides, and allow us to emerge from the pandemic as strong as ever.

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