Coronavirus: The view from the market

As the world of work adapts to a new normal, Employee Benefits has collected thought leadership, advice and commentary from across the market, to help readers make sense of the challenges ahead.

Maintaining wellbeing

Averil Leimon, executive coach at White Water Group: “Self care is vital; this is not the time to start binge drinking or spend all the time on the couch. Mental and physical wellbeing, and of course immunity, thrive on good healthy nutrition, exercise and sleep, the factors that are often difficult to fit into a busy working life especially if you have a commute.

“Keep your distance but find a park and walk, run or skip. Nourish yourself and indulge in any pampering that you can. Treat yourself gently. Make this the time when you finally learn relaxation techniques and meditation.”

Richard Glynn, chairman at 87%: “We believe that business has a pivotal role to play at this time. Only through measuring a [business’] overall mental wellbeing can organisations support the mental wellbeing of their key resource, their people. Employees’ mental and physical wellness needs to be top of the agenda.

“Resilient mental health can help individuals and therefore their families and society cope better with the uncertainty and worry that unforeseen crises like the Covid-19 bring.”

Duncan Stephenson, deputy chief executive at the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH): “This is an unprecedented period of anxiety for many people in the UK and the population’s mental health is paramount at this time.

“We know mental health first aiders provide excellent support in the workplace. It will be fantastic to see this work translated to community settings and remote working as we manage the mental health challenges associated with this outbreak.”

Simon Blake OBE, chief executive of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England: “Whether online or offline, bringing your whole self to work is a mindset that is better for wellbeing and better for business. When be bring authenticity, kindness and our whole self to our jobs, it enables us to work better together, boosting performance, creativity and innovation.

“In the current climate, and as more organisations move to online working, human connections are more important than ever. Nurturing them virtually will be key to supporting the nation’s mental health and wellbeing as we come together to tackle the impact of Coronavirus.”

Chris Parke, chief executive officer and co-founder at Talking Talent: “Working remotely can be lonely and lead to a feeling of disconnect between employees and their organisation. Here, the use of collaborative messaging and social tools can bring workforces together, even when they are not present in the same room. Virtual tools can be another great way of communicating with co-workers and keeping the line of communication flowing.”

Mike Robinson, chief executive at the British Safety Council: “Even in normal times it’s important for peoples’ wellbeing to make sure they are connected to their colleagues and their work if they are not coming into the workplace; at a time of serious anxiety in the life of our country, keeping an eye on your wellbeing and your colleagues’ wellbeing will be really important.”

Staying productive

Chris Biggs, managing director at Theta Financial Reporting: “Despite these testing circumstances, telecommuting is a great way to work with the new advice while maintaining output.

“Working at home and connecting with a team via phones and laptops has never been easier. For small businesses, this can massively reduce the cost of overheads, as they don’t need to create their own network or server. It is now possible to host people from all over the world on a much smaller budget.

“As the Coronavirus pandemic continues to grow, businesses should embrace this new method of working. Not only is it safer for employees given the current climate, but it can increase workplace activity, too.”

Looking after family

Jamie Mackenzie, director at Sodexo Engage: “During this time of crisis, employers need to create an inclusive and supportive environment for all staff, whatever their situation. While the health and safety of teachers and pupils are of course of the upmost importance right now, there is no denying that school and nursery closures are going to be hard for working parents.

“At this critical time, employers need to be as accommodating as possible and be mindful of those who need to look after their families.

“Businesses must encourage employees to talk about their families and concerns with their employees and offer as much support as possible; there’s never been a more crucial time to put the right and necessary support structures in place.”

Peter Cheese, chief executive at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD): “The government’s decision to close schools will have a massive impact on working parents. Those that are able to work from home should continue to do so as far as they can. However, this is an exceptional circumstance. Employers must accept that there will be disruption and that working parents will struggle to be as productive as normal.

“Employers need to make allowances for this and take a flexible approach, especially for people with younger children who will inevitably need more care. With many schools looking at remote teaching, parents will have to juggle their work with helping their children to access school activities. There may be limited space and limited equipment to manage both parents and children working from home each day. There will be disruption.

“Employees should speak to their line managers and HR teams to understand how they can best balance family and work commitments, especially as this stands to be for a prolonged period of time.”

Jane van Zyl, chief executive at Working Families: “Employers should continue to pay parents and carers as usual while they are working from home. Now’s the time for line managers to have sensible and understanding conversations with parents and carers of young children, particularly those working full-time, about what is needed, and what is and isn’t possible, over the coming weeks.

“Since the virus emerged, we’ve seen an increasing number of employers adopt flexible working to mitigate the risks of spreading the illness.  We hope that this will help employers recognise the far-reaching benefits of flexible working, including increased productivity and engagement from staff, and that they will continue to embed flexible working into their business long after the coronavirus has run its course.”

Business as usual

Dr Gordon Fletcher, retail expert from the University of Salford Business School: “The high street has taken a hammering this week and is likely to look very different by the end of the summer, but if [businesses] adapt, there could be hope.

“While there are online offerings for [many businesses], this change will affect jobs and ultimately the look and feel of many high streets across the UK.

“It is inevitable that the high street will look very different by the end of Summer, and initially at least it will not be a good look.”

Lee Biggins, chief executive officer and founder of CV-Library: “It is obviously important that businesses try to operate as normal, but the health and safety of employees should be paramount at this trying time.

“Unfortunately, ​Coronavirus is likely to incur a significant cost to businesses across the country, particularly those in the hospitality or entertainment industries. As a result, it’s likely  that companies will baton down the hatches in ​the coming months and put the brakes on hiring until the worst of the outbreak has passed.”

Legal ramifications

Lee Biggins, chief executive officer and founder of CV-Library: “There is no doubt that postponing the roll-out of the IR35 legislation is the right thing to do, ​particularly when there’s so much uncertainty surrounding the ​impact of the Coronavirus outbreak. If the IR35 rules were to come in, it would cost contractors thousands of pounds in additional tax payments, which would would force them to increase their rates to make ends meet.

“Businesses across the UK are cutting down on spending in order to survive this turbulent time. Unfortunately, that means many are terminating their contracts with freelancers. As such, if the legislation were to come into effect now, it would drive many contractors out of work at a time when they need it most.

“This reprieve should give freelancers the opportunity to recover from the difficulties caused by Covid-19 and prepare for the introduction of the legislation in 2021. This may be of little comfort to contractors, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction. It’s now up to the government to ensure that they put measures in place to protect the most financially vulnerable workers across the country.”

Zoe Woolacott, researcher at Incomes Data Research (IDR): “In some cases, zero-hours workers will receive statutory sick pay during self-isolation or even have their pay enhanced to mirror that for permanent workers. For those [that] offer enhanced sick pay terms, there is the question of what represents a typical day’s pay for zero-hours workers. One [organisation] told us they would base any such calculations on average weekly earnings for the preceding 13 weeks.”

Recommendations for government

Peter Cheese, chief executive at the CIPD: “We are pleased the Chancellor has pledged to work with trade unions and business bodies to develop new forms of employment support to protect people and jobs as this crisis develops.

“It is absolutely fundamental that peoples’ incomes and jobs are protected during this challenging period. The government must take early, preventative action now to ensure that working people can receive a level of income to cover their basic living costs for the duration of this crisis. This needs to cover both employees, as well as the 15% of the workforce who work as self-employed or contract workers.

“As part of this additional support there is a strong case to temporarily increase the level of statutory sick pay and widen its eligibility, so it is payable to all working people, including the self-employed. Recent CIPD research found that workers facing either statutory sick pay or no pay as a result of Coronavirus said they’d face financial hardship in just one week.

“There is a profound sense of urgency to support people in this situation, but we need to look at job protection as well. The Chancellor’s announcements will help to solve immediate cashflow concerns. However, the government must ensure they follow with mechanisms for businesses to maintain payroll and minimise job losses through what will be a prolonged yet temporary event.

“To protect peoples’ jobs, we encourage the government to create a wage subsidy fund, payable to employers, to ensure workers continue to be paid and minimise the risk of redundancies as a result of Coronavirus.

“We look forward to working with the Government to help develop this type of policy intervention and protect working people, while supporting employers and employment throughout this crisis.”

Frances O’Grady, general secretary at the Trades Union Congress: “The Chancellor’s announcements so far will help protect businesses. But he must now urgently step up the protections that workers need too.

“Many other counties are using government wage subsidies to stop job losses and keep up economic activity. We need it too.

“And government support to businesses must be conditional on them producing a plan to protect jobs and wages.

“Unions and business want to fully play their part in protecting the nation. The government must urgently bring them together a national taskforce, so we can put these measures into action in the best way for working people and our economy.”

Jane van Zyl, chief executive at Working Families: “It’s important that the government provides support to employers that can’t afford to continue to pay staff who are unable to work from home. This includes small employers that cannot afford to absorb any fall in productivity due to the parents and carers they employ having to work from home whilst looking after their children. Particular attention should be paid to supporting parents and carers in insecure work, including the self-employed, as they are most at risk of not being paid.

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“For parents and carers who aren’t being paid by their employer or are self-employed and can’t work because schools have closed, it’s crucial that the social security system adapts so they continue to receive, at a minimum, pay for their hours worked at national minimum wage replacement levels. For the self-employed and those working irregular hours, this should be based on how much they work on average.

“Now’s also the time for the government to remind employers of parents’ and carers’ right to emergency time off for dependants while schools are closed, which means they cannot be dismissed or treated unfavourably as a result. This is an important right for those in insecure work who are at a higher risk of not having a job to return to.”