How will the Covid-19 pandemic change the employer/employee relationship in the future?

Need to know:

  • While the Covid-19 pandemic posed many immediate challenges to employers, many have risen to the challenge, finding creative new ways to make sure staff stay physically and mentally well.
  • There are a number of steps employers can take now to prevent an us-and-them culture existing after furlough.
  • Flexible working will become more common after this massive global experiment in working from home.

The consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic have been diverse and far-reaching with few, if any, employers left unscathed. Seven in 10 private firms have furloughed staff in response to the crisis, according to the Business Impact Tracker, published by the British Chamber of Commerce in April 2020, and many more are working from home.

The challenge for HR directors and senior leadership teams is how to support their workforces, without physically being there for them. It sounds daunting, but the good news is that many employers are finding creative ways to reach people.

Immediate action

Nicolas Aubert, Willis Towers Watson’s head of Great Britain, is no stranger to crises, having led insurance company AIG’s French operations through the 2008 financial crisis. “This is a leadership matter,” he says. “When you face a crisis, this is something which, by definition, is going to test an organisation and this is where you will see if it is well governed or not.”

In the first instance, speed of decision-making and communications were vital, says Jane Galvin, chief operating officer at actuarial consultancy Barnett Waddingham. In the early days as the pandemic developed, a senior group from within the organisation was speaking daily. “Suddenly on a Sunday, something happened in the [government] briefing and we all got on a call with our various glasses of wine,” says Galvin. “It felt surreal, but we knew we had to take decisions very quickly and not even wait until Monday morning.”

Employers can not always promise people that things will be okay. But they can be calm and reassuring, says Nick Throp, co-founder of HR communications firm Like Minds. “Employers generally don’t like to communicate anything until they have a story to tell,” he explains. “They really want all the I’s dotted and the T’s crossed, and that doesn’t work anymore. Actually, it is much better to communicate regularly and say, ‘there is stuff we don’t know about, we know there are concerns and as soon as we know something more, we will tell you about it’. [Employers shouldn’t] think that just because [they] don’t know the answer, [they] shouldn’t be managing people’s expectations.”

Employers should also tread carefully, adds Throp. “One of the things that we have counselled our clients about is thinking through if you were to receive this piece of communication and you had a loved one or a close friend who was in hospital or had died as a result of Covid-19, how would you respond? Having that empathy is really important.”

Effects of furlough

Many employers have had to make major changes to their pay strategies. Some, including Barnett Waddingham, have taken the decision not to furlough their staff, instead asking people who might otherwise have been rendered redundant by the pandemic to learn new skills where necessary. Others have had no choice but to furlough people.

The prospect of furlough has prompted a hugely varied response, says Sarah Steel, director of financial education organisation Better with Money. “There are some staff who are absolutely bereft, they feel they were not needed; they feel ‘if you can put me on furlough like that, what was the point of my job in the first place?’ All the way through to employees who want to be furloughed, who are trying to deal with children and home schooling, as well as all the emotional issues and anxiety that come with Covid-19.”

There are numerous measures employers can take to avoid an us-and-them culture which, if left unaddressed, could pervade long after furlough. If employers can afford to, topping up furlough pay is one way to boost morale, says Matthew Lewis, head of law firm Squire Patton Boggs’ employment practice. “If [an employee] is earning over £30,000, being furloughed at £2,500 can be a significant pay cut. We have seen a lot of organisations topping up to 80%, so effectively everybody, from the lowest to the highest paid, are all taking the same 20% hit to show we are all in it together.”

Some people who have been furloughed could be struggling with boredom. One way to motivate and occupy them is to provide training programmes in areas they might not normally have to focus on, says Lewis.

Employers should also keep in touch with furloughed staff, adds Steel. “Without regular communication through things like Microsoft Teams and Zoom, those on furlough can feel very lonely.”

There are also practical steps employers can take to support staff who are facing financial uncertainty. For example, employers could ensure that their employee assistance programme (EAP) is open to all family members, as well as its employees.

Employers could direct staff to the website and the Money and Pensions Service, says Steel: “There are some great, easy to understand one-pagers [from the Money and Pensions Service]. Employers can order those in hard copy, free of charge, and I think, that is an undervalued resource.”

Looking after employee wellbeing

Once staff were set up at home and vital short-term decisions had been made about whether to furlough them, employers had more space to think about employee wellbeing.

Whether people are working from home or in the office, maintaining a sense of community is vital. As well as regular team meetings to put structure into working days and weeks, virtual team quizzes, pub nights and coffee mornings have all become the norm. Some employers are even running virtual cook-alongs and bingo nights.

All this time spent on video calls is having some unexpected benefits. Laetitia Lynn, director of corporate affairs at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC), says: “Some of the leaders I have spoken to are spending a lot of time on videos, quite often one-to-one. A lot of them are commenting that in the office they don’t have time to build the emotional connection with their teams. Because we are all in this together, they have the opportunity to talk about family and what they are all facing and they have built a much stronger connection. That is really helping to build a spirit of ‘we are all in this together’.”

Lewis agrees: “Weirdly, because we are not in the office, people have been much more collaborative. It is very easy to get caught up in your own world at your desk, head down and focused. I think when you are somewhere else there is a desire and a requirement to link up with people. This is something which is impacting across sectors and I think you will find it in so many different organisations.”

The pandemic is challenging people’s mental and physical health. Employers which already had mental health champions are reaping the benefits. Willis Towers Watson appointed mental health advocates three years ago, says Aubert. “Because these champions have been in the organisation for three years and are identified with a specific lanyard, people know them.”

The future

For years, people have been pressing employers to embrace flexible working, with some more open to it than others. Covid-19 turned flexible working from a nice to have, into daily reality overnight, with everyone Employee Benefits interviewed expressing surprise at how successful it has been.

Matthew Kirk, international affairs adviser at Squire Patton Boggs, says: “We have had this massive experiment in home working. A lot of people, including, frankly, some people in our own firm, were very uncertain as to whether that would work. Actually, in every conversation I have had with every client I have talked to, they all say how well it’s going. [We] quite often hear people saying ‘we have got better team relationships, better interaction across the [organisation], we are involving people better’. Before, [we] might have spoken to people along the corridor but not in a different building. I would predict that a better understanding of how to use [a] workforce in a more flexible way is one of the big changes that will come out of this and I think there is a consequence for commercial real estate.”

From an inclusion point of view, a lot of good could also come from this crisis says Carol Stubbings, joint global leader of people and organisation at PWC. “A lot of our clients have really struggled with things like diversity and inclusion, social mobility, [and] getting the right people with the right skills into the workforce. By working more virtually, it does open up the possibility to broaden the search for talent.

“I think the worst thing that could happen is we all just return to the office and go back to normal. [Employers] that create the environment to work flexibly will be more attractive to employees and more successful. I do not believe we will all work virtually all the time, but we will see some very real changes in terms of how workforces operate in the future.”