Coronavirus is a crisis like few in the UK workplace have faced before.  Our regular columnist, Steve Herbert, shares his thoughts about the challenges it poses, and what it might mean in the medium and long-term for Human Resources professionals.

It’s difficult to know where to start this post.  But start I must.

For the United Kingdom – and indeed the entirety of the Western World – is facing a crisis that just three months ago would have read like a rather far-fetched disaster-movie film script.  But now coronavirus is here, and it’s clear that even the most informed minds don’t know for certain what happens next.

It is of course really important that I acknowledge that there is already a very real human cost to this pandemic, and this is sadly only likely to get worse in the weeks and months ahead.  So I will firstly offer my deepest sympathy to anyone who loses a loved one throughout this difficult period.

And then there are the other costs, which whilst less headline-grabbing will be felt by all sectors and every region of the UK.  At the time of writing the stock-market has taken a major hit to levels not seen since the financial crisis of 2008, some major employers are considering mass redundancies and/or asking employees to take long periods of unpaid leave, and many smaller employers are just wondering how they can possibly survive.  And of course millions of workers are now suddenly facing a very real reduction (or total cessation) in their income with little warning.  It is a very bleak picture indeed, and it goes without saying that this is a genuinely seismic event for the nation and world.

Yet despite this rather sombre backdrop I still need to contribute my monthly post for Employer News.  So I hope that my followers will understand that, difficult as it is, I now need to look beyond the immediate crisis, and take some sort of view for what this might all mean in both the medium and long-term for the world of employment, businesses, and the day-to-day jobs of the Human Resources professionals (and others) that follow me.

So In this post I would like to focus on four important topics; BAU, Behaviours, Bounce-Back, and Brexit.


In the corporate world we are all accustomed to advising our employees – despite any immediate local challenges – that it continues to be Business As Usual (BAU).  Yet right now that is certainly not the case for many.  BAU is – if only for the duration of the coronavirus crisis – largely overtaken by current events.  At Howden we have taken the much more pragmatic position of “business as usual in unusual times”.  But whatever your corporate stance, the reality is that the coronavirus pandemic is already shaking up the nature of the UK workplace at a speed that most of us have never before witnessed.

I’m reminded of Tony Blair’s memorable speech after the 9/11 terror attacks;

“The kaleidoscope has been shaken, the pieces are in flux, soon they will settle again. Before they do let us reorder this world around us”

Blair was commenting on a very different situation, yet the same forward-thinking needs to apply now.  Enforced change is the order of the day, so it’s really important that we seek to manage that change.  Likewise we need to utilise any useful lessons and positives from this period, so that any “new normal” of the future ultimately benefits employers and employees alike.



And the first significant change might well be a new attitude towards flexible working – and home working in particular.  Of course in the 21st Century home working is no longer the novelty it once was, and this is largely because technology has enabled many more workers to consider this option, and indeed the law supports the workers right to request it too.  But despite this progress it is still the case that many employers continue to see barriers to implementing flexible working.  Indeed the CIPD suggest employer objections include line manager attitudes, lack of senior-level support, and concerns about meeting operational and customer requirements as major obstacles.  It is presumably for these reasons that in 2018 only 1 in every 10 jobs was advertised as flexible.

But the current crisis might well overturn some of these objections, particularly as large swathes of the UK working population are now actively being encouraged to work from home by their line-managers or employers.  And having been given the green-light to work in this way, it’s likely that many will prove beyond all reasonable doubt that they can indeed work just as effectively at home as they do in the office.  It follows that at least some will continue to work in this way once the crisis has passed.  The good news here is that research suggests that 87% of employees would like to work more flexibly, so providing that opportunity could also prove useful to employers who are likely to benefit from better retention and worker engagement.

The requirement to work at home – and therefore not travel to the usual place of work for all those regular meetings – might also have a further implication for the post-crisis workplace.  Technology can again play a part here, and perhaps many of the more routine daily meetings in the workplace might in the future shift from actual physical presence of all to remote attendance instead.  The time and travel cost inherent in travelling to meetings is not insignificant, so this again may well be beneficial to all concerned.


The Bounce-Back

The above changes will doubtless be important in the future workplace.  But before they can be implemented there is the not insignificant problem of weathering the current crisis.  One of the keys to this will be the ability for any given workforce to bounce-back quickly to full productivity as soon as full BAU returns for all.

This will of course be a major challenge given the potential dislocation between employer and employees at present.   Some workforces will have all moved to remote working, others might be on reduced (or no) pay whilst the crisis persists.  So the need to keep employee morale as high as possible  – and reinforce team spirit – will be essential in such situations, and I do believe there are some simple steps that can be taken by HR professionals which might help here.  In a recent Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing press release we suggested a 3-step plan to assist in this aim.

To briefly recap:

  • Communications & Engagement: It’s vital that the flow of communications to and from line management remains as close to normal as is possible. This will avoid a loss of focus and engagement, and ensure that corporate messages are still effectively received by all.


  • Practical Support: Coronavirus will be dominating the health headlines, yet employees will continue to face the everyday challenges of life, and other health conditions will still need diagnosis and treatment too.  So it is really important that employers emphasise any wellbeing support already available to employees, such as remote access to a qualified GPs, private healthcare, or cash-plans.


  • Advice & Guidance: The importance of “remote” guidance and support options should be reinforced.  Access to Employee Assistance Plans, Counselling Lines, and Debt Management Advice should all be highlighted – and usage encouraged – to help employees respond to any challenges during a period when the usual work support-structure will be perhaps less obvious.



Finally, and certainly not least, there is one other key challenge that might yet be influenced by the coronavirus pandemic:  Brexit.

It has been less than two months since the United Kingdom formally left the European Union, and the next stage in the process was to be the securing of new trade deals with the EU and other regions (and the USA in particular) to avoid an economic shock to the nation.  This would be a big task at any time, but can it still happen given the unique national and international effort to combat coronavirus?  One of the most informed bloggers in the Brexit space is the excellent Chris Grey, and in a recent post he says;

“Brexit on its own implies a major national upheaval. Coronavirus on its own implies the same. The two together are overwhelming, and this really matters given the time frame of the negotiations. It’s clear that the UK and many EU countries are going to be fully occupied by the virus for at least three months and very likely more. So that alone brings us to June when decisions about extending the transition period will have to be made”

The logical conclusion is that coronavirus outbreak may yet change the Brexit timetable, and this could well create yet more uncertainties and challenges for UK employers.  But let’s deal with one crisis at a time, and right now the more immediate concern is (rightly) the coronavirus pandemic.

In reality I may have only scratched the surface of the potential challenges and changes that might be ahead for UK employers.  But in these difficult times it’s necessary for all businesses to at least have some plans beyond the current crisis.  I hope that I have at least flagged up some of the key issues for consideration.

I will of course continue to share my thoughts here as appropriate, and in the meantime would simply like to conclude this post by wishing all my followers the very best of luck, and my very best wishes in what might be some rather dark months immediately ahead.

Steve Herbert is Head of Benefits Strategy at Howden Employee Benefits

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