Pandemic casts a long shadow

The pandemic may no longer making big headlines and the daily Downing Street briefings are fading into memory, but Covid-19 is still having an impact on the world of work.

The post-lockdown landscape is throwing up a host of new challenges for Lancashire’s employers, from vaccination policies to hybrid working.

A new study commissioned by workplace experts Acas has revealed that more than one in five North West employers plan to implement a ‘no-jab, no-job’ policy for both existing staff and new recruits in the year ahead.

Terry Duffy, Acas North West area director, urges caution. There is currently no law that says employees must have the vaccine. The government removed the previous requirements for care home, health and social care staff in March.

Terry says: “This is a very tricky area of employment law and it’s a good idea for employers to get legal advice if they are thinking of bringing in a vaccine policy.

“Our advice is that it is always best to support staff to get the vaccine rather than insisting that they get it.”

Acas also advises that if an employer feels it is important for staff to be vaccinated, they should talk with staff or the organisation’s recognised trade union if they have one.

It says those conversations with staff can help to agree an appropriate vaccine policy, support workers in protecting their health, keep good working relationships and avoid future disputes.

The body also highlights some practical ways that employers could support staff, such as paying them their usual rate of pay if they are off sick with vaccine side effects instead of statutory sick pay. Employers could also consider offering staff paid time off for vaccination appointments.

Terry adds: “If someone does not want to be vaccinated, then the employer should listen to their concerns. Some people may have health reasons such an allergic reaction to the vaccine and some employees may have other reasons for not wanting to be vaccinated. 

"Employers should be sensitive towards personal situations and must be careful to avoid discrimination.”

Hybrid working, a flexible approach that allows employees to split their time between working in the office and working from home, has also become an emerging post-pandemic trend.

According to the Office for National Statistics 30 per cent of the UK workforce is working remotely at least once a week so far in 2022, with 85 per cent of workers wanting to use a hybrid approach in future.

However, legal experts say there are pitfalls to avoid. Victoria Mitchell, head of employment at Lancashire-based Farleys Solicitors, says: “The UK’s staffing crisis is leading some businesses to switch to a hybrid working model in order to attract talent.

“But business owners need to be wary that in offering such flexibility to new recruits, they are not discriminating against loyal employees. A hybrid working policy should be offered to all, where possible, regardless of length of service or personal circumstances.”

Jane Parry, managing partner at Lancashireheadquartered accountants and business advisors PM+M, believes flexible working is “here to stay” but she adds: “It can be difficult trying to be fair and flexible with individuals while meeting the demands of the team and clients.

“There has to be that balance, people need to understand that their individual needs are part of a bigger picture.”

Stuart Wright, consultant at Burnley-based Cube HR, says on top of home and hybrid working, the possibility of a four-day week is also now looming large.

He points to a major feasibility study that is currently been carried out involving thousands of employees in a cross section of sectors in the UK, Ireland, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The trial will last for six months, and staff will still be paid 100 per cent of their salary for working 80 per cent of the time, with the expectation that they are able to deliver the same level of productivity in the reduced timeframe.

Stuart says: “Many observers will be watching this trial with great interest as its success or failure could lead to a fundamental shift in how businesses operate.

“From an HR perspective there would be many considerations around a four-day week with issues such as consultation and contractual changes, fair and consistent allocation of rotas and which days people have off, in addition to wellbeing and the risk of burnout if people try to cram five days of work into four days.

“Despite what some people might think, it wouldn’t just be as simple as businesses closing on a Friday and everyone having an extra day added to their weekend.”

He adds: “Ultimately, there are many factors that a business needs to take account of before deciding if and how they want to offer long-term working from home, hybrid working or even the four-day week to staff. There isn’t going to be a clear one size fits all approach.

“What is certain though is that the way people think about their working environment and when they work has changed forever and many employees are now looking for what has been called a ‘framework of flexibility’ when they are applying for a new role and employers who are unable or unwilling to offer that may end up missing out on talent.”

Staff health and wellbeing is also moving up the agenda in the wake of the pandemic. It has become a major factor in recruitment and retention and several Lancashire businesses are leading the way in responding.

Law firm Harrison Drury has partnered with a specialist company to offer free health checks to all staff as part of its employee wellbeing strategy.

The onsite assessments – which include checks on blood pressure, cholesterol, heart rate and hydration levels – are the latest initiatives brought in by the firm to promote a culture of health and wellbeing.

The firm has also created a team of trained mental health first aiders to help champion an open and supportive culture around mental health within the company. And it has made a commitment to embrace hybrid working to help support team members to balance their work and home lives.

Another Lancashire law firm, Woodcocks Haworth and Nuttall Solicitors (WHN) has rolled out a new mental health support programme to its team of solicitors and support staff.

That support includes access to 24-hour helplines for its 105-strong team in emergency situations, as well as private face-to-face counselling sessions to enable ongoing issues to be dealt with.

Michael Shroot, WHN chief executive, says: “Our team is at the heart of what we do here, so driving investment in their wellbeing and happiness is incredibly important to us.”