As Government begin to talk about relaxing lockdown restrictions in response to the reproduction rate of the novel Coronavirus falling below zero and the negative multiplier effect on the economic circular flow of income becoming depressingly clear, it is inevitable that leaders in the education and training sector will need to start carefully planning how to reintegrate staff who have been working from home or furloughed into the workplace during the coming weeks.
As the timing and nature of any relaxation of restrictions is uncertain, it is sensible for colleges and training providers to consider all the options and have the capability to move quickly from one scenario to another. They need to plan now for what is likely to be a staged return to the workplace over what could be prolonged periods.
I have been working with my Board and senior leaders over the last few days to model out such scenarios. The guiding principle in all of our planning is to ensure Lean Education and Development Ltd take care of our people and safeguard their health and well-being. From my weekly touch base call with furloughed staff, I am acutely aware that they are understandably concerned and anxious about being in workplaces or travelling to workplaces. I have provided them with reassurance that the company is retaining its support for physical and mental health and changing its thinking about flexible and remote working. I believe this should be at the heart of any decisions and plans colleges and training providers are making at this time.
Common issues you need to address
I would recommend you focus in on the following key issues based on my own experience to date and from consulting published Government, HSE and CIPD guidance:
- It seems very likely that social distancing is here to stay, lockdown restrictions will be lifted incrementally and staff who can work from home will carry on doing so for the foreseeable future. If you have staff who do return to a physical workplace, you will need to consider detailed risk management approaches to safeguard their health and minimise the risk of infection. It’s important that providers continue to base plans on up-to-date Government and public health guidance in relation to COVID-19. The health and safety executive has published advice and guidance relating to COVID-19 on its website which may be useful when considering health and safety measures.
- It’s business critical to work closely with health and safety and occupational health professionals to ensure a safe return to the workplace for staff. Communicate the measures you are taking to staff regularly. Make sure employees are kept up to date about what they should do if they begin to feel unwell, both in the workplace and at home. This should help reassure them that their health, well-being and safety is your priority.
- All colleges and training providers will need to undertake a full review of their workplace and the workplaces where staff undertake teaching and learning. How will you ensure that staff and learners maintain a two-metre physical distance between each other? How will you ensure staff working in other settings i.e. on an employer’s premises to deliver teaching and learning are well protected because the setting in question has appropriate measures in place? How will meetings, interviews and other interactions take place? How will you manage communal areas? How can you implement resourcing strategies to support physical distancing, for example staggering working hours so that not all staff are in at the same time?
- All of the key protection and hygiene measures will continue to apply to minimise the spread of infection. Lean Education and Development Ltd will be undertaking a deep-clean before we reopen our head office given it has been closed for an extended period of time. We will be reminding staff about regular and effective handwashing and providing hand sanitiser. We will be reviewing our cleaning arrangements. We will also ensure all phones/keyboards etc are wiped daily with anti-viral cleaner. The Government guidance linked earlier provides more information.
- Depending on the working environment, you may need to consider providing your staff with additional PPE, including gloves, masks or anti-viral hand gel. The initial Government guidance released to industry is particularly vague regarding PPE. If you want your staff to wear gloves/masks, then you will also need to think about training/briefing them on their correct usage (both can be ineffective if used inappropriately). It appears likely that large-scale testing for the COVID-19 infection will form a key part of facilitating a safe return to the workplace for larger numbers of employees. Colleges and training providers should continue to monitor the latest government guidance and be prepared to act upon any changes.
- Staff who travel or visit other company premises to deliver teaching and learning or undertake engagement work may also need additional equipment or briefing. Remote meeting facilities and video-conferencing such as Zoom, Skype and Microsoft Teams should be encouraged wherever possible to minimise the need for staff to travel and/or use public transport.
- The risks to people’s health from this pandemic are psychological as well as physical. Returning staff may find that they are still coming to terms with the significant change which society has seen, familiar workplace routines may feel very different. If your business access to Occupational Health advisers make staff aware of the services they can provide. The senior leadership team at Lean Education and Development Ltd produce a weekly briefing that is cascaded to all staff every Monday and we’ve used this communication vehicle to refer staff to excellent mental health resources from organisations like Mind. This has been received very well by our staff.
- It will be vital to have a re-induction process for returning staff. I have been working with my senior leaders to carefully consider what Lean Education and Development Ltd’s will look and feel like for a member of staff. We will be encouraging and supporting every manager to have one to one return meetings with every employee, where a key focus is on health, safety and well-being. Our managers will have a sensitive and open discussion with every individual and discuss any adjustments and/or ongoing support they may need to facilitate an effective return to the workplace. We believe this is especially important for those who have been furloughed, and should cover topics such as what has happened in the business whilst they’ve been furloughed, changes in how we deliver teaching and learning and associated policies and procedures, how specific customer queries or issues are being addressed (we have a centralised Coronavirus communications log), changes in supply arrangements, as well as any changes to their work duties or tasks. It could be that some staff require a phased return to their full role, or want to discuss a new working arrangement, especially if their domestic situation has changed because of the pandemic.
- Pay close attention to legalities. There will also be a number of employment law and administrative issues that need to be covered. Furloughed staff should be given reasonable notice of a request to return to work so they can make appropriate arrangements pertaining to childcare etc. Payroll will need to be adjusted to reflect staff returning from furlough, particularly if you did not pay the 20% top up. There will need to be a clear rationale as to why some staff will need to return to work physically whilst others continue to work from home. Policies relating to flexible working will need to be reviewed and likely rewritten to reflect the “new norm”. If bringing furloughed staff back in a staged fashion, what is your rationale for doing so? Is it based on business needs and will your process take into account personal circumstances? When the job retention scheme ends you may still not be in a position to bring back staff so you need to plan for this eventuality by considering your options, for example reducing contracted hours for a defined period of time or redundancies. You will also need to consider in your planning the impact of staff who have been advised to self-isolate or who must be shielded, staff who have suffered bereavement and how annual leave will be managed upon the return of staff from furlough status.
- Finally, it will be vitally important for all colleges and training providers to ensure that the organisational culture is inclusive, every employee will need to feel that they are returning to a supportive and caring environment. The pandemic has had an unequal impact across the workforce in many ways. Leaders and managers need to be sensitive to any underlying tensions and confident about dealing with potential conflict. At Lean Education and Development Ltd we will be implementing a People Strategy in line with our staff returning from furlough status or working from home and this will act as the vehicle used to support and develop a supportive culture for our staff.
About the author
Matt Phelps - Chief Executive Officer for Lean Education and Development Ltd
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