Since lockdown was announced on March 23, Reality HR has been supporting businesses as they grappled with HR issues including remote teams, the Coronavirus Employee Retention Scheme and adjusting to new ways of working.
Along the way, CEO Sally-Ann Hall-Jones and her team saw first-hand how organisations and their people were affected in the first fast-moving weeks of the crisis.
As restrictions continue, Sally-Ann shares her thoughts on how the situation unfolded, how businesses are coping and what may lie ahead.
What was the biggest challenge for businesses as lockdown began?
The major challenge, and the one which kept us busiest in those first few weeks when everything was moving so quickly, was helping businesses understand the furlough scheme. This is a new scheme unlike anything that had been seen before, and initially there was very broad-brush guidance which was open to interpretation.
We ended up with a huge volume of questions from people who didn’t understand what the guidance meant for them. We were helping them apply that guidance to their situation, but there were more questions than answers, so the challenge for us was to provide each business with the appropriate interpretation and not to send people down the wrong path.
The Reality HR team worked very closely together to ensure that we were giving the right advice – the last thing we wanted to do was to advise companies to make a significant decision such as furloughing staff, only for them to find they couldn’t subsequently claim funding support.
As the situation developed, we found that every week there was new guidance, or clarification of the guidance, which would provide some answers but throw up more questions. It’s been an ongoing dialogue to keep people informed. We moved very quickly to establish an area on our website which we are keeping up to date with the latest guidance, along with guides and factsheets to help businesses with the questions they have.
How have businesses reacted to the furlough scheme?
We found there were a significant number of businesses that wanted to furlough immediately as soon as the announcement was made, and some of those were right to do so because of the industry they were in.
However, there were others who probably went a bit too quickly and got themselves in the situation where they’d furloughed everybody, had work in progress and no-one to do it, and had to get people back in.
In many ways this situation has brought into focus how well individual businesses are run. There are some who understand their management information, know what their cash position is, are trying to forecast and have good relationships with their customers – all the positive things which are going to help them manage through the situation.
Others are operating hand to mouth, don’t have the information to inform the decision-making and are in a less secure position. They were perhaps businesses that were less stable before this crisis hit. Those who make it through will need to review those fundamentals and ensure they are better managed and therefore more resilient in the future.
How well do businesses feel they have been supported through this?
Among the businesses we’re speaking to, the general feeling is that the government is genuinely keen to support businesses, but this is an unprecedented situation and it’s simply not been possible to quickly turn on everything needed to help.
There was a time lag between help being announced and it being available, and perhaps some of the messaging about that could have been clearer – people were left thinking that help would come tomorrow, but it didn’t come in time to help some businesses which couldn’t make the payroll.
Overall, I think the general feeling is that the government is doing everything it possibly can to put business in hibernation so that it can spring back very quickly when we are able to.
It’s been disappointing to see that the banks have not been helpful in many cases, especially when it comes to business loans. The government could perhaps put more pressure on the banks to be sympathetic.
I’m hearing a lot that people have applied for loans only to be told they’re not eligible, but they can have an overdraft at an extortionate rate, or a commercial loan. The spirit of what was intended with that scheme is not being followed by the banks consistently.
There are some businesses that don’t need money now, but because they’re good at forecasting their cash position, they know that they’re going to run out of cash in future months, even if the economy is moving back to normality.
In some cases they are proactively looking at their situation now and asking banks for help to support their business and protect jobs – but the banks are saying they are not in a crisis situation. I don’t think we need to wait until they are in crisis – we need to proactively help them now.
How has working from home affected your team, and those of your clients?
Our business is built on flexible working and we are used to a combination of working from home and from the office. This meant we were very well-positioned to advise businesses which were less well used to this way of working, or in many cases were doing so for the first time. Our working from home webinars have been very popular and we quickly put together a guide from the team which contained their own personal tips.
However, like many businesses we are missing that sense of collaboration that comes from being in a group in and out of the office. We are working hard to maintain that team spirit – every morning without fail we have a half-hour video call and one thing I insist upon is that everyone has to at least say good morning on the call – they can’t hide! This is so I can see everybody and see how they are.
We have scheduled tea breaks twice a week – no work, just tea and a chat. They are small things but they are making a big difference.
Client relationships are interesting – I’ve been talking a lot to people about how they are, how business is, and people who didn’t previously want to talk about much apart from the work are quite happy to chat about the home schooling and the dog and the family, because there is this sense that we’re all in it together.
Do you think people are suffering with their mental health at this time?
We have to recognise that we’re in it for the long haul and it can be difficult. We do an online mental health webinar and a lot of it is about reminding people to make sure they interact with each other and take care of their mental wellbeing as well as their physical wellbeing at this time.
We tend to think of mental wellbeing on a scale – from being really fit and well to serious mental illness. There are definitely people whose mental health was already suffering who are finding all of this a challenge, and it’s important they get the support they need from employers, their families and the organisations that out there for them.
Among those who were in good mental health, we’re hearing that some people are sliding down the scale a bit, and it’s important to watch out for the signs. We’ve also heard one or two tales about people going AWOL – not logging on, not engaging, which is challenging to deal with when the only way to communicate is by phone or video call.
Managers should be mindful of what their teams are going through and be really supportive in whatever way they can – recognising the challenges they have and then adapting to suit the individual so that you are taking care of them but also facilitating them being able to do the work that’s needed.
How has the working day changed, and how can businesses ensure their staff are working effectively?
I think some people went into this thinking that they would just work their usual hours from home, but there are a lot of other considerations such as children who are home schooling, relatives to look after, and so on.
What businesses are going to have to do is trust that people are going to delivering and working, but it’s not going to be logging on at 9am and logging off at 5pm. There has to be an acceptance that people need breaks and have other responsibilities, and everything in life is challenging at the moment.
Interestingly, we’re not hearing much about businesses having to deal with underperformance – it does seem to be that where trust and clear parameters are in place, it’s working.
Have businesses been able to maintain good practice from an HR point of view?
We’ve seen some examples of businesses really taking care of their people and thinking about how they can transfer best practice from the office environment to a home environment. There are others which have not done this so well.
When people are furloughed, it’s really important that businesses keep in touch with them and still include them in information that goes out, and team events. Some businesses are not thinking about the application of furlough in an appropriate way – they are thinking let’s just follow the steps and get the cost off our wage budget.
We’ve seen a lot of examples of people being cut off – almost like they are being expelled from the organisation for that period of furlough. That’s not good staff engagement and isn’t in the spirit of furlough, which is about hibernation but not exclusion.
What unexpected issues are businesses facing as a result of the lockdown?
We are picking up some resentment where you have businesses with some people who are able to work from home, and others who can’t because of the nature of their job. Those people have to go to work or be out and about, observing the social distancing guidelines, and they can resent those who don’t, resulting in a bit of “them and us” developing in some organisations. We will need to keep an eye on that, because the longer this situation goes on, the more this will be a challenge for morale and relationships.
How do you think business will change in the long term as a result of this crisis?
The biggest change is that the concept of working remotely has now been proven for a lot of businesses. That’s a change that was already here, or was coming anyway, but lockdown has accelerated it. There will be knock-on effects – a lot less commuting is an obvious one. I think we’ll also see a shrinking of the commercial property market, because businesses won’t need as much space.
People will meet online more and there will be a reluctance for people to gather in groups for a long time, so a lot of businesses will be looking again at the space they have and whether they need it.
I also think there will be a huge amount of requests for flexible working, which will be very hard to reject because the evidence that it can work for a sustained period of time is now there.
Sadly, and inevitably, we’ll see a rationalisation of workforce – businesses are looking at who they’ve got and who they need, and have perhaps experienced how they can be more efficient while people have been furloughed. There will be redundancies and a surge in unemployment. I don’t think we’re going back to ‘normal’ at any time – there will be new normal that emerges from this. It’s going to be a fascinating sociological study in the future.