Workforce reintegration in a time of crisis

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​The COVID-19 government briefing on Sunday 10 May saw employees unable to work from home, encouraged to return as of Monday 11 May.

Offices were given some guidance on how to implement social distancing and protect employees, but encouraged to continue working from home where possible.

While it is right that businesses should be planning for the future, whatever it may look like, there are considerations beyond the practical and critical (e.g. ensuring PPE is available and social distancing mechanisms are in place).

Some organisations may have a fractured workforce, with employees returning to work after furlough, being furloughed for longer, or others facing redundancy. Then there is significant challenge of cultural re-integration and maintaining engagement after a very challenging time.

Investment in a crisis

Similar to financial investments the best time to invest in people is during times of crisis - it brings the highest returns in the long term. Investment in employees’ learning and development, careers and the culture of an organisation overall might be seem like an unnecessary expense during times of crisis, but I would encourage business leaders to challenge their thinking.

Supporting employees by being there for them, communicating regularly and listening to them, including employees in key decisions and activities and building a trust-based culture is more important than ever.

Knee jerk redundancies

Crisis makes organisations fearful. Even extremely profitable companies make job cuts without thinking them through and they forget about their main purpose. There are countless examples of successful businesses that have prioritised all stakeholders, not just shareholders, and employees are the most important stakeholder group of all.

Organisations which can survive should be looking to protect their employees even if they are seeking other ways to minimise costs simultaneously. There is greater expectation and pressure on businesses to do the right thing by employees and society right now, and for the foreseeable future.

Unavoidable job cuts

Of course some companies don’t have financial reserves and are at risk of survival where redundancies might be inescapable such as firms in travel/hospitality industries.

A recent study by the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex predicted that more than 6.5 million jobs could be lost due to the economic fallout from coronavirus. Many people may well be expecting redundancy but that doesn’t mean their employers can’t do it in the most human way possible.

Recently we’ve seen examples of redundancy handling at two opposite ends of the spectrum. US Scooter start-up company Bird was widely criticised after it made hundreds of people redundant over a two minute Zoom call.

In contrast, AirBnB issued a detailed explanation and plan to transition a large number of their employees, providing them with outplacement support, additional paid time, and a placement service. This supported approach is not only beneficial to those facing redundancy, but it helps those who have kept their jobs to move forward pragmatically and positively.

While some organisations might be reluctant to invest in their exiting employees during these challenging times, they also need to remember that now is especially when those employees need more support from their employers. Offering them outplacement services at a minimum is not just the responsibility of an employer, but also a necessity.

Decisive action

On 12 May, the chancellor announced the extension of the furlough scheme for a further four months. While this will no doubt be welcomed by businesses and employees alike, it is critical that the scheme is used properly and not as a reason to delay decision making.

Furlough gives employees short term financial stability, but it does not alleviate their concerns about future job security. There must be regular and transparent communication. If their job is at risk, there are ways to tell them this and support them through the process while ensuring they are able to pay their bills.

Looking ahead

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced employees to adapt, show incredible resilience and deal with uncertainty about their job security. Business leaders have had to pivot, support their workforce and manage the economic impact and their own stress levels.

As we begin to consider a phased return to ‘normal’, it is critical that those organisations putting employees at the heart of their business do not become a significant minority.

Prioritising profits over people has always been a false economy and it can even be a bigger false economy during a crisis. In fact the pandemic could provide some of the most important opportunities to deepen employee trust and commitment and protect their wellbeing. This is critical for businesses to be positioned for success in a post pandemic world.

Burak Koyuncu is workforce solutions director at LHH

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