Looking at life after lockdown for business

ALL QUIET: Most offices across the UK have remained empty since the lockdown was announced in late March
Orlagh O'Neill

WHEN I left my central Belfast office on March 19 to embrace the new world of full-time working from home, I genuinely believed I would return to the workplace within two months. How naïve that now seems.

The initial phase of lockdown has seen the most rapid and far-reaching changes in the workplace in modern times. Most people would have been hard pressed seven weeks ago to define furlough; now it is the employment phrase of the moment. A quarter of the UK workforce have been furloughed as part of the Government's Job Retention Scheme at a cost to the Treasury – and ultimately the taxpayer – of almost £8 billion.

The scheme, which pays a grant to employers of 80 per cent of their employees' usual monthly wage costs up to a cap of £2,500 per month, had a relatively low threshold for access. This meant that it became an immediate and much-needed lifeline to companies of all shapes, sizes and sectors across Northern Ireland and avoided the threat of redundancies on a massive scale.

As business and society looks ahead to the recovery phase, it needs to face the reality that the scheme has to end at some point. The question is: how?

The mechanics of how to end the scheme is a delicate balancing exercise for the Chancellor of the Exchequer. End it too early and he risks two things: on the one hand, a spike in job losses and, on the other, the potential risks to employee health and safety by returning to work too early and without the necessary safeguards in place. Leave the scheme in place too long and companies may become so dependent on the oxygen of state aid that they may lose the ability to operate in the free market.

The Chancellor may choose a more gradual and sectoral approach. Potentially, a part-time furlough model may be allowed. Or a focus on the sectors such as hospitality, leisure and tourism for whom revised government restrictions make a return to normal operations in the near future impossible.

For many businesses like my own, continuing to operate amidst lockdown has been made possible only through moving our most important resource - our people - to a working from home (WFH) model.

Ensuring maximum WFH in the initial phase of lockdown was a massive logistical challenge. The stress caused by the necessary extent and speed of change to almost every working day is becoming more evident. Few had time to consider the isolation of lockdown; the need to care for and home-school children; the demands of a partner's home working; and the disorientation suffered by the absence of regular rhythms and boundaries. The experience of one working day melting into the next with no distinction or distractions has become common. Never has our people's capacity to adapt under pressure been more evident nor the term resilience been more apt.

As we move into the recovery phase, employers need to be equipped and able to reassure employees that it is both the right time to return to work and that it is safe. The Government is publishing a variety of Return to Work papers to guide businesses on the steps that need to be taken to demonstrate to returning employees how they are protected from coronavirus while they work.

The obligations on employers to take all reasonable steps to protect their employees' health and safety whilst at work is not new. Legislation in place here in Northern Ireland since 1978 has required employers to risk assess their operations in order to identify hazards and ensure they are eliminated or appropriately controlled.

Employers do not have to guarantee the safety of their employees - how could they? But they should now carefully revise their existing risk assessments and policies to ensure these take account of the risks coronavirus presents to their business and employees and that recently-issued government guidance is incorporated into them.

The government's lockdown exit strategy has been eagerly-awaited and will need careful analysis. At its heart is getting the economy moving after the unavoidable paralysis of the pandemic. The resumption of normal working life will require practical measures to smooth the transition back to work for employees so that businesses can refocus on long-term recovery.

Every crisis is a test. This crisis has tested society and its institutions, the government and economy, individuals and families – even the law - as never before in a time of peace. Many structural weaknesses have become evident in each.

But the crisis has also revealed strengths. Among the many neologisms of the last months – furlough, lockdown, social distances and “r” number – one of the most memorable has been the phrase “we are all in this together and we will be together when it is all over.” Even as a “hashtag”, for me, it was a moving assertion of the sense of solidarity at the heart of society.

Ironically, this crisis has also revealed the strengths in business and the economy: the sheer quality of our people and their centrality to making things work; the resilience that is at the heart of adapting; and the teamwork without which nothing can change or improve.

I trust that it is not naive to suggest that these too will be the foundations of successful recovery and a bright future for all of us.

:: Orlagh O'Neill is partner & head of employment at Carson McDowell (

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