Working from home – the future for SME’s
For many SME’s the recent months have been the first time they have experienced whole teams working from home. With a few exceptions SME’s tend to step back from exploring flexible working and stick to their legal obligations.
Like many HR practitioners I have been asked to draw up Working from Home policies and create ‘rules’ to manage the expected requests to WFH once COVID is over. Perhaps this is the ideal opportunity to think about our approach to ‘shirking from home’ and the opportunities it offers SME’s.
It’s a great chance to build on how we managed change so well back in March.
A recent webinar hosted by Breathe HR had Kirstie Axtens from Working Families asking why most jobs took 37.5 hours to complete ! it’s a good question and although the working week is an accepted and known ‘measure of tasks’ maybe now is the opportunity to turn things on their head.
If we try to shoehorn everyone’s role into something that they can do remotely or from home for the same number of hours we tend just to create reasons for not allowing it or reasons why it will not work. Maybe forget ‘family friendly’ working and think’ life friendly’ working – because its not just about people with children. Different approaches to how we complete our work also helps those looking after or having caring responsibilities for parents and family/ friends. Once the mortgage is paid and the kids have gone many people want a shorter working week.
The key here is how we measure work and if we keep thinking it’s about being available 9-5 Monday to Friday all we will gain from more people working from home is some empty desk space in the office. By focusing on outputs, writing job descriptions to fit the people, looking at skill sets and letting people do the things they are best at, working from home or remotely will be a fantastic tool for many SME’s.
To work well flexible working must go hand in hand with better or differently designed jobs.
If you are still not entirely sure that you trust people to work from home- my question is ‘Why did you hire them?’
We are still learning from the current experience- whether that is about technology, wellbeing, communication or culture. So, before you issue or amend your WFH policy think about the opportunities a different approach could give you.
Concerns are many and varied with perhaps the most common being around toilets, kitchens and public transport.
There is no point pushing everyone back if you cannot physically fit them all in. By taking a business centred approach to numbers returning and a common sense approach to people you may be able to come to a comfortable compromise. Survey or poll your workforce find out their anxieties then speak to people on a one to one basis explaining your policy and expectations.
The choices and actions you take now may come back and bite you if you try to strongarm people or fail to listen to their genuine concerns. There will always be someone who milks the situation but do not fall into the trap of treating everyone the same just to deal with one issue. Once your business has survived it needs to thrive so be true to the values and behaviours you encourage and expect.
How many people can we accommodate back in the workplace whilst still complying with 2m rules and other issues identified by our risk assessment.
No doubt employees have been telling you that Boris has said they should work from home if they possibly can and they are ‘following government advice’. Realistically this advice will probably be the last bit of ‘easing’ as while it is still in place people get paid, business continues and no furlough is paid and there are less people milling about [ winner, winner ] If you genuinely need people back at work because specific tasks are piling up or the work can be done more efficiently and more quickly from the workplace then you have every right to ask people to return. The guidance about working from home is advisory only.
A roadmap for bringing people back to the workplace
Use all your resources to show the workplace is safe and ready, share new protocols, invite questions, take polls, speak to people, set up a Zoom meeting.
What about the people who are shielding ? paradoxically those who have been shielding would probably have been safer going out in the early weeks of lockdown rather than now when streets, roads and public spaces seem back to normal ! Shielding has always been advisory so if someone want to come back to work and they are comfortable with the COVID safe precuations you have in place, they can return. However, government advice has not been to go back to work so it is best to consider this group as exempt and continue to treat them as vulnerable.
The question I get asked the most is around how robust you should or can be … us HR folk will talk about the employment contract and will tell you that if necessary you can make people take holiday or unpaid leave if they do not want to return. Yes you can, but why would you want to put the working relationship at risk if there are genuine concerns ? The only way to work this through is talking to people, listening and working together. Make sure people know they will be given notice unless of course you have decided that everyone can work from home forever, and that will open a whole new set of questions about suitability, policy, measuring productivity etc.
One size fits all is no longer the answer.
Photo by kate.sade on Unsplash
A checklist for returning to work
Many businesses have remained working with special measures in place but for others a return to the workplace is something that will need to be planned for over the next couple of weeks.
Guidance is expected from the government shortly [ exit strategy ], it is likely to include advice about maintaining social distancing, use of gloves, face masks and face shields if appropriate and regular deep cleaning. It is also likely people will be asked to keep working from home if they are able to do so.
The furlough scheme is currently set to close at the end of June and many companies will already be considering a staggered return to the workplace for some roles.
The mantra of stay home, protect the NHS and save lives has been largely effective and employers may have a task ahead to convince people that a return to the physical workplace is safe. Maintaining employees’ trust and confidence during this time through effective planning will be key to ensuring a smooth transition back into the workplace.
Questions to ask
Who is shielding and or lives with someone who is shielding
What childcare issues will people have
Who is finding it difficult to work from home
Who uses public transport or car shares
Do we have access to PPE ? what might we need?
What are our customers doing?
Actions to take
Plan - create a cross functional, multi-level team to plan the return to work transition, including translating government guidance and implementing the measures. By including people from across the business you will ensure better engagement and buy in.
Review of premises – prior to allowing people to return to site, undertake a site survey to ensure the working environment will be safe, identify areas that will need preventative measures : toilets, kitchen, open plan spaces, entrances, shared equipment. Does it need a deep clean? What are the touchpoints?
Communicate - keep staff fully informed of what you are doing and any timescales – agree methods: phone, email, conference call etc. Will staff return to the office/ workplace whilst others remain on furlough ?
Existing employment model – does it remain appropriate?, roles, hours, location, flexible working, terms and conditions of employment, policies etc. Consider the legal position of any revised working arrangements. Is consent required and/or should there be any process of information and consultation?
Risk assessments - carry out and implement risk assessments to comply with the employer’s duty of care as employees return to work. Ensure that assessments and implementation measures are tailored to the business,working environment and each role. Ensure robust evidence of compliance can be readily provided of COVID-19 measures in the event of health and safety inspections. Have a protocol in place on how the business will respond to a local spike in cases.
Cleaning- review / update arrangements especially around common touchpoints
PPE do you need to provide?, if so ensure it meets required standards, is suitable for the associated work activity, fits correctly and sufficient stock can be maintained. Do you need to buy now, rather than later?
Wellbeing and welfare – is there an agreed procedure for flagging or raising any concerns about workplace safety. Who will monitor and respond to employee concerns and anxiety.
Health screening and monitoring - does the business need temperature checks, at what point will testing be available and if so will the company make it mandatory. What is the company position on track and trace technology?
Insurance - check insurance policies to verify the extent of cover,are you covered if an employee contracts COVID-19 on a return to the workplace?
Return to work plans - consider cohort systems to allow staff to work alternate shifts and/or part of the workforce to continue to work from home as part of a phased return to the workplace to enable social distancing. Consider if this approach gives rise to lone working arrangements and whether additional risk assessment, equipment and training is required
COVID-19 cases at work – review and revise the procedures you put in place for reporting.
Contingency consider contingency plans for any future recurrence of COVID-19
Photo by Norbert Levajsics on Unsplash
As Coronavirus sweeps the UK increasing numbers of people are working from home. While many employees might be pleased at such a turn of events, what does this really mean for wellbeing and morale? Not everyone will want to or be able to work from home.
With information and advice changing on a daily basis, staying in touch and being flexible is paramount. What works today may change tomorrow.
Top tips for employers
We typically spend a lot of effort on ergonomic assessment in the workplace, this is rarely carried out for home workers. Give workers clear advice about working at home safely and healthily – offer to let them take their office chair home if they don’t have one.
Deal with people on an individual basis – last week was fine but now you may have someone where both parents are working from home and they now have 2 under 5’s who need looking after. Shorter hours ?, staggered shifts, you will need to look for ways to make it work.
Employers need to set expectations including working hours and what employees are expected to deliver. However, it is also important that businesses realise some homeworkers might not only be under considerable stress because of this change in environment, but might also be unable to work as productively during this period depending on their home circumstances. [ shared accommodation, poor broadband, lack of space]
Employers need to create a balance between maintaining ‘business as usual’ and the negative impact the current situation may have on employees’ productivity, mental health and wellbeing.
Think about those who live alone, they may need additional communication and interaction.
People will be doing the best they can and adapting to their environment, allow some time for people to settle. Yes, people can be trusted, that’s why you hired them!
Much of the evidence about home working points to positive benefits, including improved work-life balance and increases in job satisfaction and productivity. However, it is important to note that such evidence is based primarily on studies of individuals who have chosen to work at home. Imagine now the situation where many thousands of individuals are forced to work from home, with little time to consider any adjustments that might be necessary to make this work.
While some employees might welcome increased solitude, others will suffer from feelings of isolation or loneliness ,removing individuals from their work-based (and indeed other) social circles could have a significantly negative effect on their welfare
Employers need to think about how they can maintain levels of social support while their workforce is home-based – through enterprise social media, regular online meetings or even just the occasional phone call. Line managers should be encouraged to ensure employees continue to receive the same level of support and recognition they would in the workplace.
Home-based employees need to feel they can still switch off at the end of the day and take breaks – this can be more difficult when the lines between home and work become blurred. This might be complicated further if other family are also at home, which is likely in the upcoming weeks. Those who have tried to work at home with any caring responsibility – will appreciate how stressful this can be.
I have been home based for a number of years and here is what I have found works for me.
Sajid Javid has pledged to raise National Living Wage to £10.50 by 2024 and has committed to scrapping the over 25 age limit along the way, returning to a differential at 21 years of age like it used to be when the minimum wage was first introduced.
We can all identify an incompetent 40 year old and a 19 year old superstar so paying according to age does not really make sense. Many companies opted not to follow the age 25 guidelines anyway as they believed it was discriminatory or did not fit their values / ethos and chose to pay everyone the same wage.
When discussing whether business can bear these additional wage costs talk mostly turns to efficiency and productivity. On a micro scale this is about performance management- getting the best from people and identifying areas for improvement regardless of their age.
Not all jobs are equal and although a strong believer in people being paid a wage that means they can live a decent life putting a lower threshold of £10.50 [ £20.748 for a 38 hour week] will mean the minimum wage will have risen considerably over the past decade and of course employers now have additional pension costs. To date most commentators agree that organisations have ‘swallowed’ the additional costs.
History of minimum and living wage expressed per annum based on 38 hour week
2005 £ 9,979
2020 £ 17,230
Rising to £ 20,748 by 2024.
What about everyone on the next rung of the ladder?
What about the supervisors and team leaders and lower layers of management further up the salary ladder ? they expect to be paid more than those on the entry level rung, and in turn the next layer want to see a differential so you get a ripple effect across the company. This will eventually even out but the increases since the introduction of the National Living Wage are beginning to impact and complicate salary structures. Some industries will be harder hit, care homes for instance where staff costs currently eat up 45% to 60% of the fees received so further increases will have to be reflected in charges. We are seeing the High Street suffer and this can be only further impacted by increased staffing costs.
You might find it difficult trying to sell a team leader role to someone when it means ‘losing’ out on Universal Credit and only seeing part of the ‘£1500’ increase especially if team leaders lose the right to overtime.
Although money is intrinsic to our relationship with work, meeting other needs and expectations may not have such an effect on the bottom line. Offering flexible benefits such as additional holiday, healthcare, flexible hours or study opportunities.
Wage growth in the UK was approx. 3.4% in 2019.
Employers should concentrate on employee engagement, productivity and innovation to ensure they are getting the best from their workforce and this can only be achieved by taking a holistic approach and ensuring you have good practice from recruitment through to exit.
Q Is it worth having an Employee Assistance Programme?
A. To save you reading the whole blog… in my opinion the short answer is yes!
There are a range of providers big and small so it is important that you think about the needs of your business.
EAPs have evolved to tackle the concerns confronted by employees today, such as:
Depression and other mental illness
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle
Dependent adult care
EAP's can help SME’s to provide:
Often I am talking to employees who are waiting weeks or even months for the counselling they need. Many EAP’s provide counselling within 24 hours.
· Employee counselling services play a vital role in helping to resolve workplace issues and understanding how to
manage mental health issues.
· Short-term, goal-oriented counselling is an ideal match for assistance within a professional setting.
Some counsellors deliver trauma-specific interventions, including CBT
EAP’s will also provide webinars and workshops on specific topics ranging across finance, relationships and legal issues. Online services provide information and fact sheets on subjects such as bereavement, buying a house, retirement, divorce etc.
Having an EAP does not stop you from talking to your employees and supporting them but it does help by providing independent, confidential expert advice which as certain times can be invaluable to people.
Shout about it !
A Personnel Today survey in 2019 showed that although three-quarters (76%) of firms offered access to an employee assistance programme, just 10% polled felt this was valued by their staff and only 5% said their EAP was actually being used.
Promoting the scheme is key to the success of your EAP – both at the outset and when the scheme is in place. People need to know that the EAP is available to them, and what it offers. As you may not have the time for this choose an EAP that include free literature, posters, promotions etc and make sure you promote it to new starters and offer it to people when they might benefit from it.
Choosing the right one
Look for evidence that a provider is able to deliver on its promise – some providers can tell a good story but you need to be sure there is evidence behind it.
Check that the provider is a member of the relevant professional bodies. In the UK there are two key organisations, the UK Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA) is the professional body for the industry, and the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) is the professional body for counselling. All EAPs have components of both of these and should be registered with both.
Are the EAP’s individual counsellors and practitioners accredited? Some organisations offer “equivalent to” but this does not offer any evidence or external validation of the ability and qualities of the counsellor.
If the price sounds too good to be true then it probably is - services that are part of other bundles often have limited offerings so be sure about what you need and what you will get. That said you should be able to access a decent EAP for as little as £ 15-20 per head per year. That’s less than 40p per day.
Coaching or formal disciplinary ?
J is an OK employee, they do their job, are liked by most people and run the social side of things well but they are a poor timekeeper and recently this has got worse.
a] issue a warning
b] take them aside and tell them they need to start coming in on time or you will issue a warning
c] take aside and ask if there is a reason they are coming in late, if there is a genuine reason work with them on it and change their hours on a temporary basis if appropriate - if not revert to b]
d] issue a letter of concern listing the times they have been late and clearly stating that this is unacceptable and unless there is a clear and sustained improvement over the next 3 months you will issue a warning
e] not worry about it, they get the job done and are usually only 10 mins or so late- it’s not worth bothering about
Add the willingness of the manager to start or have a ‘difficult conversation’ and the willingness of the employee to improve and you have a lot of variables.
Traditionally companies large and small have used progressive discipline to deal with under performance or poor behaviours, that is a series of warnings eventually leading to dismissal.
However, the world of work is changing and so are the people in it. Although traditional disciplinary measures have widespread support with HR and legal professionals there are other ways to deal with undesirable behaviours and violations of the rules.
The key is to think about what outcome you want, disciplinary action should not be about ‘punishment’ it should be about getting the person back on track, sometimes coaching or an improvement plan is a better option.
I am a great fan of the ‘letter of concern’ as it stops short of disciplinary action but gives you freedom to discuss and agree a way forward without sanctions and is often more likely to get the employee on side.
Generally, people do not come into work thinking ‘today I am going to make loads of mistakes, be rude to my colleagues and forget to post that important parcel’. Most people want to do a good job.
Progressive discipline policies, if properly drafted, can be very effective tools for managing employee behaviour in the workplace and are the discipline policy of choice for most employers. The primary benefit of progressive discipline policies is that they provide an employee with a second or third chance to change their inappropriate behaviour to conform to the company's standards of conduct,
With progressive discipline, employees know that they and their colleagues are held to certain standards and know the repercussions. Giving people as many chances as the person down the corridor boosts confidence in the organisation as a fair and equitable place to work. On the flip side it is time consuming, needs strict adherence, a consistent approach and good documentation.
Managers may want more flexibility so will ‘work around the system’ leading to lack of consistency and comments about unfairness and favourites, or maybe they approach a disciplinary saying ‘HR told me to do this’. Training managers and helping them understand how progressive discipline can be a useful tool is really important for consistency and fairness.
Progressive discipline can lead to employees getting hacked off because they feel they are being ‘told off’, some employees may play a game by behaving until the sanction has passed then reverting to poor behaviour. This can create adversarial relationships which suck up time and energy needlessly.
However, non-compliance or poor performance can also be viewed as an opportunity to coach employees to be better whilst maintaining healthy working relationships.
Using personal improvement plans or letters of concern ensure the employee is given the opportunity to participate in the conversation and agree the behaviours that are needed, making them more likely to sign up to show they are committed.
So going back to J – it is unlikely they are going to say they think it is OK to turn up late and when asked will probably commit to being on time for the next week. month, quarter.
PIPs [ Personal Improvement Plans] can where appropriate require immediate improvement and actions and weekly coaching / monitoring means there is a clear record of behaviours in a less confrontational environment.
PIP processes should be clear about the the support and guidance the organisation needs to offer and it’s important that this does not solely focus on how to help the employee solve ‘their’ problems, there will inevitably be behaviours or situations from the organisational side that are making the issues worse and these should be tackled in order to show the employee that there is a willingness to achieve a positive outcome.
Having a policy and clear procedures is only the start when it comes to workplace bullying. Creating a culture and environment where bullying is unacceptable and not tolerated needs a more holistic approach.
I am guessing that everyone has come across a ‘just banter’ situation or a line manager who says it’s’ just their management style’ to be blunt.
No workplace is completely immune to bad behaviour and employers need to ensure that employees feel safe and protected in their working environment.
If senior leaders, team leaders and others in positions of responsibility demonstrate positive behaviours, then everyone else is more likely to follow suit, and call out bad behaviours. Here are some of the ways that leaders can display good behaviour:
As a manager you need to be aware of some of the less obvious ways people can be bullied, these can include:
What can employers do to prevent workplace bullying?
Firstly, you need to have a bullying and harassment policy in place, making it clear that this type of behaviour is considered gross misconduct and those found guilty will be dismissed. Avoid a ‘tick box exercise’, make a real commitment to building a working environment that values everyone.
Train people managers so they understand what constitutes bullying behaviour this should include asking them to reflect on their management style and checking their own behaviours.
Communicate the procedure to employees so they understand how to make a formal grievance, who the employee needs to speak to (normally their manager) and what will happen after the incident has been reported.
While employers should encourage employees who believe they are being bullied to notify the offender that their behaviour is unwelcome (by words or by conduct), it is worth recognising that this is not always possible.
It is important to make clear to employees that all allegations of harassment or bullying will be taken seriously and confidentially, and that grievances or complaints will not be ignored or treated lightly.
As always ACAS has something sensible to say on the matter and suggest your policies should include the following:
The advice to give examples is good, as it helps everyone have the same understanding of what is not acceptable. People have different experiences, values and resilience so giving examples helps understanding and gives clarity. Don’t just download them from the internet, make them specific and relevant to your business.
“It’s just banter.”
Banter, arguably, has an important place in British culture and can often help in developing cohesive and enjoyable workplace relationships. The aim is not to cut out the fun but to ensure everyone understands where the line is.
Banter is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “the playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks” and the only person who gets to determine whether something is banter or not is the person on the receiving end of the remark.
BANTER: A colleague makes a joke about your new haircut to you, and you shoot back that even with a bad haircut you are still better looking!
BULLYING: Your colleague makes jokes about your new haircut that they know you feel insecure and embarrassed about, in a meeting. There’s a power imbalance too, because there’s an audience. You get embarrassed, but the ‘banter’ continues for the rest of the week.
Yes, of course you need to get feedback from your staff and you are probably hoping they are going to be a happy bunch overall. However, treating staff surveys as a way to measure how great you are is not best use of the time and effort.
To get the most from your survey you need to approach it with the attitude “How will the results help us improve? “
Once the pretty graphs are done and you have added a bit of narrative, it is easy to discuss at senior level and decide its ‘pretty much what we thought’ and leave it until next year.
If some of the survey results are disappointing or negative don’t be tempted to bury them or lose them in a clever summary piece- you now know people think things could be improved. People being honest and telling you what they think is a good thing, so embrace it.
The key to getting the most from the feedback is having a well thought out plan about how you will share and use the information.
Ideally you need to allow 3 months from start to finish and allocate enough resources.
1 week after survey
Thank people for taking part- tell them you are digging into the results and will share within 6 weeks
[ if you wait too long people will have forgotten how they responded and might even feel very differently]
3 weeks after survey
Discuss results at senior management level
[Don’t take it personally, if people have said they are unclear about your goals, values, benefits package that is your reality [ maybe just having those things on the intranet/ noticeboard is not enough]
5 weeks after survey
Share results with everyone – how you do this will depend on any groupings you have set up- and the purpose you set for the survey. Think about the audience, if the results for transparency and trust are not as good as you wanted you might think about publishing the raw data as long as people retain their anonymity to show you are not ‘hiding’ anything.
The above often happens… but it is the next steps that are the most important and they sometimes just get lost because the next project has come along.
6 weeks after survey
Set up staff forums or workshops to look at chosen / specific results.
Ask people for their thoughts, ask for ideas, how can the company improve. What do they want – you should still do this process even if you got what you consider to be good results.
Gather what you have learned, the ideas, the suggestions, the main takeaways about workplace culture and how people perceive they are managed.
9 weeks after survey
Agree action points: As an organisation and as teams, then set goals and time targets. Although you will probably have one person or dept who is leading this project the results and actions belong to everyone and all managers must take responsibility and be held accountable.
Update the organisation in a simple
You said- we did format
… and keep talking
….and keep listening
Use feedback to improve what you do ……………
Photo: Jon Tyson Unsplash
The price of not acting on employee complaints about the boss- the rise of online employee complaint portals
There are reasons why management might choose to ignore an employee complaint about harassment instead of following up with a thorough and timely investigation but none of them turn out to be a good reason in the long run.
Maybe the manager is highly valued, an all-around great person whom you don’t want to alienate; and maybe the complainant is a known whiner and is always raising issues. You may fear that if you launched a work investigation other people would come out of the woodwork about similar issues and who wants to open that can of worms !
Those may sound like good reasons, but watch out ……
We all know about the high profile Hollywood cases but the rise of online portals and employee petitions present a real risk if you choose not to investigate or tackle staff concerns.
Last year saw some high profile resignations from the charity sector after details of alleged sexual harassment went public and viral, the charity originally maintained the complaints were informal and were therefore dealt with through confidential mediation [ no resignations]
In February Ray Kelvin the founder of the fashion brand Ted Baker was forced to resign following a high profile staff petition. The petition, on the workplace website Organise, said that more than 200 Ted Baker staff were finally breaking their silence after at least "50 recorded incidents of harassment" at the fashion group. The immediate fallout has had a very fast impact on share price and profitability.
Currently the Organise website is highlighting staff petitions from employees at a number of retail organisations and another petition that accuses a CEO of a medium sized company of sexual misconduct and bullying further claiming that HR has ‘wilfully ignored reports of harassment’.
Staff leaving the company now have opportunities to make their complaints heard by writing employer reviews on sites like Indeed and Glassdoor so it is really important to have meaningful exit interviews/ conversations to scoop up any issues and more importantly to address them in a timely way.
Make sure you have a number of channels that would allow people to raise concerns and that your policies and procedures give clear examples about harassment and the behaviours that will not be tolerated.
So what should you do when an employee complains about the boss ?
As ever ACAS have some wise words about the who, what, why and when of handling an investigation into the complaint but lets back track to the fact this is about the boss. Maybe it’s a ‘kissy, kissy’ type of environment or an environment that has plenty of ‘banter’, maybe it’s a [ insert your own word]. None of that matters it needs investigation, if the complaint is malicious the claimant needs to be challenged and if it’s not chances are the person has thought long and hard about grassing up the boss and is really nervous about raising a complaint so you owe it to everyone to investigate fairly.
You may want to ask someone from outside the company to deal with the investigation to ensure transparency and impartiality and confidentiality during the process especially if you do not have a dedicated HR function.