HR Leadership in Times of Workforce Crisis

Responding to the evolving workforce crisis brought about by Covid-19

The ongoing impact and disruption that Covoid-19 has bought with it, is unprecedented in our times. Whilst boards and chief executives seek to stabilise the ships of their respective company operations, as global share prices fall and entire employee bases shift to increasingly remote ways of working. Emergency boards and workforce crisis strategy meetings are in session, where HR leaders find themselves being called upon to provide people-focused, business advisory, whilst influencing decision making and championing the principles of good management. 

Symptoms of coronavirus disease | Source: Wikipedia
Symptoms of coronavirus disease | Source: Wikipedia

At this time of impending workforce crisis, it’s essential that HR work with business leaders to think ahead. All whilst focusing on the business-critical focus that HR will find its internal stakeholders or external clients needing to know the latest on now.

Job retention schemes and all things furlough

The recently announced job retention scheme will apply to all UK companies and allows employers to access financial support to continue paying their employees salary for those who would otherwise have seen their roles being made redundant. 

Furlough has not been a term applicable or recognised concept within UK employment law and is unlikely to be referenced in current employment contracts or employee handbooks – the term being a recent import from the US. However despite this, UK employment law principles will continue to apply in the same way. 

The job retention scheme announced by the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak on March 20th will operate to support employers of all sizes, including private sector, charitable and not for profit. And will work to ensure that those employers are able to contact HMRC for a grant to cover the wages of employees who are not working, but are instead furloughed and therefore still on company payroll.  

Government grants will cover 80% of an employees salary, up to £2,500 a month, which is above the UK’s median income level. Employers can, should they choose, elect to top pay up to the full 100%. However this is discretionary and therefore will be subject to internal decision making and financial planning oversight. 

The key points of the job retention scheme include:
  1. An employee can be placed on ‘furlough leave’, instead of being dismissed or made redundant
  2. A furloughed employee will remain on company payroll and will continue to accrue annual leave and continuous service for the full duration of the furlough period
  3. 80% of an employees salary will be reimbursed by HMRC, up to £2,500 per month
  4. Employers can choose to top the 80% up to the full 100% employee salary at their discretion
  5. The scheme will apply to any employees on a companies payroll by 1 March 2020
  6. Reimbursements will be calculated using pay from February 2020 as a guide and will be backdated to March 1st
  7. The scheme has been set up to run until the end of May, but may be extended
  8. Employers are responsible for submitting the details of employees who have been put on furlough leave to HMRC, confirming their earnings and PAYE information through an online portal

HR tips on being objective & nondiscriminatory

Selection processes in any reorganisation or change process can be tough, particularly during times of increased pressure and panic, which this time most certainly is. HR advisory on selection processes for furlough, should as always champion the principles of being objective, level headed and nondiscriminatory.

Business-critical functions, such as board, management oversight, IT support, HR / payroll and finance are typically expected for many companies to continue, ensuring business continuity throughout this interim period. This is of course dependent on the size and activities of your organisation and will revise accordingly, based on the functional and operational needs of your business, during this time. 

A strong starting point is to evaluate and consider the needs of the business – Which roles are critical to the business functioning throughout the next three month period? It’s also worthwhile considering what might happen in the event of a ‘business critical’ employee later becoming ill, or needing to take time out to self isolate or care for a relative. Critical workforce planning considerations will help support forward planning activities in the event of presently unknown circumstances. 

When reaching decisions on who can be placed on furlough leave, it’s important to keep in mind these key factors whilst advising your stakeholders accordingly: 

  • Any decisions need to be proof-read, to ensure they’re not directly or indirectly discriminatory – for example, making a decision that all female employees should be placed on furlough leave to accommodate child care needs whilst children are home from school, is a clear no go
  • Where selections are being made between identical ‘business critical’ roles, asking for furlough volunteers could provide a selection making solution to distinguish who takes the leave and who remains 
  • Furlough selections should be made on the basis of which roles in the business are not going to be required during a period of reduced or zero operation. I.e, if you operate a chain of coffee-shops, customer facing roles are currently not required with mandatory store closures. Management oversight of the operation will likely still be required – It’s therefore essential that any decisions are made on the basis of what roles will be needed to maintain operation in the short term and which will not
  • Employees can not do the odd bit of work whilst they are furloughed – Employees are not able to continue work in any capacity whilst placed on furlough leave, this according to the guidance, includes working from home whilst furloughed, answering the odd query, providing services or generating revenue. If employees do any work, then your company may have to repay the Government grant
  • You can rotate employees on furlough – According to law firm, Lewis Silkin ‘so long as each employee spends a minimum of three weeks on furlough, employee’s can be rotated’. Suggesting that an employer can “select an initial group of employees for furlough while a second group remains at work. The first group could then come back to work while the second group take their turn on furlough.” 
  • Reaching employee agreement is essential – Having clear & open channels of communication has never been more important than now. Employees should have regular, ideally daily communications with leadership whilst furlough discussions are taking place, with regular opportunities to contribute feedback being encouraged too
  • Keep the return point in mind with employees who are placed on furlough leave. Remember the premise of furloughing staff is so they’re able to return to work once the crisis is over. Ensuring the process of selection, reaching agreement, communications and returning employees to work post this period are all well managed, should be considered both business reputation & people critical

The overall process of reaching agreement on furlough leave, should ultimately be fair and involve consultation with employees, it should not be unilaterally imposed without consent. It’s a likelihood however, that most employees will be willing to accept furlough leave on the understanding that other options such as a redundancy or reduction to contracted hours, could leave them worse off in the long term. 

A temporary change of contract, will also need to be made with furlough leave, and so when seeking to agree on a temporary variation to the contract, it’s worthwhile to keep in mind that to reduce the risk of any potential claims, it’s important that you, as the employer, act in a reasonable way and to have a clear business reason for making the change to employment contracts. Which in the case of Covoid-19 could range everything from a mandated cease in trading or reduction to service operations whilst lockdown is ongoing.

Build community by leveraging remote working tools in a workforce crisis

For those employees who will continue working throughout this period, it’s probable that most if not all will be working from home. With Governments around the world insisting that people work from home where possible and scores of major companies including Apple, Google and Amazon making the switch. Followed by smaller companies now too, changing up from zero homeworking or encouraged homeworking, to now mandatory homeworking, it’s likely that as HR, you will be faced with an increasingly dispersed organisation, with managers separated from their teams, whilst facing a series of increased questions and needs from employees and leaders alike; seeking support and guidance at this unusual time. 

To safeguard employees from the outbreak, companies in Europe, Asia, and the US have started asking their employees to work from home as a precautionary measure

The great news though, is that thanks to technology the physical distance of working remotely need not have a serious impact on your workforce community. Collaboration and connectivity tools ranging Slack, Zoom & Microsoft meeting mean that daily team stand up’s, face to face 1-1’s and all hands meetings can all take place virtually – joining up even the most widely dispersed of teams, to provide a virtual sense of the office environment. 

Encouraging a ‘teaming’ mentality whilst working remotely doesn’t only need to be limited to work talk only. It’s great practice to encourage managers, employees and co-worker to impromptuly check in on each other to see if they’re okay. Remembering of course, that during this period of lockdown, employees can’t simply pop to a coffee shop to change up their working environment for a few hours and may also be juggling the challenge of other family members working from home at the same time, all whilst tackling home-schooling responsibilities for any children now off from school whilst they are closed. Suffice to say that checking in and communicating regularly with each other could offer a welcome and friendly life line. 

As HR, our people leadership extends beyond that of best practice and adherence to employment law frameworks, focusing too on the wellbeing of our work communities and the people within them. Now offers the perfect time to kick off or re-stoke any ideas on employee social and wellbeing programmes. Setting up virtual after work ‘cocktail hours’, a weekly team ‘pub quiz’ or even encouraging team sign ups to virtual online yoga classes. There are a host of ‘free’ workshops, exercise classes and entertainment activities happening right now, in response to Covoid-19, offering a perfect opportunity to truly hone and develop a strong virtual workforce community, to ride out the storm together. 

And finally, managing & leading HR for an organisation at any time, but particularly during a time of crisis benefits hugely from the support of excellent online HRM tools, that enable us to perform our roles with little distraction. CakeHR by Sage is one such essential tool that truly steps up to deliver, when the pressure is on. From its cloud based software set up, ensuring that employee information is securely stored in the cloud rather than an office based server, through to the digital swiftness of handling leave and other employee requests in real time via the CakeHR mobile app.

The comfort that can be taken by knowing the details of employees are being handled safely and securely at all times, but especially during a time like this, is invaluable. 


HR management software app system CakeHR human resources
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HR management software app system CakeHR human resources
HR management software app system CakeHR human resources

CakeHR by Sage is a cloud HR and people management solution that streamlines and automates your HR processes across the end-to-end employment journey, while creating really engaging and rewarding experiences for your employees.

Written By

Jade Taryn Graham

Jade is the founder & CEO of Inspired a people & talent consultancy working with the most innovative early stage companies worldwide. Founder & CCO of Inspired Talent Media Ltd and contributing writer for Sage HR where Jade writes about people, leadership, work/life balance and change.