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The Phased Return

26 May 2020 |

By Nick Coleridge-Watts

Phased Return

Coronavirus Update​

Throughout the course of the pandemic, it’s been interesting to observe the varying responses undertaken by clients and the way they seem to have gone about formulating their company’s policies for coping with the inevitable logistical issues. It’s been especially interesting to note both the speed with which said responses have been implemented, as well as their tendency to anticipate rather than follow government advice. By this I don’t mean to say that any clients have disregarded the official recommendations on how to proceed; rather, most clients set the wheels in motion ahead of the formal greenlight.

For instance, nearly all our clients implemented blanket lockdown for all save exceptional circumstances up to a fortnight before the official ruling on the matter. Almost all clients made the decision to retain temps involved with essential projects and set them up virtually, whilst more casual covers were let go on the totally reasonable grounds that remote setup was unnecessary, especially when permanent support staff have found their workload reduced due to their teams’ lack of travel and expenses. Similarly, many permanent searches, except those in their final stages or where a rapid hire was absolutely essential, followed the same thinking and were put on hold; the logistics of interviewing and onboarding a new employee remotely when underused permanent staff could pick up the excess until offices reopen inevitably triggered a hiring freeze.

The reasoning behind these decisions is fairly airtight. Instinct coupled with experience usually leads hiring managers to insightful anticipatory decision-making. Although VWA works with a variety of industries, many are either part of or closely linked with financial services, which means they have a pretty good idea of what the markets will do before politicians and journalists have time to co-ordinate their policy. Aside from a few outliers, the clients’ responses were largely consistent. However, with various European countries toying with relaxing their lockdowns, the pertinent question is whether that consistency will remain intact. Keeping in close touch with our clients as we do, there are a variety of predictions about what will happen next.

To begin with, nobody feels there’ll be an immediate return. Everyone has acknowledged that some kind of phased arrangement will be the norm. A big part of this is both the continued desire to limit the spread of the pandemic and prevent the much-dreaded second spike. A further consideration is the question mark over employees’ willingness to return to work. As the vast majority of the UK workforce were in their roles pre-Covid-19, their lives were geared around a status quo which no longer exists. Possession of any pre-existing health conditions wasn’t a barrier to commuting to an office filled with potential carriers. Those ‘at risk’ won’t be alone; many people who aren’t immediately threatened will still think twice before boarding trains and buses again. In this respect, workers within walking distance or with a predilection to jog or cycle have found themselves at an advantage. Regardless of official guidelines on the subject, companies will need to devise strategies to manage this phased return which don’t coerce people into returning faster than they’d like. If not, they risk both turnover and reputational damage.

This is also relevant to those changes which benefit workers more than employers, i.e. the option to work from home regardless of the national circumstances. For many years now there has been increased lobbying from support staff for the choice to work remotely, with varying degrees of success. Although many employers sympathise in theory, the problems of logistics, setup, and how to prevent those left in the office from having to pick up collateral slack, have often been proffered as reasons not to change. When the phased return reaches its culmination, it’s impossible to ignore the possibility that regardless of their views on commuting and distancing, many employees will want to retain their new flexibility. This may extend not only to their location but also the hours they work. Again, employers will need to grapple with this new reality in a manner which continues to serve the needs of the business whilst maintaining an appealing brand.

Already there are divergences on how long the phased return is predicted to take. Many clients have been extending and updating their lockdown policy on a monthly or near-monthly basis in line with government announcements. Some have now moved to August as the next milestone. Others however are more inclined to suggest that, regardless of the official line, lockdown will be in place until autumn, or even year end. It’s impossible to say yet who is nearer the mark and, if the longer-term predictions are borne out, whether it’ll be more a case of partial lockdown by the fourth quarter.

In practice, should the phased return be the point of divergence between client approaches, it may also prove to be the moment when they cease to keep in step with government guidelines, and begin formulating policies unique to them. After all, regardless of what is unlocked and encouraged officially, individual clients will have to cater to the sentiments of their own populations, and it will be a case-by-case judgement of how to reconcile the conflicting priorities of business and employee priorities. Certainly, as we saw from Brexit, there will come a moment when commercial reality forces companies to ditch their holding positions. At that moment hiring will no longer be frozen, and both temporary and permanent placements will have to move forward regardless of how far into the phased return their hiring company is.

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