Five ways our working life may change forever

May 13, 2020

For some employers, this week will see the start of the return of their workforce. The prime minister has actively encouraged employees in England who can’t work from home to go into work. However, even for those companies whose workforce remains largely furloughed or working remotely, plans are being made for a return to work. And in many cases, it’s clear that we can’t go straight back to the way we were.

Aside from the major issues of personal protective equipment for those in occupations with an increased risk of catching coronavirus, even workplace norms like hot desking and face-to-face meetings are likely to make employees feel anxious. And with the expected downturn in the economy, employers are also having to consider redundancy for some of their staff. So what’s all that going to mean when we head back to the workplace, and how can employers help their staff to embrace the new normal?

Fewer people in the workplace

For the foreseeable future, workers should continue to work from home rather than their normal physical workplace, wherever possible, according to the government’s new COVID-19 Secure recovery strategy.

Social distancing doesn’t just mean standing two metres apart when we’re chatting beside the water cooler. Many workspaces will need to be redesigned to allow employees to try and contain the spread of the virus. For some employers, this will mean retro-fitting glass or plastic screens – as we’re already seeing in supermarkets.

It could also mean workplaces having to be deep cleaned, and cleaned more often, provide increased facilities for handwashing, a spacing out of desks, assigned workspaces (no more hot desking), and asking employees to wear face masks to help prevent the spread of the virus.

This may soon become commonplace, as the government’s COVID-19 Secure advice is for people to aim to wear a face covering in enclosed spaces where social distancing is not always possible. These measures while not perfect may help employees feel better protected and reduce the risk claims from employees who feel they are in danger.

Remote working

The government is publishing its new “COVID-19 Secure” guidelines later this week, which it wants employers to follow when practicable. For now, it’s thought that businesses in sectors such as food production, construction, manufacturing, logistics, distribution, and scientific research in laboratories are to be open when possible, with some sectors (such as hospitality) to remain closed for now.

To make workplaces COVID-19 Secure, it is likely employers will have to stagger employee’s shifts to make social distancing possible and encourage employees to continue to work remotely when possible.

Employees already have the legal right to request flexible working – and many may wish to make this arrangement more formal, particularly if they have children who are not in school or have caring responsibilities for elderly relatives or they have health issues themselves.

Flexible start times

The government has asked people to avoid using public transport, as a way of controlling the virus, and instead to cycle, drive or walk to work.

For employers who don’t already offer the Cycle to Work scheme, this can help some employees reach their workplaces. But on a practical level, until the buses, trains and tubes are operating at a higher capacity than they are currently, it’s going to be very difficult for many employees to get into work.

Employers are likely to have to be flexible about working times, where possible.

A ban on business travel?

For the foreseeable future, business travel isn’t going to resume any time soon. With different countries imposing quarantine, and airlines slashing flights, face-to-face meetings are near-on impossible to arrange, and many employers are already into the swing of remote meetings, often via video conferencing.

During the lockdown, there’s been an informal approach to conference calls in many organisations. Often employees have been talking to their colleagues and appearing with the backdrop of their kitchen, wearing a more relaxed dress code than in the office.

Once back in the office, employers may update the guidance on remote meetings – particularly for calls with clients – and expect a more formal approach. Some workplaces will set up a dedicated area for conference calls and invest in the technology needed to make the meetings as effective as possible.


Economists warn that the global pandemic is likely to cause the deepest recession in modern history. In fact, the Bank of England has said the British economy could shrink by 14% this year and unemployment more than double by spring.

So while the furlough scheme is expected to run until September – dropping down to 60 per cent of the wages of laid off employees – many employers will still need to reduce the expense of salaries. This could include asking some employees to agree to shorter hours, stopping overtime or even asking staff to take a pay cut. If these new conditions are agreed with the employee, it could be a way to avoid redundancies.

However, in some cases, employers will offer settlement agreements as a way to swiftly and amicably part company with employees. For the employer, the documents offer a way to skip the time they’d have to spend on following a legally compliant redundancy process. And for employees, settlement agreements can offer an enhanced payment in return for losing their job – which may appeal if they were likely to be made redundant.

About the author

Joanne O’Connell is a journalist for national newspapers, such as the Guardian. She is also editor of Employment Solicitor Magazine, an engaging resource for HR and employers, with expert analysis from employment solicitors about UK’s rapidly evolving labour market.

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