Against a backdrop of a worsening economic situation, the last ten days have seen a gradual return to work for the majority of manufacturing organisations. However, alarming jobs data saw Make UK warn that at least a third of the sector believe it will take more than a year to return to normal trading. Whilst certain markets have been more resilient, all organisations have had to adapt their working environment to ensure they can work as productively as possible, within the constraints of new best practice.
David Thomas, Partner in Berwick Partners Manufacturing & Engineering practice, hosted an online, round table forum for manufacturing leaders to discuss ‘Adapting Your Working Environment’. This was supported by a panel of three experts; Rob Elvin, Managing Partner for Squire Patton Boggs Manchester, an expert in legal health, safety and environmental matters; David Whincup, Head of the London Labour & Employment Practice for Squire Patton Boggs; and Dave Kowal who leads Vita Group’s HR and EH&S functions. Vita has significant manufacturing operations in a number of European locations, including the UK, Netherlands, Germany, France, Poland, Lithuania, Hungary and Romania.
We started by debating risk assessments, geared around deciding if it was safe and essential to return to work, and ensuring appropriate levels of consultation with staff had taken place. The conversation then evolved over the course of the forum with the following summary points:
- Communication is key; work within the spirit of employment and HSE guidance, working with your employees to make the environment safe.
- Take all reasonably practical steps to mitigate risk, adapted and tailored to the specifics of your environment - the best employers will prepare their people for a ‘new normal’ and rise to the challenge COVID-19 has created.
- Governmental guidance in the UK has been confusing, generic and fast evolving. It was highly recommended that actions taken were extensively documented and the guidance on which decision were made kept for future reference. In addition, any new guidance published should be assessed against your existing best practice and implemented where appropriate.
- Employers must put safety before profitability, accepting that the same productivity will not be achievable. As an example, social distancing measured had resulted in twenty people performing a production activity previously achieved with fifteen people.
- Once risk has been brought to an acceptable level, employees should accept that with perhaps some specific exceptions it is reasonable to expect people to return to work. Managing workplace tension will be a key challenge for the leadership of organisations.
- For office workers it is likely that there will be an increased trend to more home working as COVID-19 has changed the emphasis of what organisations and individuals thought was possible.
- Possible lessons learnt from other countries included: more flexible furlough schemes which had helped the return to work. Some countries such as France and Germany had provided more robust guidance on re-opening and had more evolved test and trace processes. What was deemed an appropriate gap in social distancing varied hugely from country to country, with the two-metre rule in the UK larger than in many equivalent economies.
- The organisational approach to mental health will need some focus, in Poland guidance has included adding the psychological impact into risk assessments.
- Presuming a safe home and work environment, there is still the reality of commuting risk and capacity that organisations are faced with, not normally an area that is their concern. In addition, a full return to work is intrinsically linked to the return of children to schools.
An excellent discussion led by our experts lasted for an hour, with pertinent questions and contributions from attendees. It was highlighted that those anticipating a return to work appeared to have higher levels of anxiety than those in workplaces who had remained open in some form during lockdown, where the workforce had already adjusted.
The overriding message was of business leaders who were keen to get Britain back to work, but with the welfare of their people at the forefront of all planning.
David Thomas is a Partner at Berwick Partners, focused on supporting organisations with key leadership appointments within the manufacturing space.