Managing employee relations remotely during Covid-19
The Covid-19 pandemic has created a unique working environment where nothing about the working world is ‘normal’. There are more mitigating circumstances for poor performance and disputes and obvious barriers to achieving a resolution. Many of the familiar systems and processes can no longer be followed or need to be amended.
At the same time, maintaining good relationships and a positive sense of community are more important than ever. What happens between people still working or furloughed under lockdown will create a legacy, and that will determine how successfully organisations deal with adapting to the post Covid-19 environment, pull together and move forward.
In terms of dealing with employee relations issues, it’s all about being ratrional, demonstrating a reasonable understanding and approach. Will we be able to look back on the lockdown period and be certain our decisions have been considered and justified, that nothing has been knee-jerk or left to fester because we want to wait until ‘normality’ returns? There’s an argument that the working from home situation will heighten levels of performance management. Line managers need to maintain contact, be proactive, instead of relying on their presence around the office. That means there is an opportunity to develop and improve methods, have more conversations and get more feedback, not for performance management to be put on hold.
According to Acas guidelines, employers are under an obligation to proceed with following up on grievance cases without ‘unreasonable delay’. The social distancing restrictions and level of disruption caused by Covid-19 could reasonably be seen as a cause for delay. But the circumstances of each case needs to be considered. What is the nature of the grievance, and what will the risks of waiting until there are fewer restrictions be? If it’s a grading issue, a matter of promotion or complaint about work allocation there would appear to be no justification for not dealing with the issue remotely. For more personal workplace relationship grievances, there needs to be more thought about the impact on staff now and for the future. Will waiting mean an accumulation of concerns, a worsening of effects and implications on mental wellbeing, for example for the employee/s involved? It’s important for HR and line managers to remember that mediation and informal forms of resolution are still viable under lockdown, carried out by professionals via a programme of confidential video conversations.
The new code of practice from Acas confirms disciplinary meetings can still go ahead as long as social distancing measures are followed and employees involved have the video call technology needed. If you’re going ahead with the disciplinary process, it might be necessary to look again at how HR policies are phrased, is it stipulated that meetings have to be carried out face to face, or within a specific time frame. These might need to be amended to allow for a video disciplinary to go ahead without the risk of a future challenge and appeal. It’s reasonable to triage, with lesser issues pushed back until there’s a return to ‘normal’. Are the problem behaviours going to be happening under lockdown, or can they still have an effect remotely? It’s critical that those involved with a video hearing are comfortable with using the technology, particularly for those leading the hearing. A technical rehearsal is essential. The online platform being used needs to be secure and it needs to be clear ahead of the hearing whether the content is being recorded.
A more difficult issue is how to allow for representatives, such as union staff, to be ‘present’ at the hearing. Any furloughed colleagues are able to take part as their participation in this kind of hearing doesn’t constitute ‘working’. While staff are at home it may also be considered reasonable for a spouse or other family member to act as a representative. And if a disciplinary results in a case for dismissal, the singular context needs to be taken into account, the potential for greater harm being caused. HR may see that a more reasonable response will be to furlough and delay dismissal.
When it comes to employee relations overall however, it’s important that managers are flexible and understanding when it comes to working under Covid-19 and its implications. Working from home and the ongoing crisis shouldn’t be an excuse for employees to under-perform. But equally, managers need to have a clear and reasonable grasp of how fair it is to weigh someone's performance against the ‘old’ way of working. That judgement can only be made in terms of individual roles and circumstances.