Since the start of COVID-19, there have been numerous and significant changes to how we operate businesses and manage staff.
Gail Ellis from HR consultancy Greenburn talks to Anna about staffing questions, from furlough planning and managing holiday leave, to performance management during home-working, and much more.
OnFARM Helps is here to support rural and food-based businesses to survive and even thrive during lockdown and beyond.
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Hello and welcome to the latest edition of OnFARM Helps Podcast. These episodes are a bit different from the usual. We are focussing primarily on offering timely and expert advice to rural businesses across Scotland to help them navigate these tough times of Coronavirus so we’re wanting to enable them to thrive and survive in these difficult times. Please do get in touch if you can think of anything you’d like us to focus on in future. Just tweet us at @on_farmuk.
For this episode, I have been joined by Gail Ellis. I’ve known Gail for a number of years and she’s provided some very valuable advice and support to me. She is an expert in HR and people management working for her business called Greenburn. Greenburn provides HR support for the likes of NFU Scotland, Scottish Land & Estates, Scotland Food and Drink, so they really know what they’re talking about when it comes to people management, particularly in times like this. So Gail and I had a really wide-ranging chat about everything that is happening in the workplace as a result of Coronavirus lockdown from furlough to workers rights, holiday entitlement, sick pay, you name it, we pretty much discussed it.
Gail and I were chatting from our own separate offices under lockdown so the quality may not be quite as good as you’re used to but please bear with us. The key here, I think, is to get the knowledge and information out there to people who need it. So, we started our chat with Gail giving us a bit of background about Greenburn and the kind of services that they offer to a wide range of businesses throughout the rural and food and drink sectors:
GE: Greenburn is an independent HR company, quite small, but we are all specialists in our own field and we give expert advice and opinions to our clients and we have a huge range of clients from very very large organisations to tiny ones and we work on the basis that we provide solutions so we’re very proactive and hopefully get to know our clients and their business as well.
AD: Absolutely. Now, at the time of recording and broadcasting this particular episode of OnFARM Helps, we are just coming to the end of Week 3 of Lockdown and I understand that your phones have been going a little bit crazy over the last three weeks – would that be true to say?
GE: Yes. Phones and emails. Phones and emails and I thought it would just be for the first week or so but it is just continuing as more and more questions keep popping up. The legislation was changed, the Chancellor changed it a little bit on the 4th [April] so that created a new raft of questions and it’s confusing for people and it’s a scary time so we all do as much as we can to help with the knowledge that we have.
AD: Absolutely and there are many different questions that have come your way with regard to holiday entitlement and management, performance, reviews and performance management, absence and sickness obviously relevant at the moment but we’ll maybe kick-off – because you’ve sent me a list of questions that you frequently get asked – we’ll maybe kick-off, if that’s okay, with furlough because, looking at the questions that you’ve sent me, that’s been an area that’s generated maybe the most queries and I know you’ve got some kind of examples of the questions that people have come up with and a whole range. So, perhaps, in your words can you tell us what you think has been the biggest query with regard to the furlough scheme?
GE: Yes, I think with the furlough scheme, it’s who can be furloughed, and who can’t be furloughed and it wasn’t terribly clear in the beginning. People thought if it was if their jobs were at risk and it was really because if a business didn’t have a need for people so hospitality industry is a classic example, all the cafes and restaurants closing and what do you do with all those workers? So, they could all be furloughed. But, as the time’s gone on, more and more issues have come up and so now the Chancellor on the 4th of April clarified the furlough a little bit further so furlough now extends to anybody that there isn’t any work for. If the work as stopped or the operations have slowed down then staff can be furloughed – only though if they’ve been on the payroll since the 28th February – it’s an important thing this because somebody phoned yesterday and said to me “I’ve taken somebody on the 3rd of March and I’m going to backdate it so they can be furloughed” so I said “How are going to manage that?!” and he said “Well, I’m just going to put them on the payroll” but I don’t think he fully understood that they need to have gone through the PAYE system first so the Revenue has registered them. So, an important point. I think I ruined his day actually!
AD: Oh dear! At least you kept him legal!
GE: I know! So, it’s staff who basically there isn’t any work for but also now, the furlough has been extended to anybody who is a carer or if somebody has children and they have got real problems with childcare, they can’t work from home and so it’s been extended that they can ask to be furloughed as well. Now, you can ask to be furloughed – and a lot of people come to us saying “I’ve asked to be furloughed but it’s been declined” and it’s got to be something that’s done by mutual agreement for instance, if you have a very specific skill and your director/manager needs you to be available they can say that they won’t furlough you but it is a compromise. It seems to be working well and the fact that the restrictions have been slackened a little bit for people that are shielding, people that are carers, people that have got children at home and they can’t work, I think it’s made it a lot easier for everybody.
AD: You did touch on something there with regard to childcare and I think many people listening, aside from having a greater level of respect for teachers, will now be realising how difficult it is to juggle work in many cases and looking after children, especially if they’re small. I know my two are in the other room watching a mermaid video at the moment just to try to keep them quiet while I work. It is challenging. Am I right in saying then that once a member of staff has been furloughed, they can no longer undertake any work for that business during that period?
GE: Yes. Again, yesterday we had a call from a gentleman who had been furloughed since the 1st of March, and his boss called him yesterday morning and asked him if he would volunteer to go in to do training of one of the other members of staff who was actually not furloughed and that’s really a bit of a chancer obviously, because you’re not allowed to do work at all for your existing company. Interestingly, you can work for somebody else, for example if you were furloughed you could take a job driving one of the delivery vans for one of the major supermarkets providing it isn’t in contradiction of your current terms of your contract and that you get the approval of your business owner or manager but you definitely can’t work for your existing company any more.
AD: That’s very useful to know actually and I suppose in the farming sector, in particular soft fruit companies, are going to be crying out for labour when it comes picking time because they’re not able to have access to a lot of the labour that comes in from elsewhere in Europe so there is potentially an opportunity for people who’ve been furloughed to go and pick soft fruits as the season comes round.
GE: Oh I think it’s a great opportunity, to be honest. And I know some soft fruit farmers who are already actually targeting people who’ve been furloughed but it’s a wonderful opportunity because they’re really helping, and I think that’s what everybody wants to do. We’ve had lots of questions from people who have been furloughed saying “I want to help. Can I volunteer?” and yes, they can volunteer. They can volunteer and they can go and work somewhere else. So, I think that’s probably where this ‘land army’ is going to come from, all the staff throughout the whole of the UK that have been furloughed, which would be fantastic wouldn’t it?
AD: Absolutely and in fact Monty, who’s my business partner, very unfortunately, suffered an injury to his arm and he’s in the midst of lambing at the moment on the farm. He was saying that actually, in a sense – and you wouldn’t wish this on anybody – it’s fortunate that it’s happened this year because he’s got relatives that have been furloughed who could come to the farm and help him out with lambing and he gets the assistance he might not have had in any other year. There are opportunities out there for people to do something else and keep themselves busy I suppose.
GE: It’s interesting because I read I think in one of the newspapers the other day, how an Easyjet pilot that been furloughed had actually taken a job driving a delivery van in Tesco. It’s amazing how many people I know now that have been furloughed that are actually taking jobs. There’s a lady that has taken a job in a care home and others that are stacking shelves in Marks & Spencer and Morrisons or wherever, so I think everybody’s pulling together but the fact that people can take another job in furlough is really important. If you have two, or even three jobs, you can also be furloughed from all of them. So, if you have a childcare problem or you were shielding someone who is at risk and you did have two or three different jobs which many people do, each job can furlough you.
AD: I was actually having a conversation yesterday with somebody from Scottish Enterprise and we were talking in general terms about people who can, taking the opportunity of lockdown to upskill themselves and do some training so if you’ve been furloughed are you able to undertake training that is relevant to your job while you’ve been furloughed?
GE: Yes. I think that’s being promoted quote heavily because it does seem an ideal opportunity. The only thing is, training is almost classed as working. If you’re only being paid the 80% as opposed to the 100% – because furlough attracts 80% of your salary and the employer can lift it to 100% if they chose to (or can afford to I think is really more prevalent) – but you just have to make sure that if people are training, that some people don’t fall below the minimum wage. Again, we’ve had queries about this. A couple of people have said “We’re going on a training course. It lasts for a week. It’s a whole week where I have to do an online training course – do I still get paid?”. So, you still get our furlough but in both cases, the people were paid. The 80% meant their salary reduced to such a point that they weren’t earning the minimum wage for the hour so the employer then agreed just to uplift the furlough to 100% for the period that they were training.
AD: I see, yes that makes sense. When you’re on furlough, are you also accruing annual leave at the same time, and how does that work?
GE: Yes, you continue to accrue annual leave while you’re on furlough or if you’re working from home. I think the whole leave situation is going to be quite challenging. The Chancellor’s now said that 20 days leave can be extended to be taken over a two year period for everybody because he realises that this is going to impact on business quite significantly. So, there’s two things: if you’re working from home, it’s a really good idea, you’re still working, it’s a good idea to still take some holiday. If you’re furloughing, your business can ask you to take holiday as well. What they don’t want to do, and a lot of business are really worried about this, is when they do get operational again, they’re quite concerned about the backlog for holiday that is going to come forward. We’ve got one client who thinks that from September they’ll be incredibly busy and so they’re asking all their staff to take 70% of their holiday before September, so right between now and over the summer period which has proved a little challenging because some people see holiday as going away to the beach but for operational reasons, now the Chancellor has extended it so people can take the holiday forward but it’s still causing concern for businesses because it means potentially on top of their normal statutory requirement or company holiday scheme people are potentially carrying another 20 days forward for two years so it’s going to take some working out and a bit of manpower planning I think for all businesses to be on top of this.
AD: So if, as an employer, you ask one of your employees to take holiday during this period, presumably that employee must comply, must they?
GE: If you want the employee to take five days holiday, you have to give them ten days notice so double the amount of time that they would be off. To be frank, it’s one of those things that can be a little bit emotive so it’s always better to come to some sort of sensible agreement. The extending it over two years…I think should ease any tension. There are, I know from talking to people that have phoned, a lot of people that don’t want to take holiday during furlough. They don’t want to take holiday while they’re working from home but the employer still has a duty of care to make sure that people are getting rest, they are moving away and it’s quite stressful for everybody so I think it’s a balance, as always, there should be a meeting in the middle somewhere.
AD: Absolutely and I suppose in most cases that’s perfectly possible and you can always assist with the smooth running if there’s not an agreement that’s coming up straight away I suppose?
GE: I can try sort of oiling the wheels I think we’ll call it!
AD: Absolutely. It’s tiring if you are working from home and trying to look after children or other relatives it is tiring and you need a holiday. Not in a dissimilar way to needing a holiday in normal circumstances. I think that’s maybe what people don’t realise until they’ve got into that situation of working from home for a while and to appreciate that maybe.
GE: It’s certainly proving quite challenging. I think we’ve heard more from managers let’s say who are trying to manage people who are working from home and it is difficult and I think we just have to, the circumstances are so unique, they’re unprecedented aren’t they, that I think we all just have to take a little step back and not get too upset if people don’t deliver the level of work they would deliver in the office. I think there’s got to be a little bit of relaxation all the way round, because there are – and we know of examples of people who are working from home in a bedroom on the corner of a bed almost and three young children around. That’s hard. I mean, that’s really hard and they don’t want to be furloughed, they want to continue working because obviously they want to continue earning. So, I think it’s about respect. I think it’s now not the hours that you work anymore. I don’t think it’s about being there 9 til 5. I think it’s, you know, what do you have to do that day or that week and then you do that but whenever its suit you around your lifestyle at home. I think that’s the way we’re sort of moving and I think that, after this, the workplace won’t be quite the same again.
AD: No, I quite agree and, in fact, I’ve been trying to operate for many years on a quality over quantity basis when it comes to work, and hopefully I manage to achieve that, but it’s true, it’s about fitting things around your other obligations that you’ve got to do and in the situation you’ve been describing it’s got to be about two-way understanding. Managers have to understand the various balls that everyone else is juggling and those people juggling the balls have got to understand that the managers have got a business to run so, if there’s a two-way understanding then it becomes easier, doesn’t it?
GE: Yeah, I think communication in this situation is absolutely key. For both parties. Really keeping in touch with, not only managers, but colleagues, having team meetings, having coffee chats, because everybody’s in it together and you can very very quickly feel isolated. I know one of my colleagues has had two or three calls about people that are feeling really quite lonely, quite left out of things and so I think it should be cognisant of all of us if we haven’t heard from somebody for a few days, are they okay? Just give them a call, have a chat, “how’s it going?“. The pressures will come and I suspect the pressures of caring, having children at home, trying to work, you know, without the things that you’re used to be around you, you know, it’s amazing in an office you’ve got all your stuff around you and it’s not quite the same. I think, going forward, it will settle down but I think we’re starting to see from the calls and emails we’re getting, concerns about “I can’t do this.” ” I’m not happy.” “I can’t get anything done.” so, again, all of us just need to be more cognisant of other people and the way they’re thinking and feeling.
AD: Yeah, absolutely and in fact we may well look at doing another episode about working from home and the challenges that that brings and trying to juggle all of the different things that we’re all trying to look after. Now, obviously in most situations this two-way communication will solve problems but if there are any employers out there who, despite having an understanding for what their employees are dealing with, still do have any issues over performances, what can they do to try and tackle that?
GE: Yeah, we’ve had a few people coming forward and saying they’ve got members of staff who have been underperforming for some time and now they’re working from home the situation has got worse and what we’re really saying to that is continue with the performance management systems that you’ve got in place. don’t overreact. People are in very different situations. They probably find it even harder working from home but contact and helping people go through through this so you’ve got somebody who’s underperforming, it’s important to stay in touch with them. It’s important to just touch base with them every day – not checking up. How are they doing? Do they need any help? Do they need support? Can another colleague be brought in to coach them or to assist them? Is it a training thing? It might get to the point where…we’re seeing a bit of a tendency where people can’t seem to organise their day very well at home. It’s actually what do they do first? So I think, in some cases, managers can help performance when they can help someone prioritise what they’ve got to do and go a little bit more into task as opposed to the bigger input because just helping somebody to say actually, do you reckon you could get these two or three things done by close of play today or by first thing tomorrow morning, I think it gives people direction and a target and I think then they’ll achieve it but with performance issues we don’t think its a time to be draconian. I think it’s just helping people through this situation until we get through the other side, whenever that may be!
AD: Yes, absolutely. We haven’t yet touched on the issue of what happens if an employee is actually unwell with suspected or confirmed Coronavirus. So, as an example, if an employee feels unwell, coughing, temperature, hasn’t been confirmed as having Coronavirus but they suspect that they do, how does that work in terms of ordinary sick pay and that kind of scheme of things?
GE: So if you have somebody that’s suddenly starting to feel unwell, they don’t know if they’ve got the virus or not, I think for this, what you do is ask them to basically go on to Statutory Sick Pay or company sick pay, whichever one you’ve got for the first seven days to see if it gets any worse. Hopefully by then whatever it is they’re either getting over it, if its just a little bug or if it’s worse they just carry on on company sick pay. We’ve been asked several times “Can we furlough our staff who are ill?” and the answer’s ‘no’. It’s either Statutory Sick Pay or company sick pay because they are genuinely ill. There are lots of questions about people just not feeling well and I think the best thing to do is to just say “Okay, you’ll go on to sick pay for a week and let’s reassess it after that.“.
AD: And what happens if somebody isn’t actually sick themselves but they are self-isolating because a family member is sick.
GE: Then we would call that ‘Shielding’ and with shielding you can furlough a person and it’s probably the best thing to do because in the instances we’ve heard of this, it’s another member of the family that is really quite sick and, in some cases, they have actually got Coronavirus or it is shielding older people who are at risk, you know the very At Risk category so you can furlough somebody because again what we’ve found is that people who have somebody in their household that is sick a) they really don’t want to go out and run the risk of passing this on and b) they don’t want to endanger the person in the household either so you could furlough in that case.
AD: I see. There will probably be people listening with employees who are for example, pregnant or have other underlying health issues so what are the options as an employer if say for example, if there’s somebody who’s eight month’s pregnant who works for you?
GE: Well the first thing obviously, you would hope that the lady is working from home. And maybe looking to reduce hours. Look to maybe reduce hours and, if possible, bring forward the date that she would go on to her natural leave.
AD: Yes, that makes sense. Gosh, we’ve covered quite a lot Gail but do you think there’s anything that springs to mind that you think we haven’t covered that we think that employers or indeed employees out there listening may be thinking “Oh gosh, I’m still a bit unsure about x or y or z.”
GE: One thing that we’ve been asked about a lot is can directors be furloughed. It was a little unclear until a couple of weeks ago but directors can be furloughed but it’s very very important that they don’t do any work in or on the business so for example, we had a director come forward and said “I work on business development and I need to go on furlough because I can’t afford not to go onto furlough but I need to carry on working because obviously I’m working on the business, not in the business and I want to keep looking for new leads, new business” but the guidance is very clear. The only work that a director can do is to do with statutory requirements so if you had to do something with Companies House, otherwise, they cannot do any work at all. So it’s a difficult decision for directors but the guidance is very very clear. They cannot do any work either on the business or in the business during the furlough period.
AD: Hmmm….I think that will actually be very relevant to probably a lot of our listeners who will be directors of small, medium or indeed large-sized companies and, in fact, it’s relevant for me too. I can’t afford to furlough in a sense because if I were to have, say, three months of not doing any business development, there might not be a business for me to come back to so I can’t furlough because I need to keep the business moving as much as possible and there will be many people in a similar situation to me for whom that question and answer is very, very relevant indeed.
GE: I think it’s really important and it’s going to cause quite a dilemma I think for a lot of people. Something else we’ve been asked quite a bit is, hypothetically, you’ve got a team of six people, there’s only enough work for two or three, so what do you do? You can furlough some and not others. So you can furlough people for a minimum of three weeks so what some companies are doing now, they’re rotating the staff. Some are on furlough, some are working from home and then after three weeks, they switch so that everyone gets the opportunity to do furlough and maybe some voluntary work and work at the same time and that’s quite a good solution. you can do that but you have to go on to furlough for a minimum of three weeks.
AD: Ahh, I see, I didn’t know that. And I suppose one final question that maybe any employees out there listening may be thinking, presumably, furlough does not have any long-term impact on the security of that job. You know, if you ask to furlough or you are furloughed, there’s no implication that your job isn’t any less important than anybody else’s and it’s just as secure when you go back as it was when you started in that sense?
GE: I think that’s correct. I think the whole reason behind furlough is to take the burden of the paying of salaries away from the employer so that actually when the furlough finishes and when this situation resolves, people can do back to their jobs and the jobs are still there. It’s actually a way of trying to secure jobs for the future. One thing that employers do ask is “When are we going to get the money for the furlough?” so the HMRC scheme has not yet opened. The portals where you can actually record who’s gone on to furlough and put in your information, that’s not going to open until about the end of April and then no doubt, goodness knows how many squillions of people are going to be trying to access it to try to enter information but the last news we had was that Revenue will not be able to reimburse the furlough payments – and the furlough payments are 80% of salary, the employer’s N.I., which is 13.8% and 3%, the statutory pension – they don’t think they’ll be able to reimburse that money until May, end of May. A lot of employers are struggling at the moment because they can’t afford to pay the salaries today and wait until the end of May so there are these business loans available …
AD: …to help with cashflow…
GE: Yes, cashflow is challenging for a lot of people so again, some employers are having to come to arrangements with people to do reduced hours. So reduced hours doesn’t mean you’re being furloughed it just means that you might be reduced to four hours a day as opposed to eight hours a day or seven hours a day and it reduces your salary for a period of time because they do need you to keep working but they just can’t afford to pay so it’s flexibility on both sides to be honest Anna. It’s needed from everybody.
AD: Absolutely and I think that’s the overall message that’s coming through from talking to you. Yes there are rules and regulations and laws but actually, two-way communication, negotiation and being open to have fair discussions on both sides is going to be what brings people through the other side of this.
GE: Yeah. People make businesses. And it’s just by working together that you can make a business successful. Now more than ever, we need to be doing that. The employers have got challenges. The employees have got challenges so it’s meeting in the middle and I think business should come out stronger.
AD: I hope so. We’re seeing a lot of silver linings on a lot of clouds with people who are innovating and doing things differently which we’ve touched on in other podcast episodes but definitely people are finding new ways of doing things and in many ways that may set us in good stead for the future.
GE: We’ve just got to build on all that and everything I see and hear is how many times before this happened I had managers saying “Oh we can’t possibly work from home.” “They can’t do that from home.” “It won’t work” and all of a sudden, almost overnight, everybody’s working from home and, in the main, it’s actually working. It’s just the occasional manager that might say “They’re supposed to be at their desk from 9 o’clock and they weren’t there at 10 o’clock.” and I think it’s now about quality, not quantity so I think that’s a really good lesson.
AD: Well thank you Gail. Just finally we’ve gone into a bit of detail here on topics but there could be people out there who are thinking to themselves “gosh, I really could do with a phone conversation with Gail to get some specific information on my case so how can people get in touch with you if they need to get some advice?
GE: Well we’ve got out website which is www.greenburn.co.uk – email firstname.lastname@example.org. We work for four large membership organisations: Scottish Land & Estates; National Farmers Union of Scotland; SAOS and Scotland Food & Drink. All their members have free access to us and can call us with any questions or problems they’ve got and during this period the phone call’s free, any emails we have to do are free because we’re just trying to support everybody as much as we can. So we extend that to anybody who’s got a question and normally we’ve got two people on the phones all the time. We can answer the question fairly quickly there and then.
Thank you very much for listening to that latest episode of OnFARM helps, you now know how to contact Gail if you need her specific advice in relation to your business.
Please do get in touch with us if you’ve got any feedback. you can find us on Twitter and other types of social media, just be searching ‘OnFARM podcasts’ and we’ll speak to you next time. Thank you.