As we begin to descend the coronavirus mountain – to borrow the Prime Minister’s analogy – the thoughts of business leaders have turned to the question of how to get Britain back to work.
Tuesday’s announcement by Chancellor Rishi Sunak that the job retention scheme, through which the government pays 80% of the wages of furloughed employees, has been extended until October will be welcomed across the retail sector.
With any business planning to make more than 100 redundancies required to allow at least 45 days for consultation, the original deadline of the end of June meant decisions over staff retention were rapidly coming to a head. Although some details of the extension pledge still need ironing out, it at least gives bosses breathing space as they weigh up the extent to which they can sustain current payrolls as we begin to emerge from this crisis.
Retail has already borne a heavy human cost from Covid-19. Data released this week from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows people working in sales and customer service occupations, a category that includes retail assistants, have experienced a higher death rate than the national average.
Essential retailers have done their very best to protect their staff by implementing social distancing guidelines and other protective measures. But the nature of frontline jobs means risk can never be eliminated entirely.
This week the government published new guidance to help the rest of the workforce return to work safely. Non-essential retailers must remain closed until 1 June at the earliest, while office workers should continue to work from home rather than their normal physical workplace wherever possible.
Retailers, and their legal teams, will be pouring over the details, figuring out the extent to which they believe they can satisfy the criteria. For shops, these include frequent cleaning of objects and surfaces that are touched regularly such as self-checkouts and trolleys, while for offices employers are being asked to fix teams or shift groups so that where contact is unavoidable it happens between the same people.
I’m also aware that many retail leaders are thinking longer-term about the future of work and how it might change after Covid-19. Chief executives I have spoken to, including those previously of the mindset that staff should be in the office at all times, are coming to the conclusion that for many of the workforce home working is here to stay, if not full-time then as a regular part of their weekly routine.
Some are already making plans to scale down head offices that may previously have housed the vast majority of white-collar workers but which in future will act more as hubs for meetings and project-specific tasks. As a consequence, investments are likely to shift away from office infrastructure to technologies that facilitate remote working.
More immediately, bosses will wait on further details from the Chancellor. Employers currently using the job retention scheme will be able to bring furloughed employees back part-time from August but with the caveat that businesses will be required to foot an, as yet unspecified, proportion of the wage bill. With many areas of retail having been devastated by enforced closures, any prolonged uncertainty over the size of the financial obligation runs the risk of furloughed workers being cut adrift in spite of the scheme extension.