Beyond the bubble – early Covid-19 lessons learnt from outside our sector

By Rebecca Gregg, Researcher, UCEA
5 May 2020

Our members continue to work tirelessly to ensure staff feel well supported in their work, despite these testing times. Our sector has responded swiftly to rapidly changing circumstances and while we continue to gather excellent case studies from our members, UCEA’s latest report looks beyond our HE bubble, trying to learn from other sectors. With so much attention keenly focused on employers’ best and worst practices, taking the wrong step can cause more than reputational damage – more importantly, it can put the safety and security of valued employees at risk.

Reputational damage alone has already seen many businesses u-turn on well publicised decisions. We can learn from these mistakes: taking decisions too quickly, disregarding available advice and failing to involve important stakeholders can all lead to reversed decisions. This blog contrasts some of the examples examined in the report.

Looking before leaping: Wetherspoons v UNICEF

In the early days of the pandemic, with government announcements subject to rapid change, employees were expecting instant answers to the daily briefing. But employers were in the same boat and many made hasty, regrettable decisions.

Infamously, Wetherspoons acted rashly: closing doors immediately following the government announcement relating to bars and restaurants. Understandably, Wetherspoons’ refusal to pay their, mainly casual, staff drew fierce criticism. Despite the government’s furlough scheme, Wetherspoons’ owner, Tim Martin, said that he could not afford to pay his staff until the retention scheme grant was paid, encouraging staff to flock to supermarkets for work. With continuous criticism damaging a precious reputation Martin u-turned within a week. 

By contrast, UNICEF pre-empted the government decision to enter lockdown based upon recommendations by governments in other countries. They practiced their lockdown response by running a trial office closure to test their staff communication systems and close any gaps before the official lockdown began. Acting in a measured way ironed out most problems before the government even forced actions. Unlike Wetherspoons, UNICEF avoided the need for high profile u-turns by thinking first before making announcements.

The devil’s in the detail: HMPO v Barrett Homes

With so many streams of advice and guidance, organisations have found it challenging to absorb, interpret and implement the varied, often contradictory, information. Yet failing to do so has caused public backlash in many cases.

Her Majesty’s Passport Office (HMPO) was widely criticised for attempting to return to work too quickly without following health and safety advice. Their intention was to prevent a backlog of passport applications building up on return post-lockdown. Despite implementing some social distance measures, it was felt that executives were out of step with government policy. Responding to staff anxieties, the deputy scientific advisor said, “we cannot hide away from it forever”, this lead to criticisms of a “cavalier approach to staff safety”.

Barrett Homes, on the other hand, identified understandable angst surrounding returning to work. Instead of appearing to ignore concerns, their plan detailed the steps taken to address health and safety concerns. This reassured employees that the company had considered all advice and guidance and that safety was their priority. Barrett Homes set out to over-engineer rather than underprovide in order to protect employees and help them feel cared for when returning to work at the appropriate time.

The right people around the table: Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council v Airbus 

Getting the right team together to make important decisions can help prevent u-turns. The UNICEF team included people from across the organisation who understood operations on the ground, enabling a considered decision-making process. Involving employees and trade union representatives can ensure employees feel listened to when buying into corporate decisions.

Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council tried to reopen its civic amenity site without union consultation. Though the council reported completing the required risk assessments, the unions (GMB and Unison) remained unconvinced, advising members against returning to work. The council reversed its decision. A collaborative consultation process would have enabled staff to return to work quicker – perhaps with more safety measures in place.

Airbus worked closely with its unions, including them in decisions and providing a detailed and comprehensive 19-point plan for health and safety. This close collaboration is allowing Airbus factories to remain operational throughout the lockdown. 

Careful, considered, collaborative decisions protect employees and reputation 

There is no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic continues to be an incredibly stressful and challenging time for all, including employers. Case studies from beyond the sector demonstrate the benefits from taking time to consider advice and guidance with the right team. Employers are making ongoing difficult decisions around recruitment, retention, health and safety and employee engagement. Avoiding mistakes made by others and following decision-making best practice can ensure teams feel safe and avoid embarrassing u-turns while remaining operational.