August 13, 2020

How to plan your back-to-work strategy

While many sectors more naturally aligned to remote working have adjusted to new working practices during Covid-19, the construction industry has come up against particular challenges. The very nature of the job meant that construction work had to stand still during lockdown, with figures from data provider Glenigan showing that 43% of sites stopped work during the first six weeks of the coronavirus crisis. For small construction businesses this will have had a considerable impact not only on financial performance, but also on the mental health and wellbeing of business owners and their employees alike.

At QuickBooks, thousands of its customers are based in the construction industry, and it has been working closely with these customers during the pandemic to help navigate the many challenges it has created for the industry.

The government granted permission for the sector to go back to work on 13th May and small construction businesses must pivot to maintaining and implementing a safe and effective return to work strategy. QuickBooks is committed to backing small businesses through Covid-19 and on their return to work: here are its tips to help make this process smoother, based on its knowledge of running small business processes and maintaining cash flow.

Communicating the government guidelines to employees

As you’d expect, the government guidelines for going back to work focus heavily on employers’ duty to reduce workplace risk to the lowest level possible by implementing effective social distancing measures in the workplace. This includes increasing the frequency of handwashing and surface cleaning, and business owners must ‘make every reasonable effort’ to make sure people are working two metres apart.

The Construction Leadership Council has developed a Site Operating Procedures document, which aligns with the latest guidance from Public Health England. The document outlines procedures specifically for construction businesses, for traveling to work, driving for work, limiting site access, cleaning facilities and administering first aid.

At the heart of the return to work is communication. We can expect the government’s guidelines around social distancing and vigorous hygiene standards to remain in place for the long-haul, and everyone will need to pull their weight to uphold them. Consider allocating responsibility for keeping on top of and implementing the latest requirements to an individual or small team. This ensures that it doesn’t fall by the wayside once work beings to ramp up.  

Managing employee concerns

Although employees are now legally allowed to return to work, there may be concerns among the workforce about the risk of infection during the commute or while working. This, in conjunction with the rapidly changing situation around Covid-19, may cause those being asked to go back to work some anxiety.

The government is clear that workers should not be forced into an unsafe workplace. It’s important that workers feel that they can air any concerns without sanctions and feel secure in bringing any issues to business owners’ attention – after all, there are no rules around how best to deal with the pandemic and acknowledging individual fears is a good approach.

If some employees do not feel comfortable enough to return, it is important to offer them alternative options. Decide if there are tasks that these workers could complete from home, and if not, speak to them about the possibility of introducing or extending furlough (though be aware that it is likely employers will need to start making contributions to this scheme soon). Temporary workers may need to be brought in if fears around coronavirus mean the business is dangerously under-staffed.

Maintaining staff wellbeing and mental health

To put the minds of your returning staff at rest, they need to be explicitly and comprehensively informed of the changes made to the workplace and made clear that they are in accordance with the government guidelines.

Small business owners hold a degree of responsibility for the physical and mental wellbeing of their staff, so communicate the importance of this and try to create a welcoming atmosphere so employees feel comfortable expressing any wellbeing concerns. Small businesses often do not have the benefit of a large HR function to assist with this, so free online tools and advice can be an efficient way of fulfilling this need. Consider introducing an Employee Assistance Programme that can provide employees with ongoing support for a range of issues, including mental and physical wellbeing – these are often provided alongside insurance products for free so it is worth putting in a call to your insurer if this hasn’t been activated yet.

Don’t forget, business leaders need to pay attention to their own wellbeing too – seek support yourself if you need it.

Utilising digital to manage processes such as payroll

Given the challenges of navigating a return to work plan, the last thing small businesses (and their staff) need is issues with payroll. Many construction businesses will have had to adapt to the changes brought around by the rapidly instated furlough system and must now return to regular payments. For some, employees may be working reduced hours, making payroll even more complex.

Digital tools are the quickest and simplest way of running payroll. For example, QuickBooks payroll products make it easy to pay furloughed employees and track Covid-19 Job Retention Scheme payments. It can also override the usual three-day waiting period and pay statutory sick pay to workers affected by Covid-19 from the first day, giving immediate financial support in times of stress.   

Other financial management software products come with a whole host of benefits, such as being able to see a real-time dashboard of business performance and automatically chase late invoices. This means less time spent on financial admin and more time concentrating on getting your business back on track and supporting employees.

As Alok Sharma, Secretary of State for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, said in a recent letter to the construction sector, construction businesses have carried out vital work throughout the pandemic, from building temporary hospital wards to keeping people’s homes liveable. Small businesses are the backbone of our economy, and with the construction sector playing such a crucial role, it is vital that they are able to phase back to work smoothly, with the safety of employees as the number one priority.