One month into the lockdown it’s becoming clearer that we are in this for the long run. There may be a partial easing of the restrictions in a week or two but until there is an effective treatment or vaccine many people will be putting themselves in danger if they return to their normal place of work.
Leaders will be under pressure to get businesses running up to full capacity again and they will be faced with some difficult decisions. It is physically impossible to fully staff most workplaces and maintain a two metre distance between employees. Maybe if only half the staff are present it might be achievable.
So do leaders insist that people come back to work at some point because they deem it safe or do they leave it to the individual? How will they treat someone who lives with a high risk person but who could otherwise return? Will they trust the judgement of individuals or will they make decisions for them?
Once people have been working from home for a while, it will become clear that there are many tasks that can be done remotely. In a partial return to normality it is possible to reallocate tasks so some employees can continue to stay away from the workplace whilst others can do things that can only be done on the premises. But how will managers decide who can continue to stay isolated and who should come in? Will they make judgements based on the individual’s home situation or will they leave it to the discretion of the employee?
Those businesses that have had to close down completely during the crisis will be under extreme financial pressure to get back to normal. But until it is completely safe for people to return there will always be a risk. For many months we are likely to be in a partial lockdown and it would be foolish for ‘at risk’ people to unnecessarily expose themselves to infection. So business leaders are now in the situation of balancing financial survival versus the health of their employees.
Already leaders have had to make difficult decisions about who to furlough versus who to keep in their jobs. But there are clear guidelines for whole sectors of the economy that have no choice but to stop trading. Once these restrictions are lifted how, for example, will the hospitality sector react? Will leaders insist that all employees return to their previous jobs or will they allow some to still stay at home? If government support for furlough ceases will they still pay these people? Will they treat them as on sick leave or something equivalent to maternity leave?
If businesses leaders just go back to the old way of working, perhaps with some token social distancing if possible, how will it look if one of their employees dies as a result? If they had made a poor decision in the past that put an employee’s life at risk they could potentially be convicted of corporate manslaughter under Health and Safety legislation. Even if leaders are not legally guilty they will certainly be morally judged by by their stakeholders. The PR disaster of being seen to put profits before people is just waiting to happen.