‘It’s time to be strategic’

In the second part of our focus on advice for SMEs, Kate Palmer from Peninsula HR talks about everything from supporting furloughed workers back and planning ahead to why employers need to change their mindset about flexible working.


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After months of small businesses reacting to the shock of Covid and living in the moment, the next few months are all about planning, according to HR expert Kate Palmer.

Palmer from Peninsula HR says employers need to think carefully about how they move ahead after Covid, not just so they can recover, but so that they are able to benefit from the acceleration of various trends, such as digitalisation.

That means ensuring employees have the right skillset for an increasingly online business world, that the business has a solid presence online and that any move to hybrid or remote working is done effectively. “Many employers focus on whether or not they embrace hybrid working and how they deal with requests legally if they don’t feel they can, but they think less about how to make it work for them so they are more productive. That means good communication, changing how they speak to their team and how they make people feel included,” says Palmer.

Another important focus is on technology – ensuring the right technology and systems are in place to embed working from home, ensuring connectivity for all and that businesses are using the right platforms for them. “When you have shaky technology it is very demotivating,” she says.

She says many employers are likely to say no to flexible working requests, which will be hard to justify given many of their employees will have worked effectively from home for the last few months. “Employers need to adjust their mindset. If it has worked for 18 months maybe it can continue to work,” she says, adding that she sees this as being an area of conflict in the workplace for some time to come. Employers can turn down flexible working requests for a number of reasons, but if a person has been working effectively on a flexible basis, tribunals are likely to go in the employee’s favour, she says.

The end of furlough

When it comes to Covid disruption, Palmer thinks the majority of Covid-related redundancies and restructures are behind most employers, but says they could increase when furlough ends. 

She says the employers she has spoken to have been very sad about making cuts to employee numbers, with those in the travel and hospitality sectors the most affected by ongoing Covid uncertainty. “They want to keep staff as they know the economy could rebound, but they can’t,” says Palmer, whose HR firm has been very busy coaching and reassuring SMEs over the last months. “Employers sometimes feel a bit lost. They need to know what their options are and what each option means.”

When it comes to bringing back people who have been furloughed for up to 18 months, she says it is all about communications. “You can’t expect people to come back in after 18 months off and just get on with it. You need to speak to them a few weeks beforehand, perhaps show them a video of what the workplace looks like and brief them on what has changed and on Covid safety measures,” she says. One to ones are vital for addressing employees’ particular concerns. Employers might also consider special measures to help them come back, such as providing parking spaces or shifting their start and end times or implementing a phased return, return to work training or retraining. They could also consider phasing expectations around performance, delivery and output.

“How employers approach it has to have depth and meaning to it and reassurance,” says Palmer, adding that confidence building is vital. “People who have been out of the workplace for a time may need a confidence boost. They may doubt their own ability. It’s also important to focus on team bonding and motivation,” she adds.

Other Covid-related issues which are still significant problems for SMEs are holiday entitlement.  Despite encouragement from employers, many employees still have holiday to take. The last quarter of the year is when many businesses are at their busiest so taking holiday now may not be ideal, but turning down a holiday request if employees are exhausted may be demotivating and result in burnout. Palmer says employers need to be creative, for instance, allowing employees to sell their holidays so they don’t miss out financially if they can’t take them. “There is no one right answer,” she says. “Employers have to look at the bigger picture.”


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