The coronavirus crisis brought a host of challenges for Master Builders and as lockdown eases they must navigate the changing landscape as they return to work.

Strong leadership

With so much uncertainty, employers need to reassure their workforce and communication with staff is key. “In times of change staff can become nervous and anxious, so they need strong and clear leadership,” said Maria Aguilar, Director of HR Services Partnership. Business owners must be clear about the direction that the company is going in and while long-term planning is difficult in the current climate, employers can lay out their plans for the next couple of months.

“Staff are not unrealistic, they know that their managers and business owners won’t be certain about what is going to happen in the long term but they want to know that someone is in control,” explained Maria. “What staff are looking for is strong leadership and openness. They are not necessarily looking for answers for everything, but they do want clarity.”


No matter what is happening with the business, keeping staff in the loop is vital, even if there isn’t much to tell them. “We have to remember that what staff don’t know, they will make up so it is important that you are keeping staff  informed, even if you are telling them you don’t have an answer to a question, or you are  waiting to hear back on a  proposal,” explained Maria.

Managing risk

All companies are required by Government to carry out a risk assessment before bringing staff back to work and these should be reviewed for each project. However, keeping staff safe doesn’t end with a risk assessment and measures should be taken to ensure that protocol is being followed on site. “One danger is complacency,” said Maria. “You get into your routine, you’re feeling well, nobody at work is ill and you are working with your colleagues for a number of weeks on a job and complacency sets in.”

Reluctant staff

While many staff will be keen to return to work, there may be some who are reluctant, due to concerns over health, or childcare issues. “If somebody is genuinely concerned about their health, possibly because they have an underlying condition or they are living with someone with an underlying health condition, try to get them involved in the risk assessment and see if you can allay their fears and ask them what changes they would need to see to get back to work,” said Maria.

“Also, with schools failing to reopen some parents are caught in a situation where there is no childcare, so there are some very genuine reasons why some people cannot return to work.”

Ultimately employers have to decide whether they are prepared to keep someone’s job open until they can return to work. Options include offering unpaid leave and furloughing staff, although as of 1 August the latter will have financial implications for employers.

Taking a break

The Government has recently changed the law so that employees can carry forward annual leave into the following two leave years. Technically, employers can dictate when staff should take their holiday, providing they give the appropriate notice, but Maria warns that this won’t be a popular approach.

An employer can tell someone when to take holiday but they must give them a length of notice which is twice the amount of the holiday. So for example, if they want someone to take two weeks’ holiday at a certain time they must give them four weeks’ notice,” she explained.

You can also require people to take holiday while they are furloughed but they must be paid 100% of their salary for the holiday period.

It is important for businesses to recognise that we are in a state of flux and to try and build resilience to that and adapt to the changing situation.

Paper trail

Any interactions with staff around their working hours etc should be recorded in writing, by sending an email or letter, or taking notes during a meeting, for example.

We always recommend that if you have done anything contractual around people’s terms and conditions that you write to confirm the change to the employee,” explained Maria.

Keep up to date

As the last few months have shown, the situation is constantly evolving, so keeping up to date with the latest Government advice is crucial. “None of us have been through a pandemic before so we don’t know exactly what is going to happen but what we do know is we are in a constantly changing situation,” said Maria.

It is important for businesses to recognise that we are in a state of flux and to try and build resilience to that and adapt to the changing situation.” But while the landscape is uncertain, the basics of employment law remain the same, and companies should continue to ensure that they have these in place.

Hiring a sub-contractor

A recent FMB member’s survey showed that more Master Builders are looking to hire subcontractors in the next few months. “It is certainly the case that in uncertain times when you don’t know what your workload is going to be like over the coming months, it is very sensible to look at having a flexible resource,” said Maria.

Using subcontractors is sensible from a business perspective because you’re not obliged to offer them work and you can flex the resource. You can also get specialists in to do particular aspects of work.

There are some downsides though. Subcontractors aren’t obliged to accept work and may be otherwise engaged when you need them and it can be more difficult to control the quality of work. The daily rate for a subcontractor is also considerably higher than that of a PAYE employee, but on the flip side you don’t have to pay a subcontractor when there is no work for them to do.

The most important thing is to weigh up the pros and cons and to decide what works best for your business model.

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