The new retail landscape: Suitably safe and appropriately staffed

The retail sector has had to radically rethink the way it operates to ensure the safety of staff and customers. Infection control as a hazard is something most retailers will have never had cause to consider before, meaning businesses are having to learn quickly.

Despite government encouragement to the public to now go out and spend, employers still have much to contend with. COVID-19 continues to present a myriad of employee relations issues, and with health and safety regulations, employment law and evolving government guidance to comply with, reopening and sustaining a successful store is not as simple as flipping the closed sign.

Regardless of whether you moved quickly to reopen in June, or you are an essential retailer who has remained open throughout, now is the perfect time to pause for review. Have you done absolutely everything you are expected to have done to create a safe working and shopping environment? What about staffing? With the phasing out of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme now underway, have you planned the structure of your workforce longer term?

Read on for a three-point plan to help you adapt and succeed in this new landscape.

Secure your business to instil confidence

Retailers not only have to ensure they are protecting their staff – they must also build trust with their customers by clearly communicating and demonstrating the steps they have taken to make stores ‘COVID-secure’.

In addition to five key steps that apply to all businesses, the government also introduced further, more detailed, guidance specific to retail. COVID-19 is a biological hazard, and like any workplace hazard, it is a legal requirement to carry out a risk assessment and introduce suitable and sufficient control measures that reduce the risk of contracting the virus to as low a level as is “reasonably practicable”. It will not be possible to eliminate the risk of COVID-19 completely and that is not what the law requires; it’s about being able to demonstrate that you have taken all sensible, proportionate precautions.

To support you there is plenty of guidance available from the UK and devolved governments plus the HSE website. Ellis Whittam’s Coronavirus Advice Hub also contains a free retail sector-specific risk assessment template to make this easier. But remember, this is not about creating paperwork – it is important to engage employees in the risk assessment process, share the findings with them, and work with them to bring it to life.

Communication here is key, not only as employers have a legal duty to consult with employees on health and safety matters, but also to instil confidence and encourage a return to work. The brand and commercial implications of not communicating well with customers could also be disastrous, so think about how you will convey your arrangements and risk assessment findings to customers too, whether through physical signage, on your website, or via email.

Amend your staffing requirements according to customer demand

With the impact on the economy and fears of a second wave, customer demand is unlikely to return to pre-crisis levels immediately, and you will need to plan your staffing requirements and structure accordingly. Will you need to make changes to start and finish times to comply with your risk assessment, perhaps redeploy some employees to other roles or departments, or cut hours or pay due to the financial impact of the crisis? Will these changes be temporary or permanent?

These are all things that will need to be worked out, and it is a good idea to document your decision-making so that this can be used to support any processes that result from your planning.

Keep in mind that changes to working arrangements may need to be reflected in employees’ terms and conditions. For example, asking people to work different shifts, perhaps with a later start and finish time, could involve a contractual change.

A contract can only be changed in line with its existing terms or by agreement, so start by checking what it currently says. Is what you are trying to achieve already permitted under the terms of the contract? If so, the change can be enacted that way. If not, the quickest and easiest way to introduce a change is by negotiation and agreement. It is also the option that is best for maintaining cordial employee relations.

There are however many factors and scenarios to consider and more detailed free guidance on this can be found via the Coronavirus Advice Hub.

Consider whether redundancies are necessary

Unfortunately, COVID-19 has put a real strain on high streets and redundancies have become a reality for many retailers. Redundancies must be handled carefully as the potential for legal missteps is high. Processes vary depending on how many employees are at risk; however, some broad principles apply universally, including the need to:

  • Provide adequate advance warning;
  • Consult with staff in an attempt to find alternative solutions (usually 10 to 14 days is required, although this could be shorter for more straightforward situations, or longer if a certain number of dismissals are proposed);
  • Be fair and reasonable, and follow a proper process;
  • Explore alternatives (in particular, during the current crisis, the furlough scheme);
  • Consider, discuss and offer suitable alternative employment if available; and
  • Make appropriate redundancy and notice payments subject to statutory requirements if no alternative/higher contractual arrangement exists.

When faced with radical uncertainty, remember: control what you can. By following the steps outlined above, and seeking professional advice where necessary, you can ensure a smoother, safer transition, avoid costly mistakes, and minimise any delays to getting your retail business back on track.

Ellis Whittam helps over 17,500 British businesses and organisations to create great, safe places to work through fixed-fee Employment Law, HR and Health & Safety support.

Download free sector-specific guides, templates and risk assessments, as well as further COVID-19 employer support resources, from its Coronavirus Advice Hub.

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