March 2020 will undoubtedly be a time for many to remember as marking the start of a lockdown era. While some of us hurried to stores to buy toilet paper and noodles, most of us struggled to move from home to work and the new stresses it would bring on our working lives. As the dust settles down and we begin to get used to the new standard, we look at some of the key takeaways from the coronavirus epidemic, and what this could mean for the legal sector’s future work.
Most of the legal sector was not set up for the majority of its workforce to operate remotely. While some shifts, such as switching to telephone hearings, have been relatively easy to make, the fact remains that the court system is not equipped to deal with remote working practices and the pressures of lockdown.
For businesses like ours, it was only by transferring our most valuable resource – our employees – to a work from home model that we made it possible to continue operating despite lockdowns. A major logistical challenge has been to ensure full work from home in the initial lockdown process. The stress caused to almost every working day by the requisite degree and rate of change is becoming more evident. Few had time to consider lockdown isolation; the need for treatment and home-school kids; the demands of a partner’s home-work; and the disorientation caused by the lack of daily routines and boundaries.
However, as we move into the recovery phase, employers need to be equipped and able to reassure employees that it is both the right time to return to work and that it is safe. The Government is publishing a variety of Return to Work papers to guide businesses on the steps that need to be taken to demonstrate to returning employees how they are protected from coronavirus while they work. The obligations on employers to take all reasonable steps to protect their employees’ health and safety whilst at work is not new.
Legislation in place here in Northern Ireland since 1978 requires employers to risk-assess their operations in order to identify hazards and ensure they are eliminated or appropriately controlled. Employers do not have to guarantee the safety of their employees – however they should carefully revise their existing risk assessments and policies to ensure these take account of the risks coronavirus presents to their business and employees and that recently-issued government guidance is incorporated into them.
The Government’s lockdown exit strategy has been eagerly-awaited and will need careful analysis. At its heart is getting the economy moving after the unavoidable paralysis of the pandemic. The resumption of normal working life will require practical measures to smooth the transition back to work for employees so that businesses can refocus on long-term recovery.
This crisis has tested society and its institutions, the government and economy, individuals and families – even the law – as never before in a time of peace. Many structural weaknesses have become evident in each. But the crisis has also revealed strengths. Among the many neologisms of the last months – furlough, lockdown, social distances and “r” number – one of the most memorable has been the phrase, “we are all in this together”.
Ironically, this crisis has also revealed the strengths in business and the economy: the sheer quality of our people and their centrality to making things work; the resilience that is at the heart of adapting; and the teamwork without which nothing can change or improve. We trust that it is not naive to suggest that these too will be the foundations of successful recovery and a bright future for all of us.