As we look back over the last three months, so much has changed in the world and not least in the world of employment and people management. The economic outlook is uncertain and such change and uncertainty is unsettling on both a personal and corporate level. People’s responses and behaviours will vary enormously.

Statistics show us that nearly nine million workers had been furloughed by the end of May, and the number of workers on UK payrolls has fallen for the first time in years – by 600,000 between March and May 2020.

It seems strange now to think that on Thursday, 19 March I knew nothing of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS). But, on 20 March, the Government announced that if organisations could not maintain their current workforce because their operations had been severely affected by COVID-19, they could furlough employees and apply for a grant. This grant would cover up to 80 per cent of their usual monthly wage costs, capped at £2,500 a month, plus the associated Employer National Insurance contributions and minimum automatic enrolment employer pension contributions on that wage.

We were told the scheme would be available for at least three months from 1 March. This was soon extended to the end of June and now it will continue without change until the end of July. It will then remain in place to the end of October, but from July (brought forward from August) there will be greater flexibility. We would designate workers as furloughed’ and advise them that during their furlough they must not work or volunteer for us, their employer. We were then required to submit information to HMRC and agree to retrospective audit. The aim was to have money flowing to businesses as soon as possible to support workers who might otherwise be in danger of being laid off or who may already have been laid off.

On June 12, HMRC released details of the flexible furlough scheme, commencing on 1 July 2020. From that date, employees can work for some of the week and be furloughed for the rest. No further employees may be added to the scheme after 10 June 2020. (Read our article Updates to the coronavirus Job Retention Scheme: furloughing your employees’ for more on flexi-furloughing.)

There were many tough decisions for organisations around how many and which staff they would furlough in order to sustain the business. The result for all has been a huge communication exercise with staff, which continues as employers try and maintain contact with furloughed staff with an eye for their ongoing health and wellbeing. 

Whilst furloughed staff remain employed, although not currently permitted to undertake any work, there remains uncertainty for the future. Economists say that the full effect on employment will not be felt until wage support schemes end in October. Similarly, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) says the slowdown in the economy is now visibly hitting the labour market, especially in terms of hours worked.

Back in April Paul Seath, partner at lawyers Bates Wells, said the scheme was extremely welcome and will undoubtedly save many jobs”. But he said it was still unclear exactly how it would operate and went on to warn employers of some of the issues they may face with the scheme, including resentment from staff who are asked to continue working but who might have preferred to be among those given time off at a reduced rate of pay. Whilst we now have clarity around how the scheme works, the issues we face remain the same.

Our focus right now is not only to to survive, but to lift our heads and look at the opportunities ahead.

We each choose how we react to our circumstances and situations; whatever our reaction to this scheme, it is a huge provision from the Government, for which the take up has been significantly greater than expected. The current economic outlook is not good, and most organisations envisage that their financial resources will be significantly challenged. 

As a charity we recognised that we would not be able to work in the usual ways, and our support for our beneficiaries needed to change. Through the CJRS we have been able to access public funds while they are available to us. We are required to be responsible stewards of our funds and should be spending money wisely to enhance our ability to support our beneficiaries. I expect this would apply to other third sector organisations.

Our focus right now is not only to to survive, but to lift our heads and look at the opportunities ahead. Every financial downturn creates a sea change in behaviour, and there are opportunities for agile organisations looking to move forward. As we begin to move out of lockdown we must consider how our organistaion will look and work moving forward. There is much we have learned and now we need to adjust as we consider moving back to office working and all the gains that come with that.

Jesus tells us quite clearly not to worry about our life, what we will eat or drink. He urges us to look at the birds of the air, reminding us that our heavenly Father feeds them. He then asks, Are you not much more valuable than them?”

An economic downturn has a number of effects on people’s lives, however, through decreased employment, reductions in income and wealth, and increased uncertainty about future jobs and income. The health effects caused by these adverse macroeconomic conditions will be complex, and will differ across generations, regions and socio-economic groups. Evidence is already emerging that the economic repercussions of the crisis are falling disproportionately on young workers, low-income families and women. 

So, we may have reason to be concerned for the future, but we need to pray into these inequalities, knowing that God is concerned even for the birds of the air and wants us to act justly. These times, whether working, furloughed or without employment, provide us so much opportunity to reflect and to recognise afresh that we are of great value to God. We have hope, because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for His compassion never fail.

Perhaps for you, in your personal situation, it all feels overwhelming and unfathomable. I would encourage you whatever your situation to keep talking to your employer. Ask questions of your people manager, express your uncertainty, and ask for information. Remember patterns of working are still evolving, so they may not have all the answers, but I’m sure they would want to keep communicating what they do know. 

Then remember above all Paul’s encouragement to us: Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

As you come to terms with change, pray for those in authority making difficult decisions. Pray they will understand and consider all the variables and factors before them. Pray for those impacted, for their mental and physical health, and pray that organisations that influence society for good will survive this current crisis.