No-one could have predicted that the UK’s “three weeks to flatten the curve” would turn into more than a year of lockdowns and restrictions. This past year has been tough for businesses. Some have had to close for long stretches of time and four out of ten have furloughed staff. Office-based companies have had the pressure of staff working remotely, having to find suitable space in the home while possibly managing home-schooling.
Just about everyone is struggling with this new normal. But if everything goes to plan, restrictions in England will end on 21st June, with likely similar timings for Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland. So, as we now begin to follow the roadmap out of lockdown, what does this mean for business?
Changes to Government Financial Assistance
The UK government’s borrowing reached £355bn for April 2020 to April 2021 – the highest amount seen during peacetime. It’s estimated that more than £100bn of that went towards furlough and business support schemes, and there has also been provision for businesses in the form of statutory sick pay refunds as well as tax and business rates holidays.
Furlough has been extended to the end of September, but many other business support schemes are coming to an end to coincide with the easing of lockdown restrictions.
With changes to financial support, you will want to know what shape your finances are in and what they will look like in the medium and long-term.
If you find you need financial support, check whether you are eligible for any of these new initiatives or continuing schemes:
- The government’s Recovery Loan Scheme launched on 6th It replaces many of the previous loans and grants and will be open for the remainder of the year. It is open to any business (apart from public-sector bodies, some financial institutions and state-funded schools) to borrow between £25,000 and £10 million, and the loan can be used for any legitimate business purpose
- Restart grants for non-essential retail, hospitality and leisure that were affected by lockdowns. These begin in April. Retail operations can claim a grant of £6,000 per premises, and those in hospitality, accommodation, leisure, personal care or gyms can claim up to £18,000 per location.
- Local authorities will be able to provide a discretionary Additional Restrictions Grant to companies that are not eligible for other grants. It is designed for businesses that supply the retail, leisure or hospitality trade, those in events and companies that had to close but which do not pay business rates.
- The Coronavirus Statutory Sick Pay Rebate Scheme allows companies with fewer than 250 employees to claim back up to 2 weeks’ SSP for each worker affected by COVID-19, including having to self-isolate or shield. This scheme is currently ongoing.
- Businesses affected by COVID-19 can apply for extra time to file your accounts. If your application is successful, you will get a three-month extension to the filing date, so will have longer to pay your corporation tax and won’t have to pay a penalty for late payment.
- The assistance mentioned above is UK-wide, but there is additional business support available for companies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Going through the myriad of Grants made available can be daunting. Not only that, many of them are aimed at specific industries and regions so it’s a time consuming process to sift through them.
Health and Safety
Staff are currently still being advised to work from home where possible. But you have a legal obligation to ensure the health and safety of your employees and there are some measures you will need to take in advance of everything opening up once again.
If your offices haven’t been open during the pandemic, in advance of coming out of lockdown, your first step will be to carry out a risk assessment to check that everything is COVID-secure once you reopen.
If you are in England, you should also check that you comply with the government guidelines for providing a COVID-safe workplace. These include information such as on ensuring social distancing, reducing face-to-face meetings, cleaning regimes and the provision of handwashing and sanitation facilities. The information has been updated for offices to add new guidance on ventilation and testing for COVID-19, whereby companies with more than 10 employees can apply for coronavirus test kits for their staff who are unable to work from home. There is also guidance for Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.
Returning to the Office
Upon the final step of the roadmap – on 21st June – and assuming the risks continue to decline, we will see everything open up and restrictions lifted. Prior to that though, you will need to consider how you will accommodate staff going forward. Will you insist on a full return to the office? Will you allow some staff to permanently work from home? Or will you provide a hybrid version – with some office-based time mixed with some remote working?
It’s likely not a clear-cut decision. It will depend to some extent on how the business and your staff have fared over the past year. If things have worked well, and you want to reduce or eliminate office space, then a continual home working scenario could work well. Your employees may have appreciated the lack of a long commute, having extra time with the family, or being better able to support dependents.
However, not everyone will automatically want to continue working from home. Some of your staff may be longing to get out of cramped home-working conditions, to engage and network with colleagues again and to be able to use more reliable internet or office equipment.
A compromise between the two extents would be hybrid working, where some of the week staff work from home and the rest is office-based. Global workspace provider IWG believes that hybrid working will be “the norm”. It will certainly allow companies to save money on office space and provide flexibility for employees.
One approach would be a consultation process that aims to discover the ramifications of various scenarios: the cost implications, the desires of your workforce, the effects on productivity and mental health.
Coming out of lockdown is going to be a time of change all over again. Most businesses will have had staff changes during the past year. Your new joiners may only have met their new colleagues over Zoom up until now and so integrating them with the rest of the team will be a priority. For those staff that were furloughed, returning to work – let alone the office – will take some considerable adjustment. Furlough may have made them feel undervalued and insecure about their jobs, too, which will necessitate some work to reintegrate teams and provide motivation.
You might want to consider a phased return. This may have less impact on your bottom line and could help ease staff back in more gradually.
Business Restructuring Decisions
According to Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, “the economy has shrunk by more than 10% over the past year, the largest reduction 300 years.” Regardless of how you have been affected during lockdown, the prevailing economic situation may find you forecasting scenarios that will require you to restructure your business as we come out of lockdown.
Perhaps you can’t afford to continue employing as many staff as before. Or, if you decide that not all employees will return to the office, you might want to relocate to smaller premises, or sell a property you own in favour of taking up a lease.
You may look to reverse other provisions you made during lockdown. Perhaps you added a delivery service or implemented special collection facilities that will no longer be needed or see as much custom as before. Maybe you opened an ecommerce channel for the first time or offered new packages. Now is the time to assess these initiatives, decide which changes you want to persist with or reverse and plan for that.
If, when we come out of lockdown, your plans involve continuing to allow staff to work from home – even if for some of the week – now is the perfect time to look at implementing cloud ERP software. NetSuite ERP helps your staff work from home. They can access the accounts, interrogate customer and order details, check stock situations, run reports and more – all simply with a web browser and internet access.
Aside from the loans, grants and funds to help with recovery from the pandemic and lockdowns, other funding is available too. This includes funds that help businesses with new legislation, fiscal compliance, import/export rules, and more. Book an appointment with us if you want to discover if you might be eligible to receive funding in these areas.