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Calculating risk: the return to work dilemma for employers and lawmakers

14th May 2020

By Spencer Jinks

After an unprecedented two month lockdown, the dilemma facing employers and lawmakers across the globe trying to navigate a safe return to work was epitomised in a single tweet on Saturday from Tesla CEO Elon Musk.

In it he revealed to his 34m followers he was suing Alemada County over its refusal to allow the reopening of the electric car giant’s Californian manufacturing plant due to ongoing COVID-19 health concerns.

Having published a 38-page ‘return to work’ playbook for employees outlining an array of measures to keep workers safe, an incandescent Musk threatened to move Tesla’s HQ to Texas or Nevada, warning: “I’m not messing around.”

Monday’s New York Times described the standoff as “foreshadowing a potential clash between businesses and states over public health measures”.

Hours later across the pond UK Premier Boris Johnson signalled the relaxing of the stay at home restrictions which have been in place since March 23rd in a nationwide television address on Sunday evening.

The reason for Johnson’s keenness to get the wheels of the economy turning again is clear. The pandemic is set to inflict a 30 per cent slump in GDP and a loss of 1.5m jobs in the UK. With the Government currently paying the wages for nearly a quarter of UK employees under its job retention scheme, which is funding 80%   of workers’ wages during the lockdown, the budget deficit is projected to increase by more than £200bn this year.

Meanwhile the US economy lost 20.5m jobs in April as the unemployment rate soared to 14.7%   with Congress approving a $2tr coronavirus relief package.

The US has the highest number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the world, with 1.4m cases and nearly 85,000 deaths, followed in second place by the UK with 230,000 cases and more than 33,000 deaths.

Government and business are therefore facing an almost impossible balancing act in desperately trying to negotiate a safe return to work, mitigating further economic damage against the risk of a resurgence of COVID-19.

So how will they achieve it? The experience of other nations ahead of the US and UK in the pandemic cycle is being closely monitored.

China has been easing its restrictions, with many employers taking heavy precautions including regular temperature checks, compulsory mask wearing in offices and social distancing.

Italy is trialling the reopening of shops and manufacturers in some regions, while some factory and construction workers in Spain have returned to work. Police are handing out masks and sanitiser gel to those commuting on public transport.

Austria has begun to loosen its lockdown restrictions by allowing small shops and DIY and garden stores to reopen but customers must wear masks and follow social distancing rules. Germany is allowing schools to reopen to some students and has begun to reopen small retail spaces, but the public are urged to wear masks outside their own homes.

In the UK, firms will only be allowed to reopen if they comply with new ‘COVID-19 Secure’ guidelines. The eight guides covering various industry sectors include advice on staggered shifts and start times, social distancing, ventilation, cleaning etc.

Some global firms have already published guidance. Aerospace and defence company Boeing said it plans to stagger shifts, require face coverings, and install visual cues and signage so employees can keep their distance from each other, among other precautions.


Supermarket chain The Kroger Co. recently shared its in-house plan ‘Sharing What We’ve Learned: A Blueprint for Businesses’. It minimises employee-customer contact through online orders, drive-through purchases, expanded pick-up and delivery services, digital payments and exclusive early hours for seniors/high-risk individuals.

Amazon said it would begin testing of its front-line workers for COVID-19, and eventually all of its employees. And Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the company had cancelled any “large physical events we had planned with 50 or more people” right through until June 2021. Some of those events instead will be held virtually.

But while some changes will last only as long as the risk from the pandemic, others may remain and, as always, there will be winners and losers.

During the lockdown videoconferencing services like Box, Zoom, Slack, Webex and MURAL have proved to be effective in bringing people together; shares in Zoom have shot up. The flip side is the potential negative impact on future business travel, which could be hugely significant for the beleaguered airline industry.

Demand for online shopping and entertainment has also soared while people have been confined to their homes. Amazon’s share price has hit a new high, while streaming platform Netflix was at one point a more valuable company than oil giant ExxonMobil.

But Don Ghermezian, co-CEO of American Dream, predicted a bleak future for many retailers: “It is a very difficult time. I fully expect there will be records set for retailers’ closing (in 2020). This virus has exacerbated that situation. A lot of retailers aren’t going to reopen.”

As we, like all other businesses, consider our own return to work plan, we remain here to support both clients and candidates in interim and executive search remotely during these difficult times.

If you are an interim consultant looking for a new contract or a permanent executive concerned that your role is at risk, get in touch. We will be happy to review your CV and discuss the market and current opportunities. If you are a chairman or CEO needing advice about interim support or longer term plans for your senior team, give us a call.

Stay safe, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Spencer Jinks is CEO of HW Global Talent Partner. Contact him at or on +44 (0) 161 249 5170.

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