HR departments have fallen back on tried and tested flexible working systems to cope with the disruption the volcanic eruption in Iceland has caused their employees.
An estimated 150,000 Brits are stuck abroad because UK airspace has been shut, leaving many employers with staffing difficulties.
Westminster City Council has employees stranded in places such as Mexico, Mauritius, Thailand and Belgium, according to HR director Graham White.
“Our current policy is to work with staff to find the most appropriate solutions and this would include options such as taking annual leave, using flexible leave, taking unpaid leave,” he told Personnel Today. “However, these options are not designed for lengthy absences and as such we will monitor the length of the crisis and consider other options where our actions may create hardship.”
Coping with the crisis
The first thing that needs to happen is a full assessment of how you are being affected. Are key staff absent, for example?
Once that is understood, look into what you can reorganise to counter some of those negative effects of this crisis. Can you video conference and flexibly work rather than meet face-to-face, or what else can you do? An example is the airports themselves now undertaking runway maintenance while the opportunity is there.
It’s crucial that employers have contingency plans in place for staff absence or a crisis like this. The swine flu threat from last year has helped more firms realise they have to prepare for the unexpected.
Most firms can and do now work flexibly. However, a manufacturer trying to export and get cargo across the globe will need to have other contingencies in place.
Source: British Chambers of Commerce
Technology is allowing many of the stranded staff to stay in contact with the council, participate in meetings and respond to urgent requests for information, White said.
“Our systems were very robustly tested during the very severe weather in the early part of this year and stood the test of large scale off site working,” he said.
“The IT team have done a marvellous job in ensuring our platform is ready for such incidents but we are not complacent and we will use the review of this event to further test our systems.”
At Cambridgeshire County Council, staffing numbers have been less badly affected, but chief executive Mark Lloyd is stuck in the United States, forcing him to work remotely.
“Thankfully I travelled to the USA with my laptop so I’m having a productive morning ‘working from hotel-home’,” he said yesterday. “And using Skype on my personal phone allows me, through wi-fi, to make very cheap/free calls. And by setting up on Skype a telephone number with a 01223 code, I can be called at local rate. I find all this wizardry amazing – Mrs L just yawns!”
Stephen Moir, corporate director of people, policy and law at the council, said employees who are unable to get back to work are required to use annual leave for the additional days missed or unpaid leave if they don’t have holiday to take.
Alternatively, in agreement with their line manager, employees can also make use of flexible working arrangements available such as remote working, time off in lieu or flexi time, he added.
On HR Space, members are discussing whether employers can force absent employees to take unpaid leave.