Last reviewed 14 October 2020

Given the global economic situation caused by the coronavirus pandemic, employers who are considering making redundancies are exploring the option of doing so virtually whether staff are back in the office or still working from home. Opeyemi Ogundeji, researcher and employment law writer at Croner-i, explores this in more detail below.

Face-to-face consultations will likely always be the go-to approach where possible, however, in the meantime, it is safe to assume that virtual redundancies may become more normal. The pandemic has created a lot of grey areas, affecting our day-to-day lives as well as employers across all industries. Regardless of how employers choose to conduct redundancies, they should ensure that contravening laws on the redundancy process does not result from any such grey areas.

Types of remote redundancy

There are at least three different methods of remote redundancy that employers may be inclined to explore. These are:

  • email

  • telephone

  • video link.

These three methods have their pros and cons depending on the stage of the redundancy process they are used and how many employees they are used for. For example, email and telephone are usually best methods for setting out the initial details of the redundancy (letting employees know that they are at risk of redundancy) as these can be perceived as being impersonal. Video links can then be used to conduct the consultation meetings (including collective consultation if necessary).

Conducting a full redundancy process via email or telephone may not be considered the best way to transition from a face-to-face method of doing things. During the consultation stage, it may be difficult to maintain fairness if the process is being conducted via email.

Benefits to video redundancies

Using a video link is the best method of the three. Although it can be daunting to conduct a redundancy process this way — it can force employers to be more blunt, and may be taken less seriously than a face-to-face meeting — it is still the most personable of the other two options. It can help to reduce the anxiety that could build up from the process for both parties and help employers to show empathy towards affected employees.

Video redundancies, as well as other forms of remote redundancy practices, will also promote adherence to government guidelines on social distancing.

Legalities of a remote process

Holding a redundancy process (including consultation meetings), whether individual or collective, is crucial to the redundancy process, which begs the question of whether it would be fair and legal to hold these meetings virtually.

The simple answer is yes. Given that this is uncharted territory, the law does not explicitly outline that a redundancy process cannot be conducted virtually.

When it comes to redundancies involving more than 20 people (collective redundancies), employers should make sure that employers are following the rules on how to conduct this successfully so as to not contravene the law.

The remote consultancy process

Initial communications can be had via email. Employers must ensure that the affected employees are notified of the reason(s) behind the proposed redundancy, where it will be taking place, and how it will run, putting particular emphasis on why the process is taking place virtually.

A couple of days before the consultation, it is advised that employers test the method employers will be using. For example, if employers are conducting the consultation process via telephone, employers can call the employee some days before to ensure that:

  • the number is correct

  • the signal is sufficient enough to carry-out the whole session. If not, an alternative method may be necessary to explore or employers may want to ask the employee to go somewhere with better phone reception, if possible.

It is crucial to keep employees up to speed on the development of not just the redundancy process but also the virtual aspect. Employees should be informed on the type of method (or methods) being used or considered, if this changes for any reason and why, as well as details of any system tests employers need to conduct to ensure the smooth running of the event and when.

Before inviting employees to a consultation meeting, it is important that employers set up efficient, and easy to use, software. When making video calls, it is highly advisable to use software that employees are more likely to be able to easily access. For example, Microsoft Teams is available on internet browsers free of charge, as well as Skype. Deliberately picking a more well-known piece of software is likely to make the process run smoother.

It is important to regularly run tests with the software to make sure it is working. This should ideally be done before each meeting.

On the day of the consultation, employers must follow the usual process. Collective consultation must address the following:

  • ways to avoid dismissals

  • ways to reduce the number of employees being dismissed

  • ways to mitigate the consequences of dismissal on the affected employees.

In the event of a collective redundancy, employers may find it beneficial to conduct this via video link. This is because, where employers are proposing to dismiss at least 20 employees, employers will need to conduct both individual and collective consultations which is better had via video (such as Skype or Zoom) where face-to-face consultations aren’t possible.

Considering existing staff

During these times, it is more important than ever that employers communicate with existing staff about the redundancies that have been made. This will help reduce gossip among staff, create reassurance around job security (if employers can offer this), and it is generally a good idea to keep staff informed on the changing structure of the business.

Employers can do this virtually by:

  • emailing — this is quick and effective, especially if employers are a larger organisation

  • sending out letters — this will be most efficient if employers have a lot of staff members (who employers want to retain) on furlough who don’t have access to their work email accounts and may not have a personal one

  • telephoning or video calls — if employers have a smaller organisation and if doing this will not be too time consuming then this is arguably the most personal way of keeping in touch with existing staff virtually and could offer more reassurance to staff that their jobs are not at risk (again, if this is something employers can guarantee at this stage). At larger employers, this can be conducted via smaller team meetings hosted by department managers for ease.

Alternatives to remote redundancy

The most obvious ways to avoid a remote redundancy is to either:

  • conduct one face to face

  • come up with alternatives to redundancy altogether.

If employers choose to conduct a face-to-face redundancy process, employers need to ensure that employers are following government guidelines on social distancing and ensuring that the environment the meeting is being conducted in is Covid-secure.

Employers can do this by:

  • keeping a distance of one metre-plus between employers and the employees concerned (and between each other)

  • putting barriers between employers and affected employees (and between each other.)

Employers should always, as part of the redundancy process, look into alternatives before concluding on making employees redundant. Employers should consider if there are alternatives that could be established to reduce the need for redundancies. These might be:

  • introducing a freeze on recruitment

  • reducing overtime

  • reducing the use of temporary workers

  • redeployment

  • temporary lay-offs or short-working.

If none of these options are viable, employers may want to consider:

  • keeping staff on furlough through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme until it ends on 31 October 2020

  • making use of the new Job Support Scheme where employers can retain staff to at least a third of their normal hours and get government funding to cover a third of the hours they do not work

  • taking advantage of the Job Retention Bonus if employers retain furloughed staff after the scheme ends.

Takeaway

Whilst alternatives to redundancies should always be an employer’s primary consideration, the coronavirus situation may mean that this option is unavoidable. The most important detail of a redundancy process is that the full procedure must be followed, regardless of whether it takes place in person or remotely.