Brexit in the time of COVID-19: four steps to refresh your people plans

For the past few months, Brexit has all but disappeared from the headlines as the coronavirus (COVID-19) global pandemic has dominated attention. As the UK begins to emerge from   lockdown, the topic of Brexit is back. News surfaced recently that civil servants are beginning to focus on trade talks and no-deal planning again. A new post-Brexit immigration system for the UK moved a step closer to becoming law last week as MPs gave it initial backing in Parliament.

The timeline for the end of the transition period continues to countdown to 31 December 2020. Most organisations will have conducted their Brexit people planning in, and for, a pre-COVID-19 world. COVID-19 is disrupting workforces, rapidly accelerating changes such as virtual working and our perception of the skills, capabilities and behaviours we need now and for the future. In light of these changed circumstances, there would be value in updating your people plans now and working through the different scenarios that will emerge over the next few months.

1. New world, new skills

From 1 January 2021, the new UK immigration system means organisations will face restrictions on access to lower skilled labour. The Migration Advisory Committee is consulting with organisations on the shortage occupation list where evidence suggests there are not enough UK workers to fill vacancies. However, with unemployment levels high, the resident labour market should offer opportunities to upskill and reskill those whose jobs have been impacted by the crisis. Regardless of economic conditions, organisations with highly skilled workforces should look at investing in long-term strategies such as untapped talent pools, reskilling existing workers and strategically looking at international hires.

Take action now: Apply for a sponsor licence if you haven’t already done so. Home Office processing times are faster due to border restrictions so take advantage.

2. Accelerate automation and digital transformation plans

There have been many stories about companies adapting their business models, and harnessing technology in lockdown, to cope with the crisis. As we emerge from the highest level of alert for COVID-19, organisations are now grappling with how to operate safely with social distancing guidelines in place as well as deal with potential skills shortages. This accelerates the need for technology and automation, for example, in the retail and hospitality sector, where self-service and robots will make for a safer environment for staff and customers alike. 

Take action now: Conduct workforce planning, consider your organisation design and understand where there are opportunities to accelerate digital transformation to offset any skills shortages as well as comply with the ‘new normal’ for safe workplaces.

3. Plan for post-Brexit business travel, but not as we’ve known it before

According to analysis measuring CO2 levels, COVID-19 has accomplished in weeks something that climate change activists have been calling for for decades. It has reduced global and regional travel to very low levels. PwC recently surveyed over 350 global companies across 8 industry sectors and 37 different locations. 44% of the respondents stated that they would return to business as usual as soon as possible with the same number of moves. Going forwards it will be pertinent to see how these moves interweave with the increase in virtual working. Virtual working means it’s unlikely that organisations will see a return to the level of global mobility seen in the past, at least in the short term. As travel restrictions begin to lift, business travel for UK nationals into the EU that is able to occur from now until 1 January 2021 will not be impacted by the immigration changes. However, the right to work and travel will change significantly after that. From 1 January 2021 British nationals going to the EU would need to meet a business visitor criteria from the UK or obtain work authorisation. As an employer, you will also want to demonstrate duty of care and ensure employees feel safe and able to comply with any health screening or quarantine measures.

Take action now: Think and be prepared for any limitations around right to work and travel in EU after 1 January 2021

4.Communications is key

COVID-19 has put employees under different types of pressure. Whether staff are working as ‘normal’ from home, furloughed, trying to balance work with care responsibilities, putting their lives at risk as key workers or being made redundant, compassionate leadership and clear communication is paramount. People will be understandably concerned about the stability of their organisations and their jobs and looking to leadership to provide certainty. Notwithstanding COVID-19, organisations should refresh Brexit plans, communicate how these may have changed to staff and make it relevant based on what they’ve learnt during the COVID-19 crisis. It could be an opportunity to remind your staff about your organisation’s agility, resilience and ability to adapt whatever the outcome of the Brexit trade negotiations. 

Take action now: Communicate your updated Brexit plans and, where possible, provide reassurance.

Conclusion

The past few months may have distracted attention away from Brexit planning. However, COVID-19 only accelerates some of the people challenges organisations will face once the new imigration system kicks in. Organisations will want to act now to get ready and future proof. Change will be coming irrespective of the outcome of the trade negotiations. 

Contact us

Lindsey Barras

Lindsey Barras

Partner, EMEA Immigration Services Leader, PwC United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)7525 926249

Alastair Woods

Alastair Woods

Partner, Reward, PwC United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)7834 250359

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