Coronavirus: how contractors, recruiters and clients are coping with COVID-19

With the government fightback against Coronavirus significantly stepping up yesterday, ContractorUK has invited us to outline what we’re doing as a contractor recruitment agency; what we’re doing to help keep contractors safe and what end-users are doing too, writes Natalie Bowers, managing director of Bowers Partnership.

The new government measures to tackle the pandemic

Firstly though, let’s look at those new measures from the government to reflect the COVID-19 outbreak moving from ‘contain’ to ‘delay’. The measures are key because each affects contractors. In the prime minister Boris Johnson’s own words, contractors and all other individuals should now:

  • Stop non-essential contact” with others.
  • “Stop unnecessary travel.”
  • “Start working from home” where you can.
  •  Avoid social venues, like clubs, pubs and mass gatherings.

All four measures are recommendations at this stage; and although you’d be silly to ignore them, the government says it has the powers to mandate them if people don’t want to be sensible. Or in the PM’s words, don’t want to be part of a “mature democracy.”  

In reaction to the government’s latest statement (which also confirms 14-day isolation for all households containing COVID-19 symptoms), some of the contractor sector’s leading advisories on tax, IR35 and HMRC disputes say that they are taking the decision to close. At least for a period of seven days.

What irked contractors about private sector IR35 reform, is now seeing them good

At this stage, our staffing business is open. And that’s partly because our niche financial sector clients remain open and are continuing to do business with us and contractors.

Ironically, the small appetite for risk that these financial services companies displayed with IR35 reform, which often went against contractors, is now benefitting contractors -- because of the end-users’  same propensity to avoid risk.

In fact, our City-based clientele has seemed to react to Coronavirus faster than the government itself. And right now, contractors’ clients we know in London (but also in Edinburgh) are well ahead of the curve in terms of BCP (Business Continuity Planning).

What’s arguably even more reassuring at times like these is that we’re not seeing financial services organisations differentiate between contractor and perm workforces when it comes to COVID-19 protection measures. That’s partly due to the health issues at stake affecting us all. So refreshingly -- and for once, IR35 is paling into insignificance.

Protecting contractors from the virus in the workplace

On the ground (at clients’ sites) we’re seeing contractors be elevated into the driving seat. By this, we mean contractors are being given lots of different options to choose from to help keep Coronavirus at bay. Three measures in particular are being outlined to contractors:

  • Enforced Social Distancing.
  • Rota Working – i.e. Team A in, Team B out.
  • Working from Home.

To most contractors, the third measure is probably ‘business as usual.’ Indeed, the largest firms we provide contractors to already had mobile collaboration systems embedded into their operations well before COVID-19 came along. So ‘Working from Home’ is nothing new and among the largest clients, or the most pragmatic, ‘WfH’ policies are well-established, even mandated. In our experience, most contractors are receptive to these remote working policies.

That said, there is the odd contractor grumbling that as the UK could currently be some four months off the peak of this pandemic -- and as there is no vaccine currently in sight for this year, workers (of all types) cannot simply lock themselves away for the foreseeable.

On LinkedIn though, another contractor sounds like she couldn’t disagree more. In particular, she has now accepted her first ever full-time role with a company ‘x’ over company ‘y,’ even though ‘y’ paid ‘z’ more per year. The clincher? Well ‘x’ offered a WfH option -- to both her and her 19 fellow new-starters. Her post goes on to commend ‘x’ for being “on-point with handling an out-of-the-ordinary situation” – Coronavirus.

How our contractor jobs agency is responding to the COVID-19 outbreak

Well, we too hope that we’ve done largely same. As a smaller agency, we’ve found it pretty easy to self-organise and to mandate an extremely strict (some might say ‘obsessive’)  regime to combat COVID-19, the symptoms of which are (broadly) a new constant cough and a temperature. Our regime includes:

  • Placing ‘Wash your hands’ signs (and other preventative cues for people) everywhere.
  • Washing hands thoroughly, regularly, for the minimum recommended 20 seconds.
  • Avoiding touching your face, eyes, mouth.
  • Blowing into a tissue or using your bent elbow (as WHO recommends), if you sneeze.
  • No physical contact, such as no visiting co-workers at their desks.
  • Interacting with people by phone and video call – even if in the same office.
  • Removing tea towels from the office kitchen (and using only kitchen roll instead).
  • A daily 15-minute update to highlight any new anti-COVID-19 measures from government; letting our team declare any symptoms, and a reminder of protocols. This update keeps awareness of the virus as high as possible without being alarmist.

Next steps to respond to COVID-19: what are yours?

We will be keeping a very close eye on Coronavirus developments, and urge contractors to do the same. It’s changing all the time. At the weekend for example, it’s likely to be announced that an unprecedented isolation period of 12 weeks (three months), is to become the minimum recommended ‘stay at home’ term for all over 70-year-olds. That’s whether they show symptoms or not.

Our staffing business is aware that some of our vendors -- and competitors -- have moved to home working. We’re not there yet as we’re confident in our ability to manage our own environment safely for now, and we’re fortunate to be in an out-of-town location with no reliance on public transport.

But by the same token, if we need to adopt WfH for all -- we will. We’re fortunate enough to have excellent recruitment and collaboration systems that are 100% accessible from home if we do have to decamp.

I’d recommend that contractors have their own ‘next steps’ planned too, even if just loosely. Oh, and don’t overly fret that because you’ve moved from contract-to-contract, workplace-to-workplace in the past, you are somehow at high risk of infection now. Our contractors, for example, tend to generally be on-assignment for six months. So although they are very much part of the flexible workforce, they are relatively static in terms of their places of work.

Outside of professional contracting, day temps paid by the hour may have to make different considerations.

Real people's lives (and real families), at real risk

But whether you’re a short-term developer, interim COO, or a security consultancy owner with a renewed 12-month contract, you’re a real person. You have real concerns, and we all have real families to protect. These truisms sound obvious, but while the mood is pretty sombre, these are important acknowledgements to make, and ones we all ought to try to remember during this pandemic -- for our betterment and to show our consideration.

Editor's Note: For medical information on protecting yourself from COVID-19, the government has provided a PDF for employers, advice for staff; guidance on cleaning offices in which a person tested positive for COVID-19 (or presented symptoms), as well as ‘Stay at Home’ guidelines

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Written by Natalie Bowers

Natalie is a co-founder of Bowers Partnership, an award-winning recruitment company that finds people for Investment and Wealth Management firms and Asset Owners. She has more than 30 years’ experience in recruitment, corporate IT and multi-functional general management positions.

Her areas of expertise include contract recruitment, permanent search & selection and recruitment-specific regulation. She is a regular commentator for recruitment industry publications and specialist websites.

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