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Kate Palmer


HR Advice and Consultancy Director

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How HR can keep the lights on during blackouts this winter

With the energy crisis threatening to cause blackouts this winter, employers should consider the best ways to prepare.

It’s safe to say we’ve been through the wringer over the last couple of years; we’ve been faced with a global pandemic, a cost-of-living crisis that shows no signs of slowing, a fuel shortage that saw panic buying go through the roof, and of course the heart-breaking atrocities and fallout from the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

And now a new threat has emerged: blackouts and power cuts due to the energy crisis. Who had that on their 2022 bingo sheet?

With the threat of blackouts, last observed in the UK in the 1970s, comes a wealth of questions for employers who will now be considering which steps they need to take to prepare for the worst.

Will blackouts really be going ahead?

At present, the government has deemed blackouts an ‘unlikely’ scenario. But if the events of the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that things can change at the drop of a hat and it always pays to be prepared.

Here’s what we know right now: gas is in short supply owing – in part – to the uncertainty surrounding Russia and the war in Ukraine, and with temperatures expected to plummet considerably this winter (think Beast from the East, back in 2018), it means that the UK could be low on gas and electric imports.

There are several steps that would have to be taken before such extreme measures are approved, namely the approval of King Charles III, but nevertheless, it’s a possibility.

Will the blackouts impact everybody?

As such, it could be that households and businesses alike across England, Scotland and Wales will experience three-hour rolling blackouts – with just one day’s notice given. Is anyone else having flashbacks to March 2020, when remote working was brought in at a moment’s notice?

NHS hospitals, transport and essential businesses would be exempt from power cuts although, at this point, we have not been provided with a definitive list as to what constitutes ‘essential’ in this case.

All other organisations would do well to put their emergency management protocol in place now so that, should the time come, they are prepared to action their contingency plans and deal with the consequences of blackouts, with minimal disruption to workers and business operations.

If you’re in an industry where things are not as simple as just amending hours, you may be faced with no other option but to send your staff home.

But where to start with preparation?

The best option to explore first would be to operate as flexibly as possible around the power cuts, to reduce the impact on business operations and staff.

It has been suggested that different areas will be affected on different days and times if blackouts do happen. So, depending on when they are due to take place, employers might be able to alter start and finish times, potentially bringing in shorter and longer days as needed, and amending opening hours so that you’re still meeting the same levels of productivity without having to amend pay, or grant leave. But of course, this will hugely depend on the industry as to whether this will be a feasible option.

It’s important to remember your remote and hybrid workers too 

It’s likely they may be impacted should they rely on a PC or laptop to carry out their roles from home. Make sure to communicate expectations clearly with them, and provide portable chargers or power banks to allow them to continue working during the blackouts.

If your employees live in different areas, as is very likely, then there’s a good chance they could be experiencing power cuts at different times of the day or week. This could present an issue if your staff are unable to be online at the same time. 

However, if the workplace will remain unaffected by the power cuts, it may be reasonable to ask your staff who usually work remotely to come into work. Of course, there may be issues when it comes to childcare commitments or caring responsibilities, for example, so a degree of flexibility and understanding is required here.

And if you’re unable to work around the blackouts…

If you’re in an industry where things are not as simple as just amending hours, you may be faced with no other option but to send your staff home. And if you do this, you will either have to enforce annual leave – which may not be a feasible option given that an employer needs to give double the notice of the annual leave required – or grant paid leave. 

If – and only if – you have a shortage of work clause in the employment contract would you be able to reduce your employees’ pay.

Consider how your staff with caring responsibilities might be impacted

And there’s another issue to contend with too should blackouts become a reality: your staff may request emergency time off for dependants given that schools and nurseries could potentially close with little notice, leaving minimal time to arrange suitable childcare.

This is a statutory entitlement and cannot be refused unless the request is unreasonable. So, it’s important to understand what your options are if you do find yourselves understaffed.

It might feel daunting to think about preparing for an event that may not even happen. As with all workplace issues, it’s best to involve your staff in conversations when it comes to deciding on a way forward.

Think about health and safety concerns too

These are all HR factors that need to be factored into your emergency management protocol to equip you to better deal with such emergency situations.

But even if you cast these aside, there’s a myriad of health and safety issues that would be exacerbated by power cuts. For example, the trip hazards presented by a lack of lighting and the use of back-up generators, which carry carbon monoxide (CO) risks.

And don’t forget the dangers of perishable goods being exposed to higher temperatures when fridges and coolers stop functioning for a period, and whether water purification systems will malfunction during that time.

Communication is key

It might feel daunting to think about preparing for an event that may not even happen. As with all workplace issues, it’s best to involve your staff in conversations when it comes to deciding on a way forward.

Talking through the options available with your employees, taking into account their personal circumstances, can help ensure that an agreement is reached that suits both parties and allows your team to feel valued and listened to – which is great for maintaining productivity and engagement. 

Author Profile Picture
Kate Palmer

HR Advice and Consultancy Director

Read more from Kate Palmer

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