How SMEs can Adapt to Change and be Progressive in Northern Ireland

group of office workers in small business

by Ciara Fulton, Partner, Employment, Immigration and Reward Division, Lewis Silkin, Belfast

In recent years, Northern Irish employers have had to quickly adapt to manage the impact of Covid-19 on workplaces and move to remote and hybrid working arrangements. As the war for talent continues, employers face an increasing need to keep up with and accommodate employees’ changing and diverse needs.

Employees expectations in terms of their workplaces are changing – they expect their workplace to be environmentally sustainable, diverse, inclusive and accommodating. Large employers are often at the forefront of new ways of working and developing progressive employment policies to attract and retain talent. Being progressive can be more challenging for small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) who don’t have the same resources. However, SMEs have the advantage of being able to pivot quickly to trial new and progressive ways of working, which could be to their benefit.

Meeting employees’ needs and life stages

As the war for talent continues, it’s more important than ever for SMEs to consider what they can do to build progressive and inclusive workplaces. This goes beyond just waiting for legislation and then taking steps to comply. SME employers need to start considering progressive employment policies now to prepare for the future.

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Employees no longer view the workplace as just somewhere they go to work; it is a major part of their personal lives. A progressive employer will recognise that they need to support employees’ individual needs and life stages.

Many large employers are looking at how to meet these needs and are introducing policies and benefits around menopause, early pregnancy loss, fertility and reproductive support, gender reassignment, mental health leave, additional family leave, as well as developing their diversity, and inclusion and environmental, social and governance initiatives. SMEs need to be able to compete with this.

As a starting point, SME employers should keep up with current employment law developments, and also plan for changes coming down the track. These would include changes in terms of family and related leaves, employee pay transparency and diversity and inclusion initiatives. Examples of developments in these areas include:

  • Parental bereavement leave: Employees in Northern Ireland are now entitled to two weeks’ paid leave (it is paid provided they meet certain eligibility criteria) following the loss of a child under the age of 18. Statutory parental bereavement pay is administered in the same way as existing family-related statutory payments such as maternity, paternity and adoption pay. This brings Northern Ireland in line with the existing rights in Great Britain. Following further consultation and agreement on subsequent regulations, these provisions are to be extended in Northern Ireland to include working parents who suffer the loss of a child through miscarriage. More information on this development is here.
  • Domestic abuse leave: Employees in Northern Ireland who are victims of domestic abuse will be entitled to 10 days’ paid leave each year to deal with issues relating to the abuse. This is a ‘day one’ right meaning that no minimum period of service for qualification is required. This right is not yet effective (ie, employers don’t currently have to provide this leave) as the commencement date of the new right remains to be confirmed. Employers can, however, take steps within their businesses to prepare for it by creating an environment where employees feel they can disclose that they are experiencing domestic violence. More information on this development is here.
  • Gender pay gap reporting: Legislation providing for gender pay reporting is in place in Northern Ireland but hasn’t yet been brought into force. There won’t be any progress until the Northern Ireland Assembly is restored and even then, some SMEs may be out of scope assuming that the requirement will apply to employers with 250 or more employees, as is the case in Great Britain and not extend to employers with 50 or more employees, which is a 2025 requirement in the Republic of Ireland. Employers who are in scope should note that when the requirement does apply in Northern Ireland, they will be required to carry out disability and ethnicity pay reporting, as well as gender pay reporting. More information on gender pay gap reporting in Northern Ireland is here.
  • Zero-hours workers: Draft legislation has been introduced in the Northern Ireland Assembly providing enhanced protection for zero-hours workers (ZHWs) (workers on a contract where there is no guarantee that they will be given any work). The aim of the draft legislation is to provide a less precarious working environment for ZHWs. One of the key provisions is the banning of exclusivity clauses (terms in a contract which prevent ZHWs taking on other work). While the progress of the legislation depends on the Northern Ireland Assembly being restored, it’s one for SMEs with ZHWs to keep an eye on. More information on this development is here.

SMEs should review their current guidance and policies in advance to ensure they comply with all the upcoming changes and guidance.

Building a progressive work environment

In terms of building a progressive work environment for the future, small business owners should:

  • consider how to build on the benefits of home working for their employees so work-life balance can be improved. Benefits include increased motivation, productivity and reduced overhead costs. That said, employers should be mindful of new and younger employees in terms of how hybrid working supports learning and training opportunities in a hybrid work environment.
  • consider how to retain talent. Post-pandemic, salary and status are not as motivating for employees as flexibility around other commitments, sense of belonging and purpose, company values (eg, steps taken to address inequalities), and increased benefits (eg, mental health days).
  • rethink their benefits – for example, home internet use or commuter benefits rather than a free lunch. Other benefits which are flexible and supportive to a specific employee’s needs could include contributions to childcare or fertility treatment support, time off for menopausal symptoms, time off to take up volunteer work, burnout avoidance support, career breaks and financial planning support to name a few.
  • rethink work hours. Consider trialling a four-day week or allowing atypical work hours to cater for an employee’s other commitments, where reasonable. In the UK, over 70 companies are trialling a four-day working week. In Ireland, 20 companies have also been trialling a four-day week this year so this will be an interesting space for SMEs to watch.
  • reassess company values. Ensure policies are in line with and uphold company values. Reinforce and amend those policies to make it clear that in a diverse workforce everyone’s views must be treated with respect. Invest in unconscious bias training.
  • finally, and most importantly, seek the views of the employees on what they want to see implemented in the workplace to help build a progressive and future-proofed workplace. Do this through surveys, focus groups, idea boxes and talking to all employees. Provide feedback on progress made on their suggestions.

In this era of the fourth industrial revolution and as the needs of employees change, SMEs can’t afford to sit back if they want to avoid the impact of the ‘great resignation’. Future of work analysis predicts that employees will want to work less, work more flexibly, work on a range of different projects learning different skills and work for longer into old age. SMEs need to be ready for these changes and keep up with the ever-shifting values in the world of work.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

About the author

Ciara Fulton is a partner in Lewis Silkin’s Employment, Immigration and Reward division based in Belfast where she manages the office and a growing employment team.

Ciara is dual qualified and advises on all aspects of employment law in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Ciara has significant experience of advising clients on all manner of employment issues including complex disciplinary and grievance issues, bullying and harassment matters, equality matters, including equal pay claims, large scale redundancies and reorganisations as well as sensitive executive severances and enforcing restrictive covenants.

Ciara also advises on TUPE in the context of business transfers, insourcing and outsourcing and provide guidance and support to the HR team through the consultation process and on negotiating warranties and indemnities.

Ciara has particular expertise of advising on NI and ROI cross border matters and employment related litigation in both jurisdictions. Ciara works with a variety of sectors and has particular experience in the construction and infrastructure sector.

She regularly speaks on a range of employment issues at internal and external events and deliver bespoke training to clients on the differences between NI and ROI employment law.