A calm before the storm? Why hasn't job quality changed drastically in the wake of the pandemic?

By Melanie Green, Research Adviser at the CIPD. 

Despite the turbulence of 2020, and the subsequent impact on our workplaces, the Good Work Index 2021 finds that that job quality has generally remained stable in the past year. This might seem surprising, so why haven’t we seen more of a shift?

Our working lives have undoubtedly changed since we last surveyed workers in January 2020; 43% of respondents were working from home all the time, something that would have seemed unimaginable at the beginning of 2020. A further 42% identified themselves as key workers – many working in vital services and going into their workplaces in challenging circumstances. Another new feature of the labour market has been furlough, with thousands of organisations using the UK government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) – 14% of respondents were furloughed at the time of the survey.   Nevertheless, we saw little movement in most of the key measures of job quality: for the most part, good jobs remained good while bad jobs remained bad. We explore potential explanations for the lack of change below.

Are we witnessing a calm before the storm?

Many businesses have been hard hit by the pandemic, with some closing and others making redundancies and changing how they operate. But the CJRS has supported over 11 million jobs, according to government statistics.  As the furlough scheme, and other types of financial support, come to an end in 2021, we may see more of a dramatic shift in job quality indicators, as organisations adapt their business models to navigate a tough economic climate (although our latest Labour Market Outlook survey tells a cautiously optimistic picture, with employment confidence on the rise).

Furloughed workers will also be coming back to work, sometimes after a prolonged period of time not working, which employers should be mindful of.

It’s also important to note that the Good Work Index surveys those in work – meaning we don’t capture the views of those out of work due to the pandemic, who will be facing particular challenges now, and may also have been over-represented in occupations who tend to have lower job quality.

What do you think? Will these factors have a big impact on worker’s response to next year’s survey, or will job quality hold strong?

Have good quality people management practices helped organisations weather the challenges?

Another possibility is that those who have previously invested in good quality people management practices prior to, and during the pandemic, have been better able to better weather its challenges and minimise a decline in job quality.

For example, engaging with employees to seek their views on workplace change has also been vital through the pandemic – and this is reflected in our data. 48% of workers said managers were good at seeking employee views, up from 41% in 2020 (but there’s still room for improvement, with 2 in 10 workers saying there are no channels for voice in their organisation).

The CIPD’s Health and Wellbeing at Work 2021 survey also finds that many organisations have taken additional measures to support health and wellbeing due to COVID-19, through steps like focusing on mental health and providing support to people working from home. This is positive (especially considering those working from home may be struggling with the impact on their physical health).

Will this focus on voice and wellbeing endure post pandemic? And what will be the longer term impact on job quality?

Is it just because we’re still doing the same jobs, fundamentally?

A final explanation is that job quality is complex, and doesn’t tend to change dramatically year on year. Therefore, it’s not entirely surprising we haven’t seen a big shift. A good example of this is job design and the nature of work, which includes factors like autonomy, the extent to which we can use our skills, opportunity for development and the sense of meaning we get from our work. Seeing a change in this would require the nature of our jobs to change quite significantly, and while some of us have changed where we work, the nature of our jobs hasn’t.  

Of course, there is some nuance to the story. Some have gone into work and provided vital services in incredibly challenges circumstances, while others have been furloughed for large portions of the year or worked from home while navigating new technology and caring responsibilities. Across these different types of roles, we see changes in specific aspects of job quality, such as excessive pressure and workload, struggle to maintain work–life balance and lack of skills development, amongst others. We discuss these in more detail in the Good Work Index 2021 report.

It’s also important to note that existing inequalities in job quality still exist –and they are at risk of being exacerbated by the pandemicIn other words, some jobs remain good, and other jobs remain bad, and tackling these inequalities should be a focus for employers.

Will we see a fundamental change in our jobs in the coming years, and what can we do to tackle the existing inequality in job quality?

What can employers do to provide better jobs for everyone?

The stability of job quality is not necessarily a cause for celebration, given we know that many aspects of job quality can and should be improved. Instead, organisations should reflect on which people management practices have worked well during the pandemic, and how they can be improved going forward to enhance job quality across the different job roles in their organisation. This will be vital to rebuilding the economy and ensuring we have better jobs for all.  This should include:

  • Continuing to engage with employees on organisational change and job quality.
  • Keeping a focus on an individual approach to wellbeing, accounting for new ways of working like remote working.
  • Recognising the work–life balance challenges not just for remote workers, but for those working in their usual workplace who have little access to flexible working.
  • Providing support for furloughed workers as they return to work, recognising the impact of financial and job insecurity over the past eighteen months, as well as the importance of reintegration into the workplace.

Read our full recommendations for employers in the Good Work Index 2021 report.

Good work is vital for healthy, productive workplaces, and there’s plenty of room for improvement when it comes to job quality in our workplaces. In the past eighteen months, there’s been an understandable focus on keeping people in work, but as we recover from the pandemic, it’s important that we think not just about more jobs, but about better jobs too.

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