Fair work during (and after) a global pandemic

Introduction

There’s no getting away from it – a global health crisis is triggering a global economic crisis. Estimates vary from country to country, but to see the Scottish Government’s Chief Economist predict a 33% fall in Scottish GDP in the coming months is nothing short of staggering. Of course, the speed of the recovery will be very important and there are encouraging signs that government intervention to date will support a comparatively speedy return to normality.

Nonetheless, the concerns over longer-term labour market impacts remain. The CIPD’s own commissioned Covid-19 employer survey, for example, shows that almost a fifth (19%) of UK employers have either made or expect to make permanent redundancies as a result of the pandemic. Job availability is likely to overshadow job quality for a while.

That being said, in this blog I want to argue that job quality – and the concept of fair work in particular – is now more important than ever. It is crucial that fair work principles are applied as we go through this crisis (as recognised be the Scottish Government) and that they play a key role during the recovery too. As I’ve argued elsewhere, we can’t just go back to business as usual after this is over.

Respect

If there’s anything the pandemic has highlighted, it is that individuals’ circumstances vary so significantly that any rigid broad-brushed approaches by employers to managing their workforces simply don’t work. Some jobs can’t be done from home – forcing us to reassess our definitions of “essential”. Those jobs that can be done from home depend on equipment, skills and resources that aren’t available to all. Flexibility around working hours is non-negotiable for those with caring responsibilities. The list goes on.

Respecting individual circumstances – and treating workers with respect and understanding - is therefore crucial. Looking after the health and well-being of staff at the frontline has, understandably, been the focus of media attention. But we do know that health and well-being is just as important for those currently working from home. The additional strain permanent homeworking can put on work-life balance can be significant, with the so-called “always on” problem likely to be exacerbated.

For some, however, flexible working can be a revelation. Multiple surveys that the CIPD conducted, both with members and employers more broadly, have shown that there is an expectation of an increase in demand for more permanent flexible working arrangements. This should be welcome, since we know that flexible work is still relatively uncommon across Scotland, especially across the private sector – something we will explore further in our Working Lives Scotland report in June.

Security

Secure and stable employment as an element of fair work takes centre stage in a recession. The unprecedented level of government intervention, in particular through the Job Retention Scheme, is driven primarily by the need to protect jobs and incomes. It is likely further changes will be needed to prevent permanent redundancies, but governments are in listening mode.

The crisis has of course further highlighted some key differences between categories of worker. Self-employed workers had to wait a bit longer for a support scheme that was much more challenging to design. Some of those on short-term contracts are now faced with unemployment. Employees in traditionally higher-paid sectors will be more likely to work from home than those in lower-paid occupations.

And there are further differences still. While some workers in lower-paid occupations – in the care sector or in retail – become essential workers, others – in hospitality or tourism – find themselves out of work altogether. Seasonal workers are suddenly in huge demand, not because of immigration policy, but because of travel restrictions.

The importance of stability and security of employment income should be a guiding principle of policy changes that come as a result of this. There will rightly be long debates over the balance of responsibilities between individuals, businesses and governments, but things will need to change. Clapping will not be enough.

Opportunity

Linked to the issues of job security, is the fair opportunity to gain employment and progress in employment. Fair opportunity to progress can mean career advancement (likely to take a backseat during a recession), but it can also mean a chance to develop one’s skills. And in this area, the pandemic actually provides an opportunity.

We know that regular job demands are likely to reduce for some, most obviously for those put on furlough by their employer. While furloughed employees are not allowed to work (at least not for the employer who furloughed them), they can undertake training – in fact, they should be actively encouraged to do so. The UK Government, the Scottish Government and the Welsh Government have all taken steps to encourage this by creating three dedicated portals (here, here and here) that bring together free online training opportunities. This is hugely welcome, but there are further steps that could be taken.

There is good academic research out there which shows the importance of skills development during economic recessions. In our initial letter to the Chancellor, in which we argued for a wage subsidy scheme, we suggested it should be coupled with a training subsidy to encourage employers to enrol their furloughed staff on training courses. The other side of the coin is of course encouraging demand from workers themselves. In a Scottish context, the CIPD has suggested the Scottish Government utilises Skills Development Scotland’s Individual Training Account infrastructure to boost demand among workers.

Of course, these proposals need to be seen in the context of a wider discussion over flexible skills development and the importance of lifelong learning. There are some excellent examples of companies which invest both time and money in workforce development, but there are sectors where this simply is not even a part of the agenda. The role of government here could be crucial.

Fulfilment

The opportunity to use one’s skills at work, having autonomy over one’s job as well as having access to the right resources to do one’s job properly are all important elements of fair work. All three have been highlighted over the last few weeks.

Very obviously, for many workers the pandemic meant a significant change to the way they work. For those on furlough, the opportunity to use one’s skills has disappeared, although as mentioned above, training should be encouraged. Homeworking will be a new experience for many and even though all of us at CIPD Scotland are homeworkers anyway, having children around all day has been a very different kettle of fish.

Wider homeworking has been a challenge for employees and employers alike. Our Covid-19 employer survey highlighted some of the biggest issues faced by employers – including the availability of laptops and other IT equipment at the most basic level and employee skills gaps, something we will all have experienced at some point over the last few weeks.

We have seen some very encouraging examples of employers stepping up to the task and recognising the need for more flexibility. It will be fascinating to see the results of ongoing and future employee surveys to asses whether they felt their job quality improved in this aspect – or whether the tradeoffs for them (e.g. weaker social interactions at work) were too big.

Effective Voice

The last fair work dimension is effective voice. This can mean formal or informal channels through which employees’ voices can be heard and through which change can be achieved. Out of the formal channels, it must be said that the trade union movement has been particularly effective during the pandemic, particularly in highlighting issues with PPE availability, and they should be commended for it. For their usual critics, this has been a very good example of where trade unions work well.

However, most employees are not unionised, especially those in the private sector and other voice channels become just as important. This can mean direct engagement between managers and workers, but also regular staff surveys, worker committees or employee representatives. In times of crisis, it is even more important to engage in direct and open communication with your employees as well as look for feedback and suggestions.

I genuinely believe that the responsible capitalism agenda (or capitalism with a human face) will become a lot more important post-pandemic. People are noticing the behaviours of companies and will remember those who looked after their staff, those who put stakeholders before shareholders and those who approached difficult decisions fairly. We know investors are noticing already. Governments will notice too.

Conclusion

It is clear that the pandemic highlighted issues across all five fair work dimensions – but if anything, it brought their importance to employee well-being into focus. Employers who are guided by fair work principles will find their employees happier and will hopefully reap productivity benefits in the months to come.

The impact of the pandemic on our GDP will only be temporary. But its impact on job quality – on how we think about flexible work, about essential, but insecure employment, about lifelong learning and employee health and well-being – should be permanent.

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