Author: Ian MacArthur, Head of Good Employment Charter Unit
This week the Government will launch its ‘back to work’ campaign - encouraging those who have been working at home to get back into the workplace and spend time (and money) in our town and city centres. This follows some rather ‘gung-ho’ newspaper headlines last week – that were frankly as mis-informed as they were provocative.
The Covid-19 pandemic has not only presented huge health challenges that will continue to ebb and flow over the coming months, but it has also brought economic shocks that are truly unprecedented. These have already led to structural change and the need for greater adaptation and further innovation in many aspects of our lives, not least employment standards.
Since March, the Greater Manchester Good Employment Charter has sought to anticipate the challenges facing good employers through both the lockdown and re-opening phases, and we have delivered content through our Supporter Network webinars on a range of topical areas to assist them. Perhaps now is the right time to reflect and review what we have learned and how the world of work needs to adapt and find a new balance. We need to retain what was good in a pre-Covid world, but build upon the new found efficiencies and effective practices that have changed behaviours so that we truly can Build Back Better. We also need to ensure that the impacts of Covid on inequalities are not allowed to fester and grow, but that employers take positive action to ensure no one is left behind and that vulnerable and more disadvantaged workers are supported.
Firstly, for employees to feel comfortable and confident to return to their workplace, employers will have followed the guidance on social distancing and adapted and designed the work environment to ensure they are managing Covid risks effectively. But the physical aspects are but one element and we know that such changes can only be effective if employees are not only consulted but invited to participate in the co-design of how the workplace can operate. Indeed, this is at the heart of any meaningful risk assessment. This is especially important to help assess the risks and needs of all employees and we now understand that the impacts of Covid can be different for individual members of our workforce. Good employers will ensure that working arrangements are adjusted to ensure equitable conditions and opportunities for all. Employers must be aware that this is not only relevant to employees with existing conditions or disabilities but need to be mindful that risks and needs of individuals may have changed during their time working remotely or on furlough.
The past six months has also highlighted the vital importance of flexible working. The Charter has always promoted this employment characteristic as we know it can bring greater productivity when introduced and managed effectively. The various economic and social pressures that came to the fore during the Covid lockdown have demonstrated just how adaptable workplaces can be to enable employees to better juggle the needs of work and social needs. This is particularly true in managing care and childcare needs. Many employers have now learned that working in a more flexible way can bring benefits to them too, not only are overheads potentially reduced, but employees can be more productive when they can bring a better balance to their lives. This is also an important aspect of how we can manage a safe return to work – quite literally, as employers will need to also consider how and when their staff travel to a workplace safely – and that may mean changing working patterns and timings – becoming more flexible in their approach.
This all presents management challenges that are new, and many will have to adapt their styles to build blended approaches to how employees are managed in the emerging operating environment. Ensuring good management practice is a bedrock of a good employer, and it will be vital that people managers at all levels are effectively supported and invested in to equip them with the right skills, techniques and emotional intelligence to manage a dispersed workforce.
Looking towards the medium term, good employers will be planning to make their organisations more robust and resilient to future shocks. It has been a sad but almost an inevitable fact of the whole Covid situation that those in the lowest paid and most insecure work have been the most vulnerable to both health and economic impacts. This does not create a stable platform upon which to rebuild a cohesive organisation nor a sustainable economy. Good employers know that it is essential to create foundations that are built upon a workforce confident and secure in their working conditions and that they receive fair pay for their work. It is also abundantly clear that the more diverse and inclusive a workplace is, the more productive it will be also.
Finally, throughout this period it has become evident that it is those employers where leaders have developed a core culture that works for the benefit of all in their organisations and communities, that will emerge stronger and more resilient. As has always been the case, good employment standards are central to the public’s health and a more sustainable society.
At the start of this short blog I referred to the ‘gung-ho’ headlines that perhaps reflected a rather too forceful ‘back to the workplace’ message. In truth, returning to what seemed normal at the start of the year, now needs to be a little more nuanced and perhaps we should take the literal Chinese meaning of ‘gung-ho’ - of working together to be key message of how good employers can emerge stronger from this crisis.