The impact of Covid-19 on good work: stories from Catalyst grant winners - RSA

Covid-19 and good work: stories from Catalyst grant winners

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  • Future of Work
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At this point in the pandemic, the crisis has touched nearly every single aspect of our lives.

The RSA’s Bridges to the Future campaign is about finding ways to make the crisis an opportunity for positive change. As part of the RSA's commitment to impact, we launched a fast-tracked round of our Catalyst Award grants which support RSA Fellows' projects.

This round was specifically for projects committed to easing the social and structural pressures of Covid-19.

I wanted to highlight three of the amazing projects we supported. They are inspiring themselves, but I also think these projects illustrate the impact Covid is having on workers. 

Inclusive Entrepreneurs Online - supporting people with disabilites in business 

Inclusive Entrepreneurs Online is a network which provides business support primarily to people with disabilities who, because of their condition, are often excluded from 'traditional' workplace roles. 

The network provides a business-to-business marketplace, a 10-session programme to provide help on the road to entrepreneurship, and “a showcase of the incredible aspiration and achievements of people who have faced significant barriers”.  

According to Jacqueline Winstanley, head of the programme, it was clear very early on that many members of the network were devastated by the disruption caused by the crisis. Not only because of the business interruption, but also the disempowering feeling that they had no say over the measures which were being put in place to support businesses. 

Meanwhile, the difficulties in accessing sector-specific types of support has left many disabled entrepreneurs in the network in a very precarious economic position. Many are considering shifting their operations online but might require more holistic support that encompasses measures for managing health conditions.  

The RSA Catalyst grant is contributing to shifting the network’s operations from face-to-face support to online support.

Central to these efforts have been the online 'Friday briefings'. These events have quickly become spaces where “members felt somebody was giving them a voice and a mechanism through which to try and influence things”, and where they could discuss innovations they were putting in place in the shift online.  

Not only have the briefings been successful in achieving this, they have also allowed the network to contribute very timely policy recommendations to the Chancellor and DWP regarding the Access to Work Awards, fast tracking of new applications, amending the self-employed income support scheme to recognise the needs of disabled entrepreneurs, and suspending the Annual Turnover requirements.  

Going forward, Jacqueline is convinced:

“we need an appreciation of how entrepreneurs with protected characteristics run their business, the value they have and the positive impact they have on the economy.”

If projects like this were to be replicated the impact on the employment gap, and thus on the economy, could be huge. 

Nuestro Pueblo (Our Village) - filling the gap left by a local community market

The Seven Sisters Market in London, also known as “Latin Village”, is both a striking architectural feat and strong local economic resource. In the words of RSA Catalyst Award winner David McEwen it's:

“a social hub, a place of particular significance for the local Latin American migrant community.”

It’s not only a place of business, but a space that offers informal networks of support for issues such as housing, rent, employment and job seeking. It is also, according to David, the only place in London where you can find a supermarket that functions as a butchers, bakers and café that turns into a nightclub every Friday and Saturday.  

However, the market is a dense space, where the proximity of the trader units makes it difficult to enforce social distancing measures. This has meant the entire market was closed when restrictions were put in place. Because of this, both traders and the people who would be supported by the traders are missing a vital resource for the community, leading to concerted efforts to support traders and the community during this time.  

The RSA Catalyst grant is going towards a beefing up of a volunteer network that can support the community while the market is closed.

The network is responding to queries, mostly in Spanish, from the many economically and food insecure households who would have otherwise turned to the market for information and support. It's also offering a business readiness programme, which utilises workshops run by volunteers specialised in digital marketing, delivery infrastructure, and digital operations - essentially providing a very swift reskilling service for the traders.  

In the short term, the project is helping to cushion the impact of Covid-19. Once the market has re-opened, the long-term goal of the project is to help turn Seven Sisters market into a trader-owned market. 

Here we can see how the pandemic can be an opportunity for creating postive change - by highlighting that the market is more than a commercial resource that supports entrepreneurial traders, but also a truly inclusive community hub. 

Supportive Mentoring Circles – Women In Travel 

One of the industries most affected by the Covid-19 crisis is travel and tourism. As the industry worldwide has a large female workforce, the disruption will mean there are a huge number of women - many in lower paid roles and with insecure work contracts - in a very precarious economic situation. 

Early in the crisis, Alessandra Alonso recognised the pressing need to consider this situation, which she calls “a pandemic within the pandemic”. Her business, Women In Travel, is a social enterprise supporting underrepresented and marginalised women to achieve employment or progress in the travel industry. 

The RSA's Catalyst grant is supporting Women in Travel to support women affected by disruption in the industry. 

At the start of the pandemic, Women In Travel decided to set up a set of 'supportive mentoring circles' in which free support was given to an international group of women facing the challenges posed by the disruption of the travel industry. The Circles have proven to be incredibly successful as a place where women in the travel sector can voice their concerns, be provided with practical help, and benefit from an exchange of ideas.  

Why is the travel and tourism industry a popular one for women? Alonso says the industry offers low barriers to entry and the opportunity to upskill quite quickly. But the same features that make it attractive expose workers to more vulnerability. The Supportive Mentoring Circles and the Women In Travel network exist to provide a counterpoint to that vulnerability.  

As Alessandra points out, “people have started to understand the impact of the industry in its absence, how it trickles down through the economy.”  

How is Covid-19 impacting 'good work'?

What can these projects tell us about how Covid-19 is impacting 'good work'?

  1. There has been a widespread feeling of isolation. This is a tragic, if predictable, result of the necessary lockdown mesaures. We've probably all felt it. But these projects highlight how it has significant impacts on worker voice. People feel powerless in the face of adversity they are facing. This isn't true for everyone obviously, but it shows how the challenges of the crisis are unevenly distributed. 
  2. The disruption and uncertainty experienced in many industries highlighted how precarious many sectors of the workforce feel - and the gaps in the safety net.
  3. There has been a very sudden need to move operation, both those supporting businesses and businesses themselves, online. This highlights the need for flexible re-skilling. 
  4. Finally, despite the urgency of the challenges faced, the crisis has given us an opportunity to re-think the value of certain jobs and sectors. The pandemic is showing how social value and economic value aren't always aligned. We can use this moment to help deliver 'good work' to all sectors of the workforce.  

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  • Are there any initiatives to bring together all of the recipients in a dialogue to strengthen and unite aims? I would be keen to see this happen.

  • Well done for your efforts here. I think of Cedric Villani mentioning 'constraints' and the irony of how challenges can lead us to breakthroughs. Of course the effort is essential, well done and I look forward to reading more about these efforts and the outcomes.