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Covid-19 and its enduring impact on the industrial climate

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  • Picture of Stuart Morgan FRSA
    Stuart Morgan FRSA
  • Picture of Deborah Rees FRSA
    Deborah Rees FRSA
  • Future of Work
  • Employment

The way we work was already changing but Covid-19 has both exposed and accelerated the need to think about employee wellbeing and relations whether working from home or not.

Deborah Rees FRSA and Stuart Morgan FRSA examine how employers have responded and what needs to be done.

Globally, as of 10:00am CET, 2 February 2021, there have been 102,817,575 confirmed cases of Covid-19, including 2,227,420 deaths, reported to the World Health Organisation  (WHO). Almost 12 months ago, the first lockdowns in the nations of the UK were announced on 16 March 2020. What a year it has been. 

At first there was apprehension and confusion, as to how employers should respond to this global pandemic. The UK government, as one of the main ‘actors’, legislates to regulate the employment relationship between employees and employers.  However, the legislative role was transformed overnight from one managing from the side-lines via fiscal policies and statutes, to very much taking centre stage with compulsory and immediate directives to employers. 

From the outset it was encouraging that effective quality guidance became rapidly available to help employers navigate the new employment relations topography that they found themselves traversing. Various organisations have endeavoured to support employers in tackling the challenges, since the outbreak of the pandemic. There has been notable advice and support made available by a diverse range of organisations, including: WHO; national and regional government; business membership organisations such as the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS); and organisations like the RSA. In addition, individuals such as Daniel Barnett, a notable employment law barrister has provided a legal context to the impact COVID-19 has had on the employment relationship.

Employer responses

Over the last year, we have witnessed some great responses from employers such as Admiral, Timpson’s, and Iceland. However, there have been some poor responses; firms such as JD Wetherspoon, Bird, and Uber have been criticised for their response to the pandemic.

We have observed reports of unethical practice from some companies, who have been accused of abusing the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme provisions contained within the Coronavirus Act (2020).  Despite several reports of firms and businesses being accused of health and safety breaches (boohoo), more positively, we have seen significant examples of fantastic innovation. From alcohol distillers diversifying to make hand sanitiser, to the manufacturing of personal protective equipment (PPE) in the UK, new methods of working and the development of novel vaccines to tackle the virus.

There has been much for employers to grapple with during this time, and those who put their employees at the heart of the business have been quick to respond to the dramatic change. Employers who have imposed decisions upon employees are likely to find themselves facing legal disputes in the coming months or years according to Stephen Taylor, Chief CIPD Examiner and Senior Lecturer in Human Resource Management of Exeter Business School. Indeed, there is already a backlog within the Employment Tribunals.

In the public sector, we have observed a reduction in formal employment disputes, as employees have pulled together. ‘Compassionate leadership’ has come to the fore, particularly in the NHS, where camaraderie and a true fighting spirit, combined with collaboration have seen healthcare workers rise to the colossal challenge that has engulfed them.  However, there are still grave challenges and burnout is a genuine concern throughout the NHS.  Local authorities across the UK were urged to redeploy staff to avoid the use of furlough or making redundancies.  Welsh local authorities were criticised in this regard.

In the private sector many businesses were hit hard with the recession, and several notable high street retailers have gone out of business with, according to the National Office of Statistics, 828,000 job losses between February 2020 and January 2021.  For some industries Covid-19 has exacerbated existing difficulties; in January Tata Steel announced it’s decision to split the European business into a UK operation and a Dutch operation, a huge blow to UK steel production.

From a national employment relations perspective, some sectors – for example airlines and and higher education – were already in dispute talks when the pandemic hit. As a result of Covid-19 they have found themselves facing a whole raft of new challenges with pay talks frozen and paling into insignificance as other challenges took centre stage. For example, British Airways announced 12,000 job losses, the decommissioning of a whole fleet of Boeing 747s, appointed a new CEO, received a data breach fine of £20 million and saw its profits plummet.

The higher education sector had to evolve overnight in terms of digital transformation and a drop in student enrolments, particularly from overseas. Blended Learning has become the new norm for higher education institutes.  This has impacted on the working conditions and mental health of tutors and trainers.  A study by Youde reported that, “All tutors had negative experiences of online learning when studying.  These perceptions appeared to influence practice on modules and were helpful in understanding adopted approaches.  Online teaching and learning were considered as deficits, by these particular tutors, in this context.”  The study suggested that face-to-face teaching was preferable to online teaching for all concerned.

Leadership and employee engagement

Where does employee engagement and leadership fit in amongst all of this? Ann Miller, Senior Human Resources Consultant from HRZone provides evidence that there is now a divide between employees who have been furloughed and those who remained working throughout lockdown. When bringing these two groups back together, it is essential that human resources managers work through the issues they have and bring everyone together for the common cause.  It is clear that a divide has been created between the middle classes, who by and large are able to work from home, and the working classes, many of whom have been furloughed, and key workers, who have continued to attend work throughout the pandemic.  Some argue this divide could spell further disaster for UK middle class professionals, as their jobs become more globalised.

Meanwhile gig and zero-hours workers in particular have been left vulnerable in the wake of Covid-19.  Moreover, the lines between professional life and personal life have become less distinct with the increase of homeworking, which appears to have gone hand-in-hand with an increase in mental health problems.

Whilst ‘being told and controlled’ might work in the early stages of a crisis, this leadership approach must swiftly give way to a more compassionate, pluralistic style of leadership in order to make sustainable changes and avoid employee burnout.   In the equine world there is a saying; “you tell a gelding, ask a stallion, and discuss it with a mare”, with the lack of testosterone a gelding is more accepting.  If we keep ‘telling’ our employees what to do we render them at best ‘accepting’, at worst ‘apathetic’.  Whereas the literature illustrates that during this time of crisis there has been plenty of fire within the belly of employees to do their bit and make a small difference, if only we allow them to do so.  Engagement levels, rose during the initial lockdown phase of Covid-19.  As Beau Jackson, Editor of HR Magazine found, global engagement rose by 2%” between January and July 2020, whilst engagement levels within the UK rose by 0.5% for the same period.

The changes in the workplace need to be set against a backdrop of ongoing macro and micro factors.  There were already question marks over the UK’s productivity and leadership prior to Covid-19 and a palpable unease with the growth in precarious employment in the UK.  The Good Work Plan has been seminal in pushing forward improvements in this area and it is encouraging to see IWGB (the Independent Workers' Union of Great Britain) providing a voice for these groups.

However, more needs to be done and Covid-19 has illuminated significant gender, BAME and poverty inequality and it seems UK social structures are at breaking point.  The RSA’s ongoing work in examining The Future of Work is spearheading evolutionary thinking in respect of these challenges, and the socio-economic debates such as ‘doughnut economies’ and ‘universal basic income’ are of particular interest.  The worldwide healthcare crisis, economic contraction, mass redundancies, the growth of online shopping, the loss of long-established high-street retail chains, the loss of businesses in the hospitality sector, technological disruption, globalisation, changes in global supply chains, social inequality, and the changes brought by Brexit are but a few factors.  The big question is how do employers keep their employees engaged and motivated in the current and future world of work?  The answer is a new paradigm where employment relations is no longer a lens through which to consider the impact of macro factors on business, rather it is a kaleidoscopic image of socio-economic and stakeholder perspectives.

We have pored over scores of articles whilst researching this short piece.  If there is one theme that has cropped up time and time again, it is communication, on the face of it, a simple concept. However, in the digital, globalised world of AI and multi-media, communication is more complex than ever.   There has been a monumental shift in ‘working from home’, this provides unprecedented opportunities for employers and employees alike.  However, to use this as a catalyst for ‘good work for all’ there needs to be a leadership evolution; better communication, more empowerment, trust and faith in devolved accountability, bottom-up communication is of utmost value. 

We also need a swift departure from online presenteeism leading to ‘zoom fatigue’ and burnout and to create a culture where it is OK for employees to duck out of online meetings, turn their video off, take breaks that are appropriate to creative working not bound by the clock, have some say in the professional teams they want to collaborate with. Unilever are trialling a four day week for their employees in New Zealand and there is some support for this approach in the UK.  Leadership failing to communicate throughout the pandemic has been the most common shortfall; the existing juxtaposition of devolved accountability brought about by home working, governed by outdated leadership models will not allow employment relationships to burgeon.

It seems fair to suggest that to survive and thrive post-Covid-19 employers must not render employees the ‘impotent gelding’ but instead empower employees, as the stallions and mares who can bring a fighting spirit, creativity, innovation, rapid change and sustainable value.  This starts with good communication and ends with genuine appreciation.  One thing is clear; revolutionary changes have occurred, and the future workplace will be quite unlike the historic models of the world of work.  Employment relations must now be centred around a whole new ‘relationship’.

Deborah Rees and Stuart Morgan are both lecturers at Swansea Business School.

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  • Completely agree that compassion and communications have come to the fore, not just from leadership but throughout organisations that have responded well to the challenges of the pandemic. In my company one of our values is that we care, and living that has never been more difficult or more evident. Whether that’s keeping everyone on full pay and in employment regardless of how the restrictions impact their ability to do their job, initiating multiple new ways to stay connected to each other and in touch with the company, extending leave provisions to make sure everyone in every circumstance is treated kindly, increasing the range of formal and informal reward and recognition so everyone can appreciate each other and know they’re valued or much more besides. The leadership have communicated at least twice every week with everyone, at times of change it’s been a lot more, and responded publicly as well as privately to the communications they get from employees. Genuine dialogue between and across people has opened up in a way that was much harder to achieve before. Empowerment has become much more tangible and is embedded into how we see the organisation operating when the restrictions end. We’ve checked in on people frequently and equipped them to be as comfortable, healthy and productive as possible (which we’ve acknowledged is as varied as they are) and asked them what they do and don’t want to take forward from this experience into their future working lives. In all the uncertainty, turmoil, disruption and distress there’s an array of positive outcomes for good employers and their employees. While we support people through the tough times we must not lose sight of the upside. If nothing else, a lot of accepted wisdom has been overwritten and we all have the opportunity to be better at doing everything differently.

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