What exactly is fair?

One thing that is certain, is that the current situation has brought to light a new separation in the workforce – one that was previously undefined. The notion of the key workers. The UK Government set out what they meant by this here. What was striking at the time and remains so, is the breadth goes way beyond the definition that perhaps  any of us would have given if stopped in the street 6 months or so ago.

So we emerge from this, either as a key worker or not.

The peculiarity of the mainstream debate on the post Covid world of work is that it falls predominantly on two separate groups. On one hand we have debates about flexibility, working from home, the impact of too many Zoom meetings, which predominantly falls on the “non-key worker” group (I appreciate there are exceptions before this is pointed out). And on the other hand we have the NHS, who have courageously and valiantly been on the frontline of some of the most extreme situations in this event and demands for better pay and conditions.

But if we are truly to consider the future world of work, we need to consider it for all. That is in no way intended to make comparisons between groups, to say that support for one is by definition at the exclusion of others, simply to say that it is more complex, more challenging and full of contradiction than a simple Meme or tweet can assess.

The reality is that the we are going to see a lot of people lose their jobs – predictions suggest as high as 6.5m in the UK. People will lose their businesses, their livelihoods and perhaps their homes. These aren’t those “key workers” or those that are working from home, they’re the people that are furloughed, hoping that in some way, the economic stimulus will be such to allow their bosses to start up their businesses once more, or self employed and unable to provide their services yet with no Government support. You could understand  how they will look to those that can either work at home are deemed critical with some sense of envy.

Those that have been working throughout, with concerns and fears about their wellbeing and safety, the teachers in schools, the postal workers, those keeping the water flowing and the lights on and of course the medical and care staff are maybe less likely to be impacted by job losses and directly by the economic impact. Does job security and a decent pension compensate for the physical and psychological challenges they’ve been through?

And of course not all key workers are created equal, the delivery drivers that we have depended upon, bringing food and essentials to our doors. The people picking and packing in the warehouses, or growing and distributing our food. These are the areas where low wages, job insecurity and the invasive use of technology have been prevalent for so long. What reward will they get for their contribution? What do they deserve?

The current situation raises more questions than it does answers. If NHS workers are to be paid more, when tax yields will be falling and the Government has made such expensive interventions to try to protect the economy, how will we afford it? If our distribution workers and delivery drivers are to get more, who foots the bill? Would we pay more for our Amazon purchases to ensure a better lot? Should those people working in industries that can survive remotely be the beneficiaries, or should they be punished for their choice of work and career?

I don’t have the answers and I probably haven’t asked all of the questions. But these are the debates that we need to have honestly, openly whilst trying to avoid factionalism and reactionary positions. You could argue that all this is fair, these are the life choices that people make, or you argue that this exposes the inherent unfairness of our society and the world of work. Working it out though, is going to take time and thought and moving beyond simple statements, to consider the whole.

 

Deal or No Deal?

When I started work, I don’t remember thinking I was due anything other than a pay cheque at the end of the month. I’d received my contract and terms and conditions and I accepted the deal  – the amount of holiday, the level of pension and the protection for sickness. That is about all there was in those days.

I figured that if I worked hard, put in the hours, managed to show a bit of intelligence and initiative that it would help me. Not to get a promotion, but to get experience and ultimately a good reference. Because when I started the job, my director had been very clear – I wasn’t going to stay.

It wasn’t that he was a hire and fire them character – far from it – but he had taken a policy to hire young, eager, recently qualified professionals and to give them a chance in the world of work. In return he realised that he got good quality people, but one’s that would want to move on pretty quickly – and he was ok with that. That was the deal.

Throughout my career, I’ve heard reference to “entitlement” more and more. It really wasn’t a term I was familiar with back in the mid 90s. And whilst I’ve worked with some people who truly believe they were the most entitled on the planet, “we’re unicorns, Neil, that’s what you need to do if you want to hire unicorns”, I’ve met more who’ve been disappointed that a promise they were led to believe, hasn’t materialised.

The thing about a deal is that it has to work for both sides, and yet as organisations too often we want to pretend we have something greater than the reality, in the belief that what we actually have wouldn’t be appetising. The implication of this is we don’t believe that job applicants and employees are capable of making an assessment based on facts and acting in accordance with their best judgment.

So instead we talk about nebulous concepts such as career enhancement, progression, development opportunities and stretch, which are easily misinterpreted and can be unintentionally disingenuous. Frustrations normally kick in at about two years into the employee journey, when people start to realise that their interpretation of the phrase wasn’t the same as the organisation’s.

There’s nothing wrong about a straightforward deal at work, in fact I’d argue there is something pretty refreshing. “If you come here, you’ll be working with good people to do your job, we will look after your health, safety and wellbeing, we will pay you x and give you y on top. You’ll learn and hopefully enjoy yourself and in the future, who knows, you might find something else here you like or you might choose to move on. And we understand and respect that”.

Deal, or no deal?

Pay to play

There is work, then there is the other stuff. For the purpose of this piece, let’s call that “play”. Play is everything else that you do in your life, the hours that you use at your discretion (parents and carers, I know it doesn’t always feel like this!) for things that matter to you. For the majority of us, we need to work in order to be able to play – it pays the bills, affords us the chance to do other things and allows us to eat drink and sustain our existence.

So which one comes first?

As a kid I was brought up to believe that you couldn’t have what you didn’t earn – you did without until that point. It is a belief that I’ve carried with me ever since. It is a value that drives both my work and play, and the intersection between the two.

You want a promotion, or more money? You get your head down and work hard.
You want a holiday to your fantasy location? You save until you have enough to treat yourself.
That promotion is more likely if you don’t take a holiday at that time?

I question whether this is a value set that is firmly set in the past.

There are people who will say that you should make your work your play, but that’s frankly a patronising, middle class, privileged perspective. Most people don’t have a choice about the work they do, how they do it and where or when. They work because they need to.

But in a world that increasingly seems to offer an unfair deal, are people right in looking for more for less? If your current deal is so woeful, why wouldn’t you strive for much, much more? An if it means cutting corners, if it means taking a step more than you’re ready for, if it means getting now and worrying later, then what’s the harm?

I’m not talking about a generational trend, I think this is a change that has been coming for a long, long time. The inequality that exists, drives behaviour that compensate.

When we talk about work ethic, we talk about with a critical tone. But rarely do we combine it with corporate ethic. The replacement of career paths, pension schemes and security of employment with engagement, discretionary effort and doughnut days has repercussions beyond the individual organisational context.

Work to play? Maybe we’ve thrown it away once and for all.