Our debate needs less noise and more thought

In “normal” times, any discussion about the future of work is fraught with danger, the impact of coronavirus on workplaces has added a multiplying factor of one hundred. Disproportionate time and space is given to the voices on the extreme who declare a new dawn, glossing over the inconvenience of the details of the working population and their day to day experience, to outline a dream based on the experience of a tiny minority.

Work has never and will never operate in isolation of society. It is one of the most fundamental factors in both our individual psychology and the communities and societies that we operate within. Like it or not, it is part of who we are. That’s why good work matters and why creating good jobs is of fundamental importance.

The last four or five months have shown us that there are certain industries, professions and sectors that we simply cannot live without. Our emergency services, our carers, our utilities, our farmers and food warehouses, our delivery drivers and distribution and supermarket networks. These are the very workers that have helped us to navigate through the darkest days in many of our living memories.

In any consideration of the future of work, these are the very people and industries that we should be looking to in order to understand how to create a better normal. And yet, the voices that we so often hear are small, inessential technology businesses, employing only a handful of people and with the economic and societal impact of a dried up stain from an over priced mug of chai latte. Naive and oversimplified statements like “knowledge workers can work anywhere and at any time”, are bandied around. Surgeons? Engineers? Physicians? Academics? These are the real knowledge workers.

At the heart of the challenge we face is societal fairness. I’ve long argued that our direction of travel on workplace flexibility has in fact been a polarising and damaging journey. Where flexibility for the privileged means being able to work at home on a Friday and for large parts of our workforce means uncertainty of hours, invasive uses of technology and instability of employment. This has played a significant, contributing factor to many of the problems that we see across our country.

Whatever we do we must not use this inflection point, and I think we can rightly use that term in this context, to focus on one very small group of employees because their voices are the loudest and perhaps most attractive. If we do, we risk further damage to the fabric of society. We should focus the debate with the people that matter most, that make the biggest difference and who we simply cannot do without. We should build our future of work around and in service to them

At this time of year, many of us would normally be heading to find some sun and relaxation by the sea. A familiar sight at beaches across the world, our attention is drawn to the (normally male) holidaymaker sitting at the front of a banana boat, screaming at the top of their voice with the adrenaline and rush of a child high on Skittles. Yet ahead is where the action really is, the speedboat that pulls it along without which the ride would not exist, calmly and diligently going about its business. Less exciting maybe, but undeniably more important.

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.

 

Injustice is at the heart of this crisis

I’ve written so many times over the past years about social inequality and the role that organisations need to play in starting to right the wrongs of many decades of looking the other way. Whether that has been through investment in skills and training, fairer recruitment or simply through the ways in which we contract and pay employees.  If it was an imperative before, it now becomes an obligation.

“People living in more deprived areas have experienced COVID-19 mortality rates more than double those living in less deprived areas. General mortality rates are normally higher in more deprived areas, but so far COVID-19 appears to be taking them higher still.”

Nick Stripe, Head of Health Analysis, Office for National Statistics.

The fact that the mortality rate is more than double in deprived areas is a stark reminder of the systemic issues the underly areas of deprivation.  And whilst there is no more sombre measure of inequality than death, The impact of the virus won’t be simply contained to mortality.

As schools are closed, there is a disproportionate effect on those children living in deprived areas. Their access to technology, the role of parents and relatives in home schooling and the greater risk of disenfranchisement has been raised by the inspector of schools. It won’t just impact on those taking qualifications, but could impact throughout schooling, leading to growing attainment gaps for a number of years.

And of course, we mustn’t forget the impact on the labour market. Which will disproportionately impact on those in low paid, low skilled jobs.

“Some workers are disproportionally economically impacted by the coronavirus outbreak. Low paid workers are more likely to work in shut down sectors and less likely to be able to work from home. According to the IFS, one third of employees in the bottom 10% of earners work in shut down sectors, and less than 10% of the bottom half of earners say they can work from home.”

Commons Research Briefing CBP-8898

Health outcomes, Educational outcomes, Employment outcomes. Three of the factors that are fundamental to restricting social mobility. And that is before we look at the disproportionate impact on BAME communities and the overlap between ethnicity and deprivation – which we absolute cannot ignore.

So when we are talking about the future of work, when we make statements about the structural change of workplaces, let’s try and take our thinking beyond the offices of the secure, educated and highly paid. Let’s put aside broadly inessential discussions about flexible and home working arrangements and how Zoom and Teams are going to be part of everyone’s lives. Instead let us start to debate the issues of fundamental, structural inequality and how we as businesses can step up and take our share of responsibility for the sake of our society, our economy and our future.

Lead for the many (and not the few)

It is July 14th, 2015 and, despite the generally good weather, there has been a sudden and heavy downpour. I remember it well because I was on foot making my way to speak at a CIPD event at City Hall. Unfortunately I’d understood County Hall, which is in a completely different part of town and ended up arriving late, drenched and grumpy.

The result of this was a rather dark and pessimistic take on the impact of flexibility on the workplace. Speaking alongside Dave Coplin, who was ebullient with the opportunities, I saw a much more dangerous and divisive trend. At the end of the sessions, I left the venue and skulked off to, once again, be late for a drink with a friend.

Four years later, I am more convinced than ever that the way in which we approach flexibility in the workplace is an exemplar of the way in which we are building a two tier workforce, built by the haves for the haves, designed for the few and not the many (to bastardise the current phrase of a certain political party).

In 2014, when Virgin announced that they were allowing employees to take as much holiday as they wanted, an HR policy decision became front page news. They were following the approach taken by Netflix, amongst others. More recently we’ve seen organisations, include the Wellcome Trust, talk about the introduction of a four day week. When the Virgin story was unpicked, it became clear that it wasn’t actually applicable to all staff, as they said themselves, “[it] permits all salaried staff to take off whenever they want for as long as they want”.

What do Virgin, Netflix and Wellcome Trust all have in common? Simply, and I mean this with the deepest respect, if they didn’t exist no-one would notice. But perhaps more importantly, they have a certain workforce segmentation that more easily allows for the introduction of such policies. They don’t represent the workforce experience of the many.

We don’t have to go far to understand that the use of workforce “flexibility” can be a double edged sword – enforced part time hours, rotating shift patterns, annualised hours and of course, our dear friend, zero hours contracts. The point I was making back in 2015 was that whilst flexibility might be the emancipation of the few, it was potentially the shackles of the many. For every one tech wizard working on their laptop in the Bahamas, there are ten delivery drivers working on a “self employed” basis.

Which is why as a profession we have to be super vigilant of not drinking the Kool Aid. If you believe in good work, you believe in it for all. If you want to drive flexibility, then it starts with individual choice. Across western economies we’ve seen an increased polarisation in our economics, in our politics and in our workplaces. We’ve created inequality and now we are looking to reinforce it.

None of these policies are wrong per se, but the application of them, the thinking behind them and the championing of them is shaped by an unhealthy preference to consider only “knowledge workers” (yes I hate the term too) to be worthy of such freedom. Only when we start to design workplaces that treat workers of all types with equality of treatment will we create organisations which we can proud of. Let’s start with the many and not the few.

NB: The Wellcome Trust actually abandoned their plans after a three month trial describing it as too “operationally complex”. Interestingly, they were brave enough to try and do this for the entire workforce, regardless of role.