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.

 

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.

Resilience and mental wellbeing

I’m fascinated by the topic of resilience and the interplay with mental wellbeing. Both have been at the centre of a much discussion in the world of work over the last few years and whilst I’m by no means an expert on the specific topics, I wonder whether both are two sides of the very same coin.

The archives are full of books and articles telling us how to build resilience at work, we talk about grit and determination and we have developed models and assessments to determine the level of resilience of employees and candidates. Meanwhile at the same time, we’ve raised the importance of understanding mental wellbeing in the workplace, identified means of supporting and analysed the impact that mental health related absences are having on productivity.

I can’t help thinking that we are missing something much deeper that lies at the root cause between the two issues. Something that is changing our relationship between human being and work, or indeed human being and life itself.

As I write this at the moment I have two children waiting exam results, one for GCSEs, one for A-levels. Already the amount of institutional pressure that is placed on them is enormous. “Unless you get x, you won’t get y”. At the same time, they’re bombarded with images and messages of societal perfection, of friends and lovers and situations which have no resemblance to the reality of most ordinary people.

All before they enter into the world of work, where will tell them that they will need to work until they’re 70 or older. Where we will resist providing them with stability of employment, savings for the future, career paths or development and we will constantly tell them that the jobs they are doing now will no longer exist in the future.

And then we will inform them that they need to build resilience, and we will show them how through a model and share a TED lecture from an expert on it. Have a lunch and learn too. Before reminding them of our mental health awareness week and the fact that they need to look after themselves, because they’re our most important asset. And it’s ok to talk.

I don’t know, but it all seems a bit confused to me. We have the power to change the root cause as well as treat the symptoms, but somehow we divert less energy time and focus there. Wouldn’t it be great if we lived in a world where our natural resilience was good enough and we created the environment that nurtured mental well-being?

Just a thought.

Technical skills need qualifications too…

My very first, post university, job was as a lecturer of Psychology. I worked evening at the local Further Education (FE) college teaching GCSE and A-level Psychology to adult returners who had either not got the qualifications in their youth, or decided they wanted more later on. The college was a well-known establishment in the seaside location, with a particularly strong focus on caring qualifications, engineering and professions like boat building.

Many of you will know that the FE sector was financially and directionally squeezed over many years, part of which (in my humble opinion) was an intellectual arrogance that aspirations should be greater for our young people. It is no surprise that the expansion of the Higher Education (HE) sector coincided with the diminishing of FE.

Fast forward 20 years and we are debating the lack of technical skills in the economy and the need to increase the focus on technical education. The Government announced, this weekend, the first colleges to be offering the new T-levels, to start in 2020. I’m hugely encouraged by this step and I genuinely believe these new qualifications could play a significant role in opening up career paths to young people. But only if business gets behind them.

In the coverage of the announcement, I was pretty disappointed to read the following quote from Professor Alan Smithers from the University of Buckingham, “Parents should be wary of encouraging their children to take them. It must be absolutely clear they will be of value to employers before kids risk their futures.”

One could easily fire the same warning to a whole host of A-levels and numerous degrees – the latter of which would cost you tens of thousands of pounds to obtain. It is also worryingly reminiscent of the early response to apprenticeships – who would want one of those?

Amidst the intellectual and class snobbery that will present in the objections to any type of “vocational training”, there lies a real and genuine challenge to employers. We need to embrace these new routes to qualifications and show not only do they lead to good quality jobs, but meaningful careers as well.

We can’t bemoan a skills gap and then ignore attempts to close it, we can’t worry about future technical needs and not embrace change. If you’re an employer of people then I suggest you have a good look at both the T-level qualifications and the routes to qualification through apprenticeship. At the end of the day, technical skills need qualifications too, and at the moment they are few and far between.