Contributor: Ian MacArthur, Head of the Greater Manchester Good Employment Charter.
The Scottish Bard, Robert Burns once said “There is no such uncertainty as a sure thing”, and I’m certain as we raised our glasses and toasted-in 2020, we all had hopes and plans for the year ahead, - but as Burns also said – the best laid plans…! For a few weeks later, on 16th March 2020, the Government advised us ‘to avoid pubs, clubs, theatres and other such venues to try to curb the spread of COVID-19. A week later, on 23rd of March 2020, the UK’s first lockdown would begin.
The rest as they say is history: Over 4 million confirmed cases, more than 126,000 deaths, hospitals, NHS and care workers stretched to breaking point, working practices radically changed, furlough, home schooling, education disruption, families divided and isolated, growing economic insecurity, mental wellbeing challenges, mounting public sector debt and all topped off by widening inequalities across all domains.
What has the pandemic meant for the world of work?
Matthew Taylor, author of the Government commissioned ‘Good Work Plan’ in 2017 recently outlined – there is a real danger, as we move forward and out of the pandemic, that any job is seen as a good job. He reflected that COVID has made more people in urgent need of work and more employers desperate to stay in business. Moreover, he suggests that the current environment can lead to the temptation for non-compliance with good work standards, whilst at the same time reducing the resistance of employees being exploited may be further reduced. Greater Manchester’s good employers know that would be a false economy - not only for them and their staff, but would also undermine Greater Manchester’s clear ambition to rebuild a vibrant and fair city region.
A recent OECD report commented that the impacts of the 2020 pandemic were made worse by the austerity policies adopted after the 2008 recession. The Charter recognised from the outset that key-workers, in low paid and insecure work, often in public facing roles (care workers, retail staff etc) were placed in impossible positions juggling their own economic needs against doing the ‘right thing’ by self-isolating. Although some isolation income support came from Government eventually, it was too little and too late. This demonstrates that the adoption of good employment standards is no longer a choice – it is essential if we are to rebuild in a far more resilient way and they must be a foundation stone of public health policy moving forward.
For our part, the Charter has reflected hard on the implications of the pandemic and working with partners such as Carnegie UK and the School for CEOs we are clear on our priorities to engage and support employers.
How has the pandemic affected the characteristics of Good Employment?
Although not explicitly set out, addressing inequalities remains at the heart of the Charter’s ambition. Ensuring equality in the workplace means creating opportunity for all, and the impact of COVID has heightened many of the existing challenges especially with regards to women, disability and our Black and Minority Ethnic communities. We will focus on action in these areas – especially in terms of progression and pay differential reporting. More widely we will support Greater Manchester’s ambition to become a Real Living Wage City Region and will actively seek to engage with sectors where low pay and insecure working arrangements are prevalent.
After the rush of adrenaline fuelled activity last Spring, many employers were patting themselves on the back marvelling at their ability to adopt working from home policies and utilise video technologies that they could have been using for years. We’ve cracked flexible working! The truth however – several months on - is that for many all that happened was the work venue changed, but the adoption of truly flexible working practices didn’t follow. For those that are now planning to continue to work in this way or to adopt blended solutions there is still much to do and learn and the Charter, with our partners, will be here to support and offer advice and guidance.
Much of all of this relies on effective leadership and management. Across all sectors, line managers, have been challenged to adapt to managing at distance, and building new and meaningful ways of communicating and listening to their staff. We all recognise that developing effective emotional intelligence through a Zoom screen is tough! A significant change is needed for many and working with our partners at CIPD, ACAS and MMU we will continue to collate resources to support employers build management capacity for good work.
At the heart of much of the good work agenda is a basic concern for employee wellbeing. This cannot remain as a policy on the shelf that speaks of free fruit and lunchtime yoga classes. Wellbeing should now be at the heart of an employer’s values and ambitions. The Charter’s experience of working with all sorts of employers during the pandemic tells us that those who adopt values that put the wellbeing of their staff at the centre of their operation, are those who have emerged stronger and better equipped to face future challenges. This will remain a driving force for the Charter in the coming years.
From the outset, the Good Employment Charter has aimed to be not just an accreditation badge, but more of a movement, where employers can share and support each other in developing good practice. Now, as we face the challenges of evolving and uncertain ‘future work’, more than ever we need to build a community of understanding and a commonwealth of knowledge to help us all build back better.