Why we need to build better workplaces for everyone after Covid-19

The government has pledged to create opportunities for good work as the economy recovers from coronavirus, but they must extend to all types of worker, says Sir Brendan Barber

Setting out his plans to "protect, support and create jobs", the chancellor said everyone must have “the opportunity for good and secure work”. As a new Acas discussion paper points out, Covid-19 has not had the same impact on all workers and sectors. Compare the experience of knowledge workers to those on the frontline, or those with formal contracts of employment with those in precarious work.   

As the country seeks to 'build back better', how do we ensure that ‘everyone’ doesn’t become ‘us and them’?

Fear vs trust

As Acas CEO Susan Clews set out in a recent blog, the biggest challenge we all face is to recognise the fear that many people feel as a result of the pandemic, including fears about their working lives, returning to work safely and their future job security. We need to ensure that these concerns do not outweigh the trust – in what is being done, not just to save jobs, but to ensure safety, and ensure quality jobs for the future. 

In reality, there are going to be some difficult problems to fix that have been hanging round a while, most notably:

  • Job insecurity: as previous Acas research has found, there is often an uncomfortable incongruity between ‘high-commitment jobs’ and ‘low-commitment contracts’. Covid-19 has raised everyone’s awareness of frontline workers, including the care sector and delivery staff, many of whom work with substandard or no formal contractual arrangements.  
  • Workplace inequality: we see growing evidence that Britain’s lowest paid are paying the highest price for the health crisis. And reports have also highlighted the disproportionate effect on those with BAME backgrounds, women, part-time workers and disabled people. 

Admittedly, it is hard to think beyond the short term right now, and for many the grief and anxiety generated by recent months will persist. However, as some of the nine million workers on furlough start to return to work and many smaller businesses open up again, we should also be open to opportunities to change the way we work for the better.

Grasping the opportunities

The experience of Covid may well have given energy to a new and sustainable public interest in the need for organisational change. In the workplace there is a chance to harness this in respect of fair treatment and improved working conditions. There is certainly a greater focus at the moment on health and safety at work and an acknowledgement that the mental wellbeing of the British workforce has taken a dip. Perhaps we will finally move closer towards that parity between physical and mental health that we all strive for. 

There are other opportunities as well. Many of us want to see deep-rooted cultural change – as epitomised by the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and abuse, and the Black Lives Matter campaign against racial discrimination. At Acas we believe this cultural change is partly based upon having effective employee voice mechanisms in place because, put simply, if you aren’t listening then you aren’t learning.  

And what about remote working? It’s not an option available for everyone, but for many employers the last three months have provided the opportunity for a live experiment in doing things differently. At Acas we had to kit our advisers out virtually overnight so they could carry on taking the huge number of calls to our helpline (peaking at 5,000 a day). We have valuable lessons to learn about what the ‘new possible’ might look like.

My discussion paper argues for the creation of a new ‘workplace contract’ – a contract that more explicitly spells out some of the elements of the psychological contract, namely respect, compassion, fairness and trust. Arguably it is precisely these qualities that have helped get us through the crisis so far but, equally, they have provided us with a timely reminder of the work that still needs to be done.

Sir Brendan Barber is chair of Acas