Job quality, not just quantity: the employment landscape after Covid-19

Written by Matthew Rock & CMI Insights Tuesday 09 June 2020
The Covid-19 crisis may spark a permanent change in how we view the quality of people’s roles, working conditions and management practices

There’s an understandable focus on unemployment levels right now. Some reckon that unemployment is already at its highest ever level, as sectors such as tourism, hospitality and travel remain battered by Covid-19 and lockdown. The situation is likely to become more grave as the government’s furlough scheme, which has protected millions of jobs, is unwound in the late summer and autumn.

While the quantity of jobs is top of mind, there’s an almost equally important debate taking place about job ‘quality’ and the roles, working conditions and management practices that people will enjoy in future. This debate is given bite as many of the lowest-paid workers – care workers, delivery drivers, retail staff – are the very people who have kept society going through the crisis.

Another dimension to the job quality discussion is that many people have reported that they are happier and more productive in the new working environment than they were previously. A recent CMI survey, conducted using Engaging Works’ ‘Workplace Happiness Survey’, also shows that since January 2020, overall workplace happiness has increased across all managers, regardless of whether they are working from home or in the workplace.

So how can we maximise the (albeit crisis-induced) benefits of our new working world, while also addressing long-standing questions around workplace dignity, fairness, as well as more recent issues such as the rights of gig economy workers?

This was the context for the latest CMI (virtual) roundtable, which brought together senior leaders from the services, security, and education and training sectors. As one of our participants, Rob Baker CCMI, puts it: “what we've seen in this crisis is this whole realisation that people come first, and we need to make sure that people feel as comfortable as they can about the new environment that they're in.”

We based the discussion around the Taylor Review’s high-level indicators of job quality:

  1. Wages – pay level relative to the minimum wage, qualification level, and peers
  2. Employment quality – job status, security, and predictability of hours
  3. Education and training – being able to develop and progress at work through training
  4. Working conditions – autonomy linked to wellbeing
  5. Work-life balance – scheduling of hours and flexibility within these
  6. Consultative participation & collective representation – a place for employee voice and stake in direction of travel

Donna Catley, chief people officer at Compass UK, is front and centre of these conversations. Her organisation employs around 50,000 people in the UK (600,000 around the world). Many of those people are society’s ‘forgotten heroes’ such as hospital porters and security guards, and who have become so much more visible through the crisis.

Donna says the Covid-19 crisis is a ‘pivotal moment’ for her company, which introduced a pay premium for 8,000 employees at the beginning of the crisis – this ranged from 10% to 17% and has now been made permanent. This was an immediate recognition of the role that these Compass team members play. “Good management starts with pay,” she says.

Rachel Sandby-Thomas is registrar at Warwick University, and her experiences perfectly illustrate CMI’s research on crisis productivity and happiness. While Warwick has traditionally been a fairly conservative workplace, not one that widely uses digital technology, “this crisis has forced change,” she says. “Working virtually, you need a different type of management. You need to trust people, to judge on outcomes – and not by how long they spend at their desk.” Many of the university’s employees have been put onto the furloughing scheme; many have been encouraged to volunteer in their communities. “This has really paid dividends and made them feel more engaged,” she says.

The Covid-19 crisis has triggered some changes in the way we plan and manage work some of which, with a fair wind, will stick in the long term. At Mental Health First Aid England (MHFAE), “we have focused on much shorter-term objective-setting and at the same time have worked hard to clear out some of the stuff which takes up so much of the working day and is not contributing to those priorities,” says chief executive Simon Blake.

“The lesson for me is that longer-term business plans can unintentionally make lots of work that doesn’t always or necessarily get the most important things done.”

Feedback from colleagues has been that it feels empowering working on very clear objectives because they have real clarity about what needs to be done and their role within it; there is stretch and trust; and they can see the results quickly. Similarly at Compass Group, dispersed local teams naturally have a large degree of autonomy “with a few guide rails”. Managed well, this can bring high levels of job satisfaction, says Donna Catley. “Quality of job is deeply subjective, but one of the dynamics that makes it feel like a quality role for the individual is autonomy,” she observes.

Reetu Kansal, senior project manager at the University of London, says that greater job flexibility will be the lasting result of the crisis. “We’re looking at much more blended work,” she says. Every team member has different home and work circumstances. “One size doesn’t fit all.”

On a granular level, the crisis has inspired some individuals. “We’ve found that people who had previously used the office as a kind of comfort blanket have really stepped up to the plate when we've asked them to work from home,” says Dawn McKaig CMgr, head of HR at Securitay and chair of CMI’s Scotland board.

Flexible working and lifelong learning is becoming “the new norm” in Wales, says Gary Metcalfe who chairs CMI’s regional board in Wales. In part this is because the Welsh economy is made up largely of SMEs. But he does worry about the continuing financial hit to the Welsh economy and that organisations will cut their investment in training and development – often the first casualty of cost-cutting. “Lots of our small businesses have quality work already, but they’ll need financial help from government to keep their businesses going and to bounce back.”

Again and again the message came through: leaders and managers have a huge challenge ahead, perhaps most of all in learning from, preserving and maintaining the positive outcomes that the Covid-19 crisis has brought.

Join the conversation about job quality

We’re keen to know what you think about these issues, so we’ve produced these ‘policy provocations’ to stimulate debate. (Please note, these aren’t official CMI policy positions.)

You can let us know your thoughts by emailing us:

So would these steps ​better foster quality work going forward, and what concerns might you have if they were implemented?

  1. Pay transparency should be paramount. ​Bonuses should be linked to demonstrable positive impact on employee engagement/satisfaction; for example, through net promoter scores (covering contribution to people, planet and profits). To support this, ​the government should roll out a comprehensive plan for annual pay reporting​ ahead of the 2022 review committed to by GPG.
  2. Blended working should become the norm​. Government should advocate for companies to plan roles on a part time basis of up to 4 days a week. This would support employees to better balance work and home life while creating more roles within companies as job sharing would become encouraged.
  3. The government should link the job retention scheme to retraining and skills development.​ This could be achieved by ensuring a portion of the furlough is ring-fenced for training, perhaps added to apprenticeship levy pots but where the levy is made more flexible to be spent on wider forms of quality assured training.
  4. Government should reintroduce lifelong learning accounts​ with a lifetime learning allocation in the form of a loan plus grant. Employers and individuals should be encouraged to top this up through government match funding, offering a learning ‘bonus’ or tax relief on training/ learning.
  5. Employees should have the right to request a structured employment contract ​guaranteeing a certain level of hours/shifts, and there should be better enforcement of reasons for refusal. This could be supplemented by government awards/special recognition for those evidencing creating continuing improvements in working conditions.
  6. Businesses must be required to demonstrate that they give their employees a real stake in the company. ​One way to achieve this would be to offer shares or to set aside a percentage of their profits each year into a participatory budget controlled by workers.

As part of our conversation about job quality in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, we recorded a podcast with Tony Wilson, director of the Institute for Employment Studies. It’s a fascinating analysis of the challenges we face in the future and you can listen now….

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