Written by Ian MacArthur, Director of the Greater Manchester Good Employment Charter, on October 29th, 2021
For many, the pandemic has changed the landscape of their working lives irreversibly. The widespread adoption of home working, the personal advantages it has brought, the economic savings made, and the productivity gains achieved (initially at least), placed a question mark against the future viability of the office and traditional work patterns. However, with a majority of employers now figuring out their plans to shift to hybrid working, the claims that pandemic could spell the ‘death’ of the office may be premature. “Remote-only” companies will remain a small minority and many firms will continue to onboard new staff in the ‘old-fashioned’ way, - and they will want to build culture and innovation by bringing people together in a physical space - in an office, rather than by video-link. Cities will not empty, and employers are unlikely to swap their full-time staff for freelancers, which might have been tempting if the workforce were wholly remote.
Yet the blurring of home and office has and will have huge consequences. It will force managers to raise their game, improving office life for all. It may also lead to changes in employment law to offer better protection for workers who spend less time in the office. And less positively, it will deepen political and cultural divisions between cosseted knowledge workers and those in processing and service jobs that require physical proximity.
Over the past year, almost perversely, co-workers and managers have become more ‘human’ through their laptop screen as we have caught glimpses of lives and domestic pressures outside of the workplace. Good managers have learned to listen to their staff more, understand them better and communication has, by necessity, both increased and become clearer as the office jungle drums are no longer as effective. The focus on ensuring managers are fully equipped to deal equitably with the challenges of hybrid working must be sustained.
The employment law landscape in a hybrid world is unclear and the rights and responsibilities on employers and employees will need to be navigated with care, especially as most existing employment law relies on the existence of a fixed workplace. There is also a dawning realisation that working from home is not the same as flexible working. The notion of a 9-5 traditional working week will continue to be fundamentally challenged as employers understand, particularly in knowledge economy jobs, that employees can be rewarded on what they produce rather than the time they spend sitting in front of a screen. Just as employers are busily reviewing their health and wellbeing policies, so they will also need to revise their basic terms and conditions of employment.
The new world of work will pose challenges – particularly around inequalities. We have already witnessed through the pandemic the uneven impacts across many different protected equalities. Existing inequalities have grown wider and new areas of concern have emerged. The prospect of truly flexible, hybrid working will bring many advantages to those that can benefit from such conditions in terms of work-life balance. These ‘good’ jobs tend to be those that can be done from home. The best-educated are also the most likely to be allowed to continue working for part of the week out of the office. So well-paid folk with good jobs are likely to have the flexibility to pick up children from school or run other errands. Their interactions with those with worse jobs—the “key workers” - in process and service jobs, who move about in public spaces and in many ways facilitate the economy— is likely to diminish. It is not easy to predict the political consequences that this new fissure may bring – but if appears to be moving in the wrong direction.
There are no straight forward or easy answers and much of what will unfold over the coming months and years is impossible to predict. Nevertheless, it is clear that the foundations of good work – starting with open and equitable recruitment practices providing fairly paid, secure and flexible work, with excellent management and employee engagement will lead to better employee wellbeing and more productive workplaces.
The Greater Manchester Good Employment Charter is built upon these foundational characteristics and brings together a community of employers across all sectors in the city region to build a movement of good employment. Together, whatever shape work takes in the future, we will continually strive to ensure that it is fair, equitable for all and supportive of the wellbeing of both our wider economy and employees.
The Greater Manchester Good Employment Charter is a voluntary membership and assessment scheme. It was created to improve employment standards across Greater Manchester employers, regardless of size, sector, or geography.
Already reaching over 230,000 employees, organisations including public sector bodies, private sector businesses, service providers, the third sector, and voluntary and community organisations – can sign up to the Charter. For further information, please visit our website.