6 challenges for the future of good work: is coronavirus the crisis that reminded us we are human?

Andrew Pakes · 21 April 2020

COVID-19 is rewriting the rules on the limits of government, on the shape of the  economy, and on where, when, and how we work, says research director Andrew Pakes, following an online event with Prospect and the Institute for the Future of Work.

Value is no longer about share price but instead about compassion. Key workers aren’t CEOs or the C-suite but nurses, carers, shop workers and delivery people. The first responders were not robots but public servants.

In other ways, the crisis has shone a light on the worst practices of our current economic model. Some employers are still paying out huge dividends to shareholders while asking the taxpayer for bailouts to fill the holes in their balance sheet.

Others are refusing to take advantage of government support and abandoning their employees to the tender mercies of the benefits system.

The reliance of many businesses and industries on the willingness of self-employed workers to shoulder huge financial risks has also been dramatically demonstrated.

The crisis has brought into sharp relief new and emerging challenges, such as the rapid increase in worker surveillance technology to check up on people working from home and the crossover between government and big tech in the use of our data to develop contact tracing apps.

We need a more embracing vision about the future and where we fit into it, especially if we want to make this a shared story. The post-crisis response must not be left to individual gestures, it must be a collective decision to do things differently.

Here are six challenges we need to be thinking about as we prepare for the future:

1. How we value jobs

First, we need to reward key workers. Coronavirus has forced our society to rapidly reassess the value of work. Whether that is nurses caring for the sick or retail workers helping to keep us fed, the usual perceptions of valuable work have been turned upside down.

The challenge now is to convert this moment of clarity into action to reverse the priorities of recent years and forge a new framework that reflects this.

Care workers are underfunded. Too many delivery and platform workers are facing precarious conditions with little security. Among Prospect’s own membership, the impacts of cost-cutting and austerity have been acutely felt by our members in public services, science and research, key government agencies and essential utilities.

The consensus around this change is growing and this opportunity to redress the balance must not be missed.

2. Power and the labour market

The way we work has been transformed during the crisis with home working, flexible hours and the daily juggle between work and childcare. It is unlikely all of these changes will be reversed.

But just as technology has made this possible for many workers, others have been left behind. Existing inequalities have been exacerbated by the lockdown. We are now thinking more about mental health and wellbeing more than ever before. It is not just about the nature of jobs people do, it is also about how they are treated at work and beyond.

Matthew Taylor has written about the kind of changes we need post-crisis. But the stark reality is recent years have taught many workers to be sceptical of the idea that change, driven by technology or other factors, will be inclusive and positive.

Prospect commissioned research from YouGov last year, which showed 58% of workers thought they would not be consulted about any technology changes being introduced at work (more in this blog).

3. Economic transition

Our economy was already changing due to advances in the application of new technology. This crisis has not paused the pace of change; it has accelerated it.

Whole businesses have switched to home working in a matter of weeks thanks to the latest technology to stay in touch. And while much of the high street is under lockdown, the focus on online retail and delivery has increased.

These structural changes are likely to deepen. The Resolution Foundation estimates that 11 million workers will be furloughed during lockdown, over 1 million people have signed on for Universal Credit.

Business will look to automation and how technology can speed its recovery, accelerating which jobs and people will be winners and losers. What kind of economy emerges post-lockdown is also a question about how we manage transition in our economic model.

4. Boundaries for AI and technology

The crisis has also placed even more weight on the promise of new technology to transform how we deal with problems.

Google, Apple and other tech players are working alongside app developers to create contact and tracing tools using mobile phone data that could help limit the spread of the disease (Women Leading in AI have set out some important challenges on this).

Some employers have reached for automated hiring and HR technology to speed up recruitment and to keep tabs on remote workers. Amazon, for instance, is using AI to recruit and induct more than 1,700 staff a day.

We don’t talk about workers and data enough – it is a blind spot in governance and government policy. For all the focus on data privacy, little attention has been paid to data rights at work and the fast-moving frontier of workplace technologies.

5. Importance of social partnership

If it has felt like government has spoken about trade unions more in recent weeks than in the last decade, that is because it is true.

The recognition that we need all parts of society working together in this crisis begs the question of why we were not taking this joined-up approach beforehand. Unions in the UK have been vital in helping government to design income support mechanisms and assisting employers to ride out the crisis, but all of this has happened from a standing start.

Looking to those countries that responded quicker, like Germany and the Nordic countries, trade unions have long been part of the solution. If worker voice has been important to building trust in a crisis, it will be even more important in rebuilding our way of life post-crisis.

6. Rebuilding social capital

It should not have taken a crisis for some to come to the realisation that that we are all human and owe our successes and failures to the strength of the societies in which we live our lives.

But these moments of genuine solidarity, of clapping for the NHS or volunteering to deliver food to elderly neighbours, must become more than the stories we tell ourselves about our ‘national spirit’. They must become hardwired into the mainframe of our state, our economy, and our culture.

There is a chance, perhaps a generational chance, to put the brakes on some of the trends that just a few weeks ago seemed far beyond our control. It is a chance we have to take.

Putting workers first

At Prospect, we want to embrace technological developments and improvements but we want to make sure that workers are involved in making new technology work for everyone.
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