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Fair Work in the time of the Pandemic: communication

By Patricia Findlay - Posted on 24 April 2020

In her third and final blog Professor Patricia Findlay looks at how communication needs to be two way and genuinely listened to during this crisis and how the pandemic may influence future work practices.

How do employers know that they’re delivering fair work? By genuine dialogue with their employees and workers. Employers are facing really quite significant challenges in the pace at which they’ve had to move to home working and that raises a whole host of issues – you have a much wider set of categories of staff who are home working than previously; those staff members are in very different circumstances - so either family or caring circumstances – and in the extent to which they have space and time to work, and it’s very difficult for employers to say it’s a ‘one size fits all’ policy or approach that will apply to home working in what is a very uncertain and volatile situation.

So the only thing that can make work and new working practices successful is ‘effective voice’. That’s not just good communications, it’s not just keeping in touch with your employees and telling them what’s going on and what you expect of them, it’s actually about making sure that communication is genuinely two way – that people have the opportunity to say what’s working well and what’s not; that people have the opportunity to put forward ideas and are encouraged to do so about making things work better; and that people are able to raise concerns. So that ‘effective voice’, which is always crucially important to fair work, is important in delivering opportunities and security and fulfilment, and it allows you know what your employees are experiencing in these very different circumstances. We’re not all currently in the same work place as before and having the same conversations we’d have daily, and the established structures of representation – for example, trade unions – might be operating quite differently in the current context, so it’s really important that these communications structures and practices, or new ones, still manage to operate, albeit in a very, very different context – people solve crises, and the effectiveness of voice in organisations will shape how we get through the kinds of challenges being faced by businesses and organisations of very different types, the length and breadth of the country.

Future work changes

It’s very unlikely that we’ll return to business as usual in exactly the same way, though it’s incredibly uncertain what the new normal is going to be. We have to be very careful not to see something that’s done in an emergency as necessarily a set of practices or approaches that can be maintained in the long term, but it’s also really important to learn from what is going on now, as that might tell us a lot about what works and what doesn’t work, for example, in terms management practice. 

At SCER we do research into lots of different organisations and they have different views about the extent to which employees can act autonomously in a productive fashion without normal structures of supervision or monitoring. Some of these organisations might identify some very interesting insights into their own labour force; they might find people are actually very productive, doing the right thing when they can and where they’re supported to do so, and that might actually herald quite important changes in trust relations and the range of practices that are open to business to be able to engage fairly and productively with their own employees. So I think there are lots of possibilities there. I do think it might tell us lots of interesting things about family life, about how we might be able to do flexible working that’s mutually beneficial for staff and employers so the balancing, for example, of work with care responsibilities may tell us we don’t need all administrative staff to be in the office between 9 and 5 on a general basis - we might realise that some of them can work in ways that allow them a better balance of work and family responsibilities, and can do that at a distance. Of course, we’d have all of the concerns over whether this is consistent with both health and safety legislation and also their own well-being. So there are lots of different issues like this that could be highlighted during the crisis.

Our research at SCER, and collaboratively with the Fraser of Allander Institute and university and business partners across the UK in the PrOPEL Hub (Productivity Outcomes of workplace Practice, Engagement and Learning) focuses on management practices and attention to how good job quality can drive innovation, productivity and well-being. A lot of that work tells us that what drives innovation in normal and not so normal circumstances is unleashing people to do the right thing; to work productively and to contribute their ideas. So we’ll learn a lot in that regard over the coming weeks or months and that will tell us how important work is to us; how productive and useful activity structures our days and brings us into contact with people that we can learn from and socialise with; it might tell us a whole host of things about practices that people didn’t think would work and options that do work. It might allow us to do things which are better drivers of good relationships at work. I think we could end up in a really different context in which to have discussions about and research genuine employee engagement and management practices that both support well-being and drive productivity in ways that are beneficial to everyone involved in the workplace.

Business and fair work

I suspect that some people, and some employers in particular, think of fair work as something burdensome to business and maybe particularly so during a crisis. But fair work is really important not just for well-being of your employees - it’s really important for wider society that employees try their best to deliver fair work at this time. It matters a great deal. It matters to support the people during a major health emergency; it matters not just to individuals but to all of us collectively so employers need to try as hard as possible to deliver fair work in these circumstances, even when they’re making really difficult choices and are under huge pressure. Talk to your employees and work out how to come to arrangements that are fair and will be of benefit. Fair work will help business to solve some of those challenges. Fair work is an asset to employers - we know that people generate solutions that allow us to address crises of all different kinds and we know, from research and experience, that they are much more likely to do so when they know their voice matters, when they can have an input, when they’re listened to and can make a difference and when they’re supported, so for these reasons fair work matters even more in the current context. It matters to creating the most constructive relationships, to investing in the kind of talent that will not just be needed immediately to get over the crisis but also to dealing with all the longer term implications further down the line, and to building organisations that are much more resilient to the kind of challenges we’ve seen more recently, to building those for the future.

These blog posts have been taken from an initial podcast which can be found here

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