Few employers will have given much thought to the long term impact of the covid-19 crisis on their employment relations.
They should have, because how employers treat their workers in the short term will have a profound effect on how those workers treat their employers in the long term.
That doesn’t apply only to employees who return to the jobs they were forced away from. It applies also to those who find new employment — because their attitudes to employers and employment might have been affected (probably negatively) by their treatment and experiences during the lockdown and its aftermath.
Trust is always an issue between employers and their workers; for a while, it might become the biggest issue.
Workers who feel they’ve been treated fairly during the crisis are more likely to respond positively as their employers grapple with the new realities.
The experts tell us that breaches in the employment contract can usually be fixed one way or another — and the law provides processes for resolving employment disputes.
Breaches of the psychological contract on the other hand are less easily addressed, and may ultimately be fatal to the mutual trust and confidence at the heart of the employment relationship.
Unsurprisingly, two-thirds of workers in a recent survey reported feeling more anxious in the current environment. About the same proportion said they were feeling more stressed, while 45% said their mental health had declined in recent weeks. The major causes were said to be worry about the job (20%) and stress (18%).
Those concerns will continue and probably worsen throughout the covid-19 alert phases and into the future.
As the economy adjusts and adapts, in different ways in different sectors, many who have employment will worry about their job security and what their futures might hold. Especially if unemployment levels are high.
Those worries and uncertainties will affect people at work, and at home.
An upturn in family problems, relationship breakdowns, family violence and mental health issues seems inevitable.
In the workplace, the best that many employers will be able to do is communicate constantly, share as much information as they can, talk, and listen.
That might not sound very tangible. But it will be a valuable investment if it allays anxieties and increases trust.
In recent decades, many workers at all levels have revelled in the market power of their skills, knowledge and experience — in an era of high demand for labour and continuing skill shortages.
With higher unemployment inevitable, that’s about to change. Which might encourage workers who’ve had market power as individuals to explore the potential value of collective strength and action. We could see a resurgence in union membership and union activity.
Large scale government-led infrastructure projects are fertile grounds for unionisation, and the current government is unlikely to discourage union involvement, and even participation in their management.
At the same time, the government might dust off its much-heralded but long-delayed fair pay agreements legislation — perhaps with changes to widen its scope and get a payback for the billions of dollars spent on wage subsidies during the lockdown.
Everybody now knows about working from home. Of course, remote working is not new — although it has predominantly been a part-time supplement to going to the employer’s workplace.
But, after working from home for a month or more, many workers will discover it’s a viable alternative to going to work each day — saving time in commuting and coffee bar conversations, allowing greater flexibility for family care, and other benefits.
Employers will see benefits too, although there are challenges.
Perhaps most dramatically, management and managing will be different. Generations of managers who saw their roles as supervision — literally, the act of watching a person or activity to ensure everything is done correctly and safely — will have to adopt new concepts and behaviours. And learn how to trust people whom they can’t see working, or who don’t check in at the end of every day.
Getting people to work productively is another challenge.
Helping working-at-home employees to establish a routine is a top priority. It’s not been so urgent during the lockdown, but has to be addressed if this is to be a long term practice.
There are also technological challenges — although it’s worth pointing out that the technologies that make it possible to work from home during the pandemic have been around for decades. We’ve just had to learn very quickly how to use emails, smartphones, the internet, Zoom and other systems for strictly business purposes.
The way that work is allocated and organised will need to be reviewed. Ad hoc arrangements might have worked while we were all in this together, but new routines and practices — for communication, delivery of documents, and so on — will need to be developed for the long term.
And working at the kitchen table is not a viable long term option. Remote workers must have adequate working arrangements — for productivity reasons, and for their health and safety.
At the same time, many people working from home (especially those without family members or flatmates to keep them company) will have been disturbed by the absence of one-on-one social contact. No amount of digital connection can replace the experience of a face-to-face cup of coffee or chat. Dealing with the loneliness of the long distance worker is another of tomorrow’s tasks for employers.
We might also stop talking about work-life balance — with its implication that people have separate lives at work and outside work. In future, the focus could be on work-life integration, recognising that these activities are now inseparable for many individuals in a 24/7, remote working, technology-driven society.
We might ask whether organisations that have had to use video conferences during the lockdown will go back to flying people in from around the country for meetings. Once people get better at video conferencing and other long-distance techniques, will organisations be able to justify the costs of air travel, travelling time, and so on?
An upsurge in remote working could suggest that organisations will need less office space. Of course, a requirement for social distancing could mean they need the same amount of workspace — but for significantly fewer people. That has cost implications.
Achieving social distance aims might be relatively easy for office workers, but less so for factories. It’s difficult to see how many factory and other work processes can be easily adapted to allow sufficient social distance between workers. Yet, at least while the memory of covid-19 is vivid, workers will expect to have appropriate distance from their colleagues — in the workplace, the lunch room, the locker rooms, the stairs and lifts, and everywhere.
That’s not just a space issue; it will require changes to many work practices which include interactions between individuals.
Work practices and workplace designs might also change with an increase in online business. During the lockdown, many people and businesses will have learnt that online trading is possible and practical. It will be interesting to see how many customers stick with online purchasing (for groceries and other consumer goods, and how many enterprises build online trading into their business models.
A disrupted economy, more short term engagements, increased remote working, more online business, a burgeoning gig economy and other consequences of the pandemic could encourage the government to look closely at the definitions of workers, employees and contractors.
The current legal distinctions are unlikely to survive changes in the nature of work and working.
Already, there are movements in this direction. Late last year, for example, the government released a consultation paper aimed at providing better protection for non-employee contract workers. If it doesn’t get overlooked in the post-pandemic rush, that consultation could be expanded to take a long-overdue look at what it means to be an employee.
One suggestion is to abandon the present definitions, and simply distinguish between those who provide paid work and those who are engaged to perform it. That’s the approach of the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 which replaced the previous focus on the employer-employee relationship with duties for those who control a business or undertaking and those who perform work (regardless of their status as employee or contractor).
It’s high time that the legislature addressed this question.