Ask an expert: Levelling up must address workplace inequalities

15 October 2020

Thoughts on reimaging the workplace from UCLan’s Dr Adrian Wright

As businesses around the North West return to a new working environment, Dr Adrian Wright from the University of Central Lancashire’s (UCLan) Institute of Research into Organisations, Work and Employment (iROWE) explains how companies can benefit from reimagining the workplace to creating a level playing field for all employees.

Since the lockdown restrictions first came into force, we have seen huge changes to the way we work and live. There is no doubt that challenging times remain ahead with enhanced measures taking place across country with more restrictive measures across the north.

The new restrictions are likely to have a devastating impact on sectors such as hospitality, leisure, retail and the cultural sector and impact significantly for businesses in their supply chains. For workers already experiencing workplace inequalities prior to the crisis, enhanced restrictions will have a serious impact on those already experiencing workplace inequalities including challenges to jobs, income and mental health.

The pandemic continues to expose existing inequalities

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the inequalities that exist in our workplaces. While the media and political focus has centred on furlough, government support and redundancies, those 1.3 million people who were unemployed before the lockdown or the millions in underemployment have gone under the radar.

To exacerbate the impact, low earners, many of which are women, faced the double whammy of being exposed to economic and health risks during the crisis, as they are likely to work in ‘risky’ sectors or sectors that are likely to be closed or restricted as new measures come into place.

Despite the chancellors new localised furlough scheme, workers of businesses forced to close will receive 67 per cent of pay, in comparison to the 80 per cent during the national lockdown earlier this year. For low earners, many of which have already been impacted the most by the crisis, this could lead to hardship for many low earners, increased exposure to redundancies, not to mention the impact on mental health on workers, resulting in regions in the north ‘levelled down’ rather than up.

As existing workplace inequalities remain and may be enhanced as the winter takes hold, we all must share a renewed commitment to ‘levelling up’ and addressing the inequalities that the pandemic has exposed.

"As existing workplace inequalities remain and may be enhanced as the winter takes hold, we all must share a renewed commitment to ‘levelling up’ and addressing the inequalities that the pandemic has exposed."

Dr Adrian Wright, Director of UCLan's Institute of Research into Organisations, Work and Employment

What can businesses do to support workers and recovery quicker?

As we emerge out of the crisis, there is an opportunity to reimagine the workplace to enable us to be more productive and create a fairer work environment. Good employment relations should be built upon effective policies for managing people and equitable practices around recruitment and progression, in addition to fair pay and secure and productive work that supports the voice and health and wellbeing of employees can raise the productivity of the workforce, enable individuals to reach their potential while allowing businesses to reap the rewards of engaged, motivated employees.

Paying attention to diversity, inclusion and fair recruitment and retention policies can also assist businesses to enhance productivity and performance. Besides the moral case for more equitable workplaces, the business case is also clear, companies with higher diversity display higher performance and lower turnover of staff. Recent research undertaken by the Institute for Research into Organisations, Work and Employment at UCLan is examining how best to support those wishing to return to the workplace after taking time out due to caring responsibilities. Findings have shown that more flexible working practices and approaches to the make-up of jobs, plus valuing a different make up of a traditional workforce can ensure businesses are better placed for future challenges.

Reducing the long-term impact of redundancy and high unemployment will enable companies to grow quicker out of the crisis, leave organisations better placed to harness the skills needed to scale up while supporting the mental health and job security of workers. Post Brexit skills gaps are a real challenge for UK businesses so retraining and upskilling workers can help not to suffer from the productivity crisis that emerged from the last economic shock. Similarly, when businesses are running under capacity, approaches such as work sharing or short time work where all employees are on shorter hours or a shorter working week, in line with increased government support, can offer a proactive and longer term alternative to redundancies as business can keep the workforce engaged to their jobs, support mental health and wellbeing and gender inequalities, leaving businesses better placed to scale up in the future.

It is undoubted that the pandemic has had a dramatic and major impact on businesses, but we have an opportunity to be better prepared for the challenges of the future.