‘Building back better’ and ‘levelling up’ must address workplace inequalities

23 July 2020

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

Since the lockdown restriction came into force we have seen huge changes to the way we work and live. While many of us have swapped the office for home, we have seen one in four workers furloughed, while key workers have undertaken the essential work that keeps the country going.

There is no doubt that challenging times remain ahead. The unequal impact of Covid-19 on key sectors such as hospitality, tourism, retail and the cultural sector are likely to impact on those already experiencing workplace inequalities.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently launched the campaign calling for Britain to ‘build back better’, greener and faster to address the existing inequalities in the UK, by speeding up spending of £5 billion of infrastructure projects. While the announcement referred to Franklin Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ in the 1930s, it also echoed the sentiment of one the EU’s founding fathers Jean Monnet, highlighting that where there is crisis there is also opportunity.

Therefore, how we can readdress work to deal with inequalities to build back better?

The pandemic has exposed existing inequalities

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

Similarly, the young and the old are likely to have been most hit by the crisis as they are more likely to have lost work or experienced the biggest pay swing, with many losing earnings – a third of under 25s and 60 year olds have had a pay cut as a result of the lockdown, compared to one in four 25 to 49 year olds. The announcement of the ‘kickstart scheme’ offers some hope for young workers and it is important that this is carried out properly to ensure the quality of jobs with appropriate levels of pay, training and support.

According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, those in the bottom tenth of earnings have been most likely to stop work due to coronavirus while young and BAME workers are more impacted than others. The same report also found that additional childcare, brought about by school and nursery closure fell disproportionally on women, potentially inhibiting work and future career progression and widening the already stalled gender pay gap.

To exacerbate the impact, low earners, the majority 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. As existing workplace inequalities remain, we all must share a renewed commitment to ‘levelling up’ and addressing the inequalities that the pandemic has exposed.

Can homeworking play a part in reducing workplace inequalities?

One aspect that we should consider is the impact of homeworking on those already experiencing workplace inequalities. As homeworking becomes more of a part of the way we work, managers should consider how homeworking can impact on wellbeing, as working at home can result in unequal impact, particularly for women and young workers.

Furthermore, while homeworking can potentially help to alleviate gender inequalities, managers should consider the extent homeworking can have unequal impacts, such as women taking on simpler tasks that fit with domestic and childcare responsibilities, leaving men to undertake tasks that are more rewarded.

Finally, we can consider how homeworking and the lack of social relations and support can affect marginalised workers such as BAME and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender workers, as employees’ voices can be more difficult to be heard.

Employees should be first priority in recovery

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. As we move towards recovery, 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.

Paying attention to diversity and inclusion in the workforce 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.

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.