You say you want a revolution? Well…

Everywhere I look, there are articles about the “future of work” once the Covid-19 pandemic is as fully controlled as it can be – the latest one (of many) being here. My post before this one, written a few days before the UK lockdown, now seems both overly optimistic and naïve.

I’m less convinced that work will look radically different post Covid. What the pandemic may do is accelerate certain changes that were happening anyway, but many of the issues that have been highlighted require longer term structural changes – and the political will to make these changes – before anything can be implemented.

Why do I say this? The last major pandemic to affect western economies in such a serious way was the now almost forgotten ‘Asian Flu’ pandemic of 1957-58. Despite finding many articles on the macro-economic, policy planning and health issues of that pandemic, I’ve yet to find any research on how work and working practices changed. Did the workplace look radically different in 1960 to 1957? I suspect not. There may be a reason why ‘pandemics’ didn’t feature in Tim Harford’s ‘50 Things that made the Modern Economy’ (now 100 things with the publication of its sequel!) – because they didn’t.

And if you want some contemporary anecdotal evidence, look at the pictures of people flooding to beaches, returning to work on public transport, or queueing for a drive through burger. Many are happy to return to the ‘old normal’, or – in the case of public transport – don’t have an option.

So with maybe a slightly less rose-tinted crystal ball, work in 5 years’ time will probably look not dissimilar to today. More people will be working from home but unless firms take a deliberate decision to invest in ‘home offices’ for their staff, we will be dealing with claims and issues from people who either don’t have or can’t access the right tech; are suffering back problems from balancing laptops on their knees because there’s nowhere else to sit; or will have increasing mental health challenges.

Similarly, while some of the more egregious abuses of the gig economy may be outlawed, we will still see plenty of people working in an insecure environment to deliver our packages and takeaways.

One thing’s for sure – HR people will need to adapt their skills to an evolving set of problems, but the fundamentals of the profession will stay the same.

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Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

 

The Upside of Coronavirus?

The Coronavirus (Covid-19) is clearly a very serious issue from a public health and business perspective – I would say that around 60% of the questions I’ve been asked over the last week or so have been on the HR implications of it.

However, in the longer term, it may turn out to have some positive impacts for the world of work.

The first is that – because they currently have to – many organisations may realise that working from home, or other more flexible arrangements, are not a disaster and we may see a change in attitudes. Even those who still retain objections will find it difficult to argue against more flexible options if they are given evidence that it clearly works.

If your business has never used homeworking before, but may now be forced to, there are a number of important things you need to consider. This twitter thread by Gem Dale is a very useful starting point.

Clearly, there are still lots of jobs (probably a majority) that require people to attend work, but we may be surprised at the number that can be done remotely.

Secondly, in the UK, it may result in a long overdue reform of the Sick Pay system. For those who qualify for Statutory Sick Pay (SSP), they (and their employers) are bound by confusing and bureaucratic rules about “Lower Earnings Limits”, “Waiting Days” and “Linked Periods”. These date back to the time when employers were reimbursed some of their SSP costs by the Government, something which hasn’t been the case for nearly a decade. There’s no reason why a much simpler system can’t be devised that provides a basic ‘safety net’ without involving employers in complex calculations.

The crisis has also highlighted that a significant proportion of the workforce don’t even qualify for the minimum level of payment. The very low paid, some of those classed as ‘workers’ not employees, and the self-employed all miss out. Some employers have said they will pay some form of sick pay to these groups, but this has been (until today) discretionary. The majority of employment law changes next month are around limiting some of the ‘loopholes’ in employment rights and if the government continues down this road then an extension of sick pay may be one of the next areas it tackles. Indeed, the chancellor’s emergency announcement in this week’s budget may be the start – now that the bottle has been uncorked it may be difficult to reseal it.

Finally, we might see the end of presenteeism – the idea that people attend work even if unwell, because the business ‘expects it’. Having someone in your place of work passing on their germs to their colleagues because ‘there’s a deadline to meet’ is an unacceptable whether those germs are Covid-19, vomiting and diarrhoea, or seasonal colds.

None of this, of course, minimises the very real problems that Covid-19 presents to society. But, like SARS and Swine Flu, it may only be a temporary issue.

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Dear Deliveroo…

An open letter to Will Chu, founder of Deliveroo

Dear Mr Chu

I read with interest your recent comments that you’re unable to offer the riders who work for Deliveroo better terms and conditions because to do so would ‘risk the flexibility’ that they enjoy.

I fully understand that entrepreneurs who have a great business idea aren’t always experts in things like marketing, finance or – in this case – managing people. But most of those who make a success of their business get expert advisers to guide them through these issues and ensure that they support their business aims in a legal and effective way.

I can only assume that you haven’t done so when it comes to employment matters, so I’m happy to correct some misapprehensions you seem to have.

Firstly, you suggest that it’s up to the Government rather than your company to define individual employer status. Actually, it’s not. There are a number of long-established legal tests that can be applied to determine whether someone is an employee, a worker, or self-employed. It may be true that 21st century economy needs 21st century legislation – and certainly the Government are looking at this at the moment – but at the moment the existing legislation does seem to be able to deal with most situations, even in the dynamic ‘gig economy’.

Secondly, employment status doesn’t prevent you offering flexible working arrangements or work patterns.  I’d have thought the data you collect on ordering times for takeaway meals would allow you to identify regular peaks and troughs in demand and schedule your labour requirements accordingly. Using a bank of casual labour, paid through the payroll, would allow you to offer sick pay, holidays and pensions to your regular core workers and supplement these at peak times.  It’s a bit of a 20th century solution, but sometimes old ideas still work effectively

Finally, I have to say that trying to disguise the nature of the working relationship – by using phrases like “invoice” not “timesheet” and “branding guidelines” instead of “uniform” – won’t cut the mustard if you’re challenged. Employment Tribunals will look at what actually happens rather than the words on a page and are pretty adept at seeing through sham arrangements.

I’m always happy to help growing businesses avoid simple employment mistakes and so if you need some further advice please give get in touch, although if you do have 15000 workers I’d probably suggest you need to have some full time in-house expertise. You might find my book helpful though, it sets out clearly and simply what entrepreneurs and small business owners need to know about people management.

Best wishes

Simon

 

In Defence of Classroom Training

“We’re going to send you on a training course” – words that strike horror into many employees and which cause learning and development professionals to bang their heads in frustration. After all, employees hate being forced to sit in a classroom and being given stuff to do about a subject they can’t see the relevance of or practical use for. While L&D people have spent months- even years – devising alternative techniques such as MOOCs, e-learning and other interventions – to ensure that they can provide cost-effective ways to improve people’s skills and knowledge.

Over the last 18 months or so I’ve been asked to deliver a lot of classroom based training – something which I haven’t done for maybe 6 or 7 years. In part it’s because the small employers I work with are recognising that they need to invest in their staff, either to retain them or because the skills they need are lacking

And here’s the news – learners actually like “old fashioned” classroom based training. They value the time away from their daily role to concentrate on a topic; they normally have intelligent questions about the subject matter and can see how they can apply it to work situations; and they like the fact that they get to meet colleagues (or in certain instances people from other businesses) and can get to know them in a non-pressured work situation. A form of low-tech social networking if you like. And many have commented to me that they learn more this way than they would by being asked to complete an online module either in their own time or rushing to complete it during the working day.

I’m sure some L&D professionals will point out to me studies that show training courses are the worst at delivering changes in behaviour in the long term, or have the lowest “return on investment”.  To which I would say you may be right. It may be that classroom training is simply an example of the Hawthorne Effect. But properly designed, my observational evidence with a number of diverse businesses is that it is still an effective way to deliver training, and should still be an important part of the learning and development “mix”

Employment Law and the “Gig Economy”

There’s been lots of talk recently about the so-called “gig economy” – the situation where individuals work as and when for companies based on their availability and on demand from the company, without any of the security or protection of being an employee. It’s led to a call from many that there should be a “third” status of worker – someone who is neither a traditional employee nor self-employed. In the UK matters have been considered by the Government’s Office of Tax Simplification  and in the US there have been several articles on the subject following court cases featuring Uber, the “disruptive” taxi firm. (As an aside, here’s why I don’t think Uber are as radical as they seem)

But do we need to add in a new legal definition of worker? I remain unconvinced, for the following reasons

  • Despite the changes in the economy, it’s still clear in the overwhelming majority of cases whether an individual is an employee or self-employed. And the existing “tests” to determine employment status are capable of reflecting a wide range of relationships and working practices
  • No-one seems very clear on what this “third status” would be – how exactly would it differ from being an employee or being self-employed?
  • The “gig economy” has worked well for decades in industries as diverse as construction, hair dressing and graphic design without the need for additional legislation.
  • As the debate about zero hours contracts has shown, trying to legislate to control employment relationships creates as many problems as it allegedly solves.
  • Is the “gig economy” here to stay? In other words, is it a fundamental change to the world of work or just a reaction to the economic issues of the last 10 years? After all, as any current or recent CIPD student could tell you, the Flexible Firm Model has been around for well over 30 years.

Successful people management is all about recognising that there is little that is black and white, we are always dealing with shades of grey (many more than 50!!). Until we know what the problem actually is (and indeed if there really is one) legislation is unlikely to be the solution.