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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You scratch my back…

You scratch my back…

Much has been made of the deal between courier firm Hermes and the GMB union which gives self-employed ‘gig economy’ workers various benefits, such as holiday pay, provided they sign up to follow delivery routes laid down by the company rather than simply set their own delivery route.

One interesting side debate that has occurred among some HR professionals is whether this deal is indicative of the lack of trust that businesses have in employees, and the underlying assumption that employees are inherently less productive than the self-employed unless they are controlled.

It’s an opinion, but one which I think is incorrect. It seems to ignore that work is a complex relationship, with economic, psychological and sociological aspects, which has at its heart a ‘bargain’ – I (the worker) will give you (the business) my time and skill in return for pay, a safe environment and fair treatment by the employer. The power in the relationship usually lies with the employer although there can be times when the employee has the upper hand.

The nature of any bargain is that if I give something up, I expect something in return – otherwise it’s not ‘fair’. So in this situation, the employer giving extra money to individuals wants something back for it – in this case a higher degree of control over the working arrangements. It doesn’t necessarily suggest a lack of trust (the existing system of drivers setting their own routes seems to have worked well enough for both sides) but a recognition that the relationship has subtly changed – and crucially still feels fair to both sides.

Think about it this way. When you are dating someone it’s a fairly loose arrangement, a little like true self-employment. When you’re not with your boy/girlfriend, there’s a certain element of trust (you assume that they are not dating others when you’re not around) but generally you don’t bother too much about what they are doing. When you move in together, the relationship changes –  you give up certain things (the ‘right’ to come and go as you please, watch what you like on TV, decorate your room in a particular way) in return for other benefits. No-one is suggesting that loss of control over the TV remote or letting your partner know where you are implies a lack of trust or an inherent belief that single people have more freedom than the cohabiting. You each make a bargain to give certain things up in return for other things, in order to preserve fairness and balance.

So rather than examine the specifics of the GMB-Hermes deal, look at it in the round – it’s about maintaining equilibrium in the relationship.

(If this all sounds a bit theoretical and airy-fairy, there  are some real practical implications in the world of work –  find out more here)

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Photo by Irina Iriser on Pexels.com

 

Plumbing the depths of Employment Law

Post updated 13 June 2018 to reflect the Supreme Court decision

The case of Pimlico Plumbers v Smith  – which has been decided today by the Supreme Court – has attracted a lot of publicity for the hitherto obscure and anoraky topic of Employment Status. As is always the case, much of the media coverage is misinformed and the case is being ‘spun’ by the various parties. Since small businesses need to be clear about their employment responsibilities, it may be helpful to explain the differences.

An employee is someone who works for you under a contract of employment. Most people in most companies are employees, which is why the issue of status doesn’t arise in most organisations. Employees have a number of legal rights (e.g. unfair dismissal, notice periods, right to a redundancy payment etc). Employers pay them through a payroll after deducting tax and national insurance
Self-employed individuals are those who work on their own account – they may do work for a variety of clients (both individuals and companies). They invoice their clients and are responsible for their own tax affairs, and they can make a  profit or a loss. They have very few rights (mainly around health and safety and some limited discrimination rights).

All employees are ‘workers’. But there are also others who can be classified as “workers”. They are those who work for you under some form of agreement where they are required to undertake the work personally. Workers are entitled to fewer rights than an employee but they do still qualify for things like paid holidays, sick pay, and minimum wage. It is this group that form the basis of both the Pimlico Plumbers case and the current debate about Uber taxi drivers, Deliveroo cyclists, couriers for City Sprint etc.

To establish employment status, there are a set of legal tests that have been established. For example, who controls where and how the work is done? Can the work be passed to a ‘substitute’? Is the person ‘integrated’ into the business? Is there an expectation that work is provided and if so that the person will do it? And most importantly, even if there is a written agreement saying one thing, if what actually happens is different then this needs to be taken into account.
And because of an oddity of law, it’s perfectly possible to be a worker for the purpose of employment rights and be self-employed for tax purposes. This is what causes many of the disputes.

In Pimlico Plumbers case, the Company and Mr Smith signed an agreement that he was a self-employed plumber. It saved the company money in Employers’ National insurance and administration time, and Mr Smith paid less tax. Mr Smith however was expected to wear a Pimlico Plumbers uniform, drove to his jobs in a Pimlico van and was required to undertake a certain number of hours per week for the company. Nor could he advertise his own personal plumbing services to Pimlico’s clients. Everyone seemed happy with this arrangement until Mr Smith had a heart attack, had his agreement with Pimlico terminated and received no sick pay.
The courts so far have applied the tests based on the facts presented to them, and concluded that Mr Smith was not an employee, but that he was a worker. The Supreme Court has now confirmed this.

But the real lessons for small businesses are that:
• Trying to fiddle or fudge employment status can come back to bite you
• If the reality of the situation changes over time you need to review your agreements
• Think about why you want someone to work for you and be clear about the intended nature of your working relationship before you start the selection process.

If you want to know more about how employment law affects small businesses, in a simple, easy to read book, just click here

The failure of HR

Well, after much speculation, and a weekend of leaks, yesterday saw the publication of the Taylor Review into employment, entitled “Good Work”. Much of the focus has understandably been on the Employment Law implications (excellently summarised by Darren Newman) and there has been a mixed reaction to the proposals.

But one of the key things that struck me from the report was the implicit failure of HR Management over the last 20-30 years, in allowing this situation to develop. Taylor’s concept of ‘good work’ would not look out of place in any CIPD document (and isn’t radically different to the ideas of a Victorian-era Pope). But the fact that Taylor feels it necessary to state that:

·         Flexible working is currently one-sided, in favour of the employer

·         A culture has grown up of insecure work and unpaid overtime

·         Employees and other workers are not listened to and often have no way to put forward their views

·         Not enough time or money is invested in training and development

·         The over-control of workers leads to problems with individual wellbeing

Suggests the reality – of what HR are doing – doesn’t match the theory.

So why is this? There seem to me to be five main reasons for HR’s failure.

·         Clinging on to outdated ideas – like “Best Practice” – a set of theories that derive from a discredited 1980s management study

·         A mistaken perspective, that sees businesses as some kind of corporate North Korea where dissidents (anyone disagreeing with the management viewpoint) are trouble makers to be removed, or re-educated via ‘employee engagement’ programmes.

·         Alternating between scaredy-cat approaches where we hide behind “policy says no” and “we might set a precedent”, and macho ‘business partnering’ where we try to act like the corporate equivalent of mafia hitmen.

·         Dehumanising people by referring to them as “human capital” (an oxymoronic term that reduces people to data on spreadsheets)

·         Becoming obsessed with the process rather than the outcome. I don’t care which “Applicant Tracker System” is best or about the relative merits of an ‘e-learning portal’ v ‘online facilitation’.  

I’m glad to see that the CIPD are having a review and consultation around our professional standards. But it’s how HRM is put into practice that worries me, and it seems we are way off the game in a lot of areas.