Learning from lockdown

Jo Swinson, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats and the business minister who steered through Shared Parental Leave, spoke on a recent Cranfield School of Management webinar about what we have learnt about the future of work after Covid.

Mum studying with her children

Concept of work from home and home family education. Mom and son are sitting at the desk. Business woman works on the Internet in a laptop, a child writes in a notebook.

The number of digital nomads may increase and some work may be outsourced abroad as a result of the Covid remote working mass experiment, but employers will still want some possibility of having physical meetings where people can celebrate achievements and brainstorm, according to Jo Swinson, the former head of the Liberal Democrats.

Swinson, now a visiting professor at Cranfield School of Management, was taking part in Learning from lockdown: the Future of Work after Covid-19, the first of a series of webinars from Cranfield’s Changing the World of Work Group.

The webinar addressed everything from increased remote working to burnout. Swinson, who was in conversation with Professor Emma Parry,  said managers had to set expectations around remote working to avoid people overworking from home and ending up on back-to-back zoom calls. Parry said she had heard of people being on two zoom calls at once because they were worried about being seen to be in attendance.

Swinson said the pandemic was an opportunity to reshape how we do things and a catalyst for trying different things. It relied on a different type of leadership and management built on trust and valuing people’s contribution, rather than monitoring them constantly.

She added that presenteeism – in the office and online – came down to mindset. She said people should not be managed by metrics. While it was good that we had more data and could use it to measure lots of things, there were things that were not easily measurable and which added value, such as taking time out to help a colleague, she added.

Swinson also said that managers had to adapt to the potential drawbacks of new ways of working and working in a pandemic, such as the need to plan more carefully for the kind of informal chats people have in the office and the importance of reducing expectations around productivity for people managing multiple roles as a result of lockdown. Parry said that in the early days there was a lot of focus on productivity until people realised that something had to give. In recent months, she says mental well being has been more of an issue, with people talking about Zoom fatigue. Swinson said it was impossible to measure homeworking efficiency when people were also having to do childcare. She stated: “If there is going to be an assessment of homeworking it can only be done where people are free of other calls on their time, when it is just about working in a different location.”

Risks and regulation

Swinson also spoke of her concerns that women, who had carried the heaviest burden of childcare, may face a long-term impact on their working lives as a result and that inequality and discrimination generally may increase in a labour market where there is an oversupply of applicants. “When the number of applicants sky rockets there are real dangers that we go backwards,” she said. While good employers would recognise the benefits of treating staff well in terms of retention, a better regulatory structure was vital to enforce people’s rights. Swinson said there was a feeling that all the talk about ‘good work’ and parents’ rights in recent years had “gone into the treacle of government” and it was unclear what might come out the other side. However, she stated that the Government’s actions over the dropping of the statutory requirement on gender pay audits was not an optimistic sign.

Other employment-related risks from Covid included the threat of employers seeking to lower wages for remote working staff on the basis that they don’t commute and an increase in low paid, insecure work and burnout as people work longer hours for fear of losing their jobs. The government needed to enforce legislation to ensure rights were protected, said Swinson, adding that unions would be very important over the next months. She added that she didn’t believe there was a need for separate legislation on working from home, saying this was covered under the flexible working legislation and that the last months would hopefully make it more difficult for employers to turn down requests. “The window of what is deemed reasonable under the legislation will be different as a result of the pandemic,” said Swinson.

Back to the office?

She also referred to the back to the office campaign and said she was interested in why the UK was trailing other countries with regard to numbers of people returning to the workplace. She felt this was in part due to lack of trust in government messages about safety and she added that hybrid working may well mean more of a dispersal of economic benefits around the country and that city centres that rely on commuters might have to reinvent themselves.  “Why is that inherently bad?” she asked. Similarly, there was no need for the 9-5 and the rush hour model which was made for a different era, she said. Spreading working hours over the day would make the public transport system more efficient, she added.

Swinson also spoke of the need to reform social care and to value human-centred care jobs more in an age of increasing automation and an ageing society. The key worker jobs – the ones we viewed as essential, she noted, tended to be the kind of low paid jobs done mainly by women.

Looking forward, Swinson and Parry spoke about the need for employers to think through the implications of hybrid working, for instance, they remarked how meetings with physically present and homeworking staff often made homeworking staff feel left out because they could not pick up on the nuances of what was happening in the office.

Other topics discussed included the structures needed to support more equal parenting and the potential furlough cliff edge in October. Swinson said she favour a more targeted approach to furlough and more part-time furlough.

*You can watch the full event here.

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