Covid-19 arrived suddenly at the beginning of 2020, with dramatic implications for both personal health and the economic health of nations across the globe – and also major consequences for the workplace.
Nearly two years later, as we emerge from Covid restrictions (at least in the UK), it seems clearer by the day that the virus is endemic. Society and employers will need to adapt to a different world from now on and the threats to health and the short and long-term economic outlook remain unpredictable.
Covid-19 has changed behaviours and will continue to do so. It will also demonstrate potential new ways of living and working and act as a catalyst for other drivers of change. At the same time, it will operate as a major economic disruptor, placing continued burdens on health and social care and increasing personal, business and government debt.
Economies appear to have escaped the worst fears about catastrophic job losses, not least on account of rapid and unprecedented government intervention such as the UK’s furlough scheme (see role of the state – state intervention; and emerging themes – labour market). Economies have bounced back but further waves of infection have created more uncertainty. Severe shortages of certain workers have caused serious issues for the UK economy, partly as a result of workers being quarantined, on furlough or voluntarily changing careers because of Covid-19. This has combined with other drivers of change, such as an absence of skilled EU migrants who fulfilled many important jobs (see migration – EU migration), globalisation (see globalisation - supply issues both from and beyond the EU) and demographics (see demographics - less students working), to create significant gaps between supply and demand in sectors such as hospitality and logistics.
In the short term, the UK experienced an economic bounce from pent-up demand and savings during the year and a half when consumers’ outgoings were much reduced. The longer-term prognosis is of more concern on account of swollen national debt, concerns about inflation, and expenditure demands to “build back better”, “level up” and combat the climate emergency (among others). Even before the pandemic, there were worrying signs that growth was stuttering - particularly in the UK, whose economy had suffered more than other comparable nations. A return to long-term growth will be instrumental to the creation of jobs, but governments face difficult decisions in balancing the need to address debt with concerns about the impact of tax rises or austerity programmes on the economy (and their popularity) (see role of the state – tax).
The pandemic has enhanced existing inequalities within nations such as the UK, and also between richer and poorer regions of the world (see emerging themes – inequality and division).
Perhaps the most lasting impact on work of the pandemic will be the move to homeworking, whether whole or partial. For many workers, the benefits of homeworking have included less commuting (with time and cost savings), a reduced need for work-related travel and a reassessment of where they need to live. Many, however, have missed the collegiality and collaboration of the office and large numbers of employers are starting to implement hybrid working arrangements on a longer-term basis. Employers are reassessing their office needs and will also need to cater for issues such as homeworkers being subjected to discrimination, managing working hours as home and work life blur, and developing fair remuneration policies.
Homeworking has an inevitable knock-on effect for city centres. Some will see it as liberating them to work in remote locations far from any office, even overseas (see migration driver). But of course, many jobs cannot be done remotely. Despite the focus on homeworking, only 36% of UK workers worked from home at all in 2020 (though the percentages were appreciably higher in London and the South East). This risks a two-tier workforce, with a growing divide between those who can capitalise on the flexibility of working from home and those who cannot.
The pandemic will generate profound, long-term changes to our approach to health. The gratitude we all owe to health and social care professionals is likely to prompt greater pressure for recognition, investment and job creation in these sectors. In addition to the growing realisation that Covid-19 is here to stay, the health service will need to manage “Long-Covid” among those who have contracted the virus as well as the backlog from delayed treatments for other conditions, while increased isolation and other pressures have highlighted the imperative to address mental health issues. Employers will need to pay more attention to the mental and physical health of their workforce in order to meet employee and wider stakeholder expectations. How businesses approach the health and wellbeing of their people, and the wider community in which they operate, will be a key value proposition in terms of their positioning in the market and attracting and retaining the best people.
Vaccination, testing, mask-wearing, social distancing, enhanced border controls and improved treatment are all important tools for bringing down infection rates, hospitalisations and deaths. In determining ongoing rules and policies, governments must balance health risks against the economic consequences and social concerns such as lost education. Even where restrictions are lifted, they may need to be revisited should there be a rise in infection rates, hospitalisations and deaths.
The UK government, in considering its immediate reaction to the virus in March 2020, was influenced by advice that a broadly libertarian public would not tolerate a lockdown restricting their personal freedoms for very long. This belief proved wide of the mark, underlining a division between libertarians and non-libertarians with significant intolerance of each other’s views (see social trends – values and behaviours). The strength of opposition to proposals to open up society surprised many, revealing a significant proportion of the public as relatively risk-averse.
This clash of views has had a direct impact on workplaces, with employers grappling with policies on vaccination, mask-wearing and testing. Employees hostile to continued workplace health and safety measures regard strictures on such matters as unacceptable infringements on their human rights. Others regard those who ignore such rules as dangerously and selfishly putting colleagues at risk. Effectively navigating these conflicting views will be increasingly important for employers and managers.
Covid-19 will affect the what, who, where, when, and how much of work.