Following our recent podcast ‘Fair Work in the Context of COVID-19’, PrOPEL Hub Knowledge Exchange Fellow, Nicola Murray reflects on key messages and takeaways from Part One of the discussion. The podcast explored the role of fair work in harnessing the capabilities of employees to come up with the innovative solutions needed by businesses to restart and recover in the coming weeks and months.

What is Fair Work?

There are 3 broad elements to consider:

  1. Employment Quality: the formal terms and conditions of work e.g. how secure your job is, how secure your income is, how reliable your work schedule is.
  2. Work Quality: is your work satisfying/challenging? Do you feel engaged with it and dedicated to it? Do you have control over your work and can you make decisions?
  3. Workplace Quality: the quality of governance and decision making in organisations, the extent to which employees are part of decision making and are communicated with and consulted.

Scotland’s Fair Work Convention has operationalised the 3 elements above into the 5 Scottish Fair Work Dimensions:

  • Effective voice
  • Opportunity 
  • Security
  • Fulfilment
  • Respect

Why is Fair Work Important in the Current Crisis?

Fair work is important in its own right because it is essential to people’s wellbeing and it promotes a fairer economy and society through inclusive growth. There are also however, three outcomes of fair work that are particularly important for employers in the current crisis:

  1. It promotes workplace innovation which can play a vital role in enabling businesses to create the new ideas needed to evolve and adapt in order to cope with the incredibly challenging situation we currently find ourselves in
  2. It promotes discretionary behaviours. In other words, employees are much more likely to go above and beyond in a job where they fairly treated and rewarded – many businesses are already finding this enhanced effort invaluable in their recovery
  3. It promotes trust which is highly associated with business performance – particularly business performance during times of change

Lessons from the last Global Economic Crisis

The CIPD, who have been speaking to employees about their experience of working from home during the crisis, report real concerns around work intensification, expectations of longer working hours and negative impact on work life balance due to being digitally connected 24/7.  We know from the last global economic crisis, that there were considerable issues around work becoming less secure, work intensification and heightened concerns around individual wellbeing (both physical and mental). The concept of fair work has a role to play in helping us navigate these serious issues.

Measuring Job Quality

There are a couple of key considerations to think about when measuring job quality:

  1. Focus on the objective features of the job – Research has shown that what people consider to be fair/good varies depending on various factors including, gender, ethnicity, region and age – even when the objective features of a job remain the same. It’s therefore necessary to focus on the objective features of jobs because what workers feel about their jobs (while important in its own right) is a poor measure of job quality
  2. Job quality should be considered as a dashboard of dimensions. As noted above, there are a variety of job attributes – some jobs will be very good in some respects yet very poor in others – it’s therefore important to build as full a picture as possible

If you’re interested in finding out how the quality of your own job compares to that of other people’s, check out, a job quality quiz created by PrOPEL Hub partners at Cardiff University.

Developments in Job Quality and Fair Work

After a couple of decades where policy makers in the UK and beyond, focused almost exclusively upon job quantity, the quality of jobs being created was put firmly back on the agenda by the Lisbon Treaty in 2009. This landmark treaty paved the way for a swathe of interest from various groups and areas including:

Despite these developments, prior to COVID-19 the UK was facing a situation where although employment levels were high, job quality was a concern. There were rising levels of low paid work and unsecure work (including zero-hour contracts and people working in the gig economy) alongside high levels of underemployment (where workers skills are underutilised).

Poor work (work that is not ‘fair’) such as this has considerable negative consequences for the wider economy and society that have the potential to hinder the economic recovery process. For example, it often needs to be subsidised by the welfare system (because it doesn’t provide people with a steady, sufficient income), it impacts negatively on tax generation and it produces poorer health which has to be dealt with by the NHS.

Fair work therefore has a role to play not only in helping businesses navigate the challenges they currently face but also in guiding us to build back better and create a fairer world of work for the future.

To Sum up

No one is denying the importance of job quantity, as unemployment continues to rise during the crisis it is very clear that more jobs are urgently needed. However, this podcast urges everyone to consider the full picture. Job quality and fair work also have vital roles to play both in supporting the economic recovery and in ensuring that we don’t inadvertently lower working standards across the country.

We’d love to hear your thoughts…

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