A friend recently asked if A is for America, B is for Brexit and C is for Covid what D sums up 2020? Instantly I replied: Death? Disease? Divorce? Depression? Don’t they sum it up? The year that keeps on giving (and taking) has been like a cloud raining incessantly bad news. Then I paused and reflected. Dexamethasone. That should be the D instead. In that one word was born hope and promise – the first light at the end of a long tunnel now illuminated even more brightly by recent vaccine developments.
During the first lockdown, I wrote 2020 Vision: Differing Perspectives of a Pandemic Sitting now at the other end of the year, after a second national lockdown, I find myself reflecting again. In particular, on what I know best – the world of work.
This year has been incredibly challenging and difficult but what does the future hold? Crucially, with an eye on hopefully better times ahead, what do we want it to hold?
E is for employment status
The pandemic has shone further light on the need to address inequalities created by employment status and individual circumstances. Whether someone is categorised as a worker, an employee or self-employed, and the impact on their rights, has for a while been under review.
This year has highlighted and created additional difficulties in this regard. For example, some have missed out on financial support whilst there remains an uneven playing field when it comes to rights. This imbalance has even extended to health and safety protection – see, for example, the recent important High Court decision (1) which found that the UK had failed to properly implement EU health and safety law by excluding workers from certain protections.
The silver lining is that such issues have been brought to light and, to an extent, are already under review. Even before the pandemic, activity had begun in the employment status arena. We have already seen government consultations, plans and actions such as limits on zero hours arrangements and enhancements of agency workers' rights. Hopefully the pandemic will be a catalyst for much needed further positive progress in this regard.
F is for furlough and beyond
Sadly, and not unexpectedly, the year is ending with increasing rates of redundancy and unemployment. My career as an employment lawyer involves helping people through difficult times and, unfortunately, my colleagues and I have seen the damage to livelihoods and careers wrought by the current crisis.
It is, however, not all bad news. We are also seeing the green shoots of better times ahead - assisting people on their way into new roles, returning from furlough and as they grow businesses.
For those less fortunate, the hope is - of course - that vaccines and extended support schemes will help to deliver the return to employment and economic activity we crave.
G is for global
Whilst the physical world has stood relatively still this year given restrictions on movement and travel, the rise of technology has enabled people to stay connected. It is as easy to Skype with Bournemouth as Barcelona, as simple to Zoom with New York as New Zealand. It remains to be seen how many meetings will remain virtual but there are many who are relieved not to be crossing countries and continents. Our expectation is that, in the fullness of time, travel for work purposes will return but given economic, lifestyle and environmental consequences perhaps (indeed hopefully) not to the levels they were.
With the UK facing the impending Brexit deadline, we may see an increase in skilled workers leaving the country if no deal is struck with the EU. Over recent years, I have seen, first-hand, talented people leave England looking for pastures new. However, the flexibility afforded by ever evolving technology is likely to affect recruitment and will, no doubt, open up wider hiring opportunities and global workforce possibilities – particularly coupled with remote working practices. As such, it is possible we will see increasing levels of recruitment from further afield and more 'international' roles.
My wish list for 2021 includes our continued ability to offer a welcoming and attractive home for businesses and individuals both at home and worldwide.
H is for home working
There has been much debate over the virtues and downfalls of home working. It is undoubtedly a mixed bag and very much affected by personal circumstances – either positively or negatively. That said, after a year in front of a screen in isolation, even the most ardent fans of remote working may well have a grudging appreciation of the benefits of real life office interaction.
When life returns to some form of normal there will be a difference. The potential costs savings that come with increased agility and flexibility will be borne in mind when businesses are making decisions about office spaces and flexible working arrangements (more on that here). The ability to diversify a workforce and recruit more broadly as a result of enhanced remote working will not be forgotten. And whilst the pandemic has been particularly challenging for working parents, the retention of greater flexibility will be of assistance in recruiting and retaining this grouping, as well as many others (2). As such, the legacy of this time may yet be positive in terms of recruitment and retention of talent and workforce diversification.
Overall, the Great Work from Home Experiment has demonstrated the need to achieve the correct balance. I share the hopes of many that we will, in future, have the opportunity to work more often and regularly from home but still attend shared workspaces and face to face meetings for irreplaceable human interaction. Achieving the right mix will be crucial to business and employment success.
I and beyond...
To end on a positive, it is fitting that I is for injections – the greatest hope of all for the year ahead. With the right medicines, strategies and actions, hopefully 2021 will mark a positive turning point for us all.