Blog and news
April 19, 2020

Five trends to watch: Work and Covid-19

Covid-19 has accelerated many new ways of working brought about by the digital technological revolution. People’s work lives have been changing for decades, and they are now revealed for good and ill. Anna Thomas explores 5 work trends thrust into the spotlight by the pandemic. This blog was written in March 2020.

First, the pace of technology adoption is picking up. Covid-19 has our attention, but it’s still the new technological revolution which is the single most important driver of change to the world of work. Technological innovation underpins huge structural changes in the economy as human capital (people) and goods (things) move from declining sectors and jobs into new ones. The pandemic is accelerating many of these shifts.

Within weeks, CEOs have transformed their business models so they can operate remotely. Each day, HR leads are reconfiguring jobs, redesigning processes, working out which tasks can be reduced or automated.

As local businesses board up, we’ve seen a glut of new jobs in shipping and delivery, grocery and logistics, online learning and tools. 1,700 people started work at Amazon on one day thanks to an automated induction programme. Walmart is looking to hire 150,000 staff.  Instacart is seeking 300,000 “shoppers” who fulfil orders for customers at home. New uses for technology are emerging – some companies are sporting social distancing detectors to check up on work  warehouse workers.

So it’s likely that pervasive use of new technologies across sectors and jobs will speed up because of the pandemic. As the Institute for the Future of Work has argued, the debate will move on from the speed of change to how we can make sure people are put first and transformation is socially responsible.

Second, the value of caring and service work is changing. Marked by the weekly doorstep ‘clap for carers’ and 500,000 signing up to NHS volunteers in 24 hours, we’ve seen a huge cultural shift in our attitudes towards work involving the most human skills we have. Nurses, carers, hospital staff are suddenly our most valued and ‘key’ workers, although many are paid less than the Living Wage. The pandemic has shone a spotlight on the essential nature of front-line, purposeful, caring and contact work to carry us through the crisis.

This shift is now reaching service work in logistics and retail, people who are taking a higher risk of infection to make sure basic needs are met. Sainsbury worker James Beardwell’s description of how he felt as customers told him ‘you’re doing a fantastic job’ went viral on Twitter.

Crucially, for the longer term, these are skills that either can’t or won’t be automated, some in our fastest-growing sectors, including healthcare. Revaluing this work is not only important for its own sake. It should influence demand and how much we pay, care for, and invest in this work. We’ve invited Professor Michael Sandel to lead a discussion on how the pandemic has scrambled people’s economic and social roles  - and what to do about it.  

Third, widespread worker transition is now inevitable. The fact that there have been over a million new claimants for Universal Credit shows that the Chancellor’s income support packages - which we supported - won’t be able to stem large-scale job losses and change.

Reports and our own interviews suggest that cracks in the package include people who’ve already lost their jobs and contracts; hours and shifts reduced but not stopped; the new self-employed; and small business owner-entrepreneurs. In some sectors, such as the creative industries, workflow for a huge number of our 5M self-employed has dried up and surveys suggest up to 70% workers have been worried about paying basic bills.

So, while many redundancies will be stemmed for the time being, we can expect a tide of workers to move from declining jobs and struggling firms to new boom areas.

The Chancellor may wish to shift his focus next to support for workers undergoing transition between roles, firms and sectors. We think this will be key to the UK’s Exit Strategy.

So we should think afresh about social safety nets and income protection, which could be combined with new opportunities for training. Pilot transition programmes for re-skilling, up-skilling and out-skilling (training for staff at risk of redundancy to help them move on) could start while people are furloughed. Our Chair Christopher Pissarides says these programmes are more likely to succeed if they are Government backed, led by business and co-created with employees.

Fourth, structural inequalities are playing out in unexpected ways. As we pull together in crisis, we prefer not to think about divisions. But the pandemic will expose structural inequalities across the UK in new and shocking ways: by the higher health risks taken by some classes of worker and their dependents; by the absence of adequate, accessible sick pay; by measures of poverty; and the different experiences of different demographic groups.

Understanding different types of inequality through the pandemic, building resilience for people and communities across the country by improving work, should become a national priority.  

Finally, the ultimate purpose of work, and of the economy,  should be for us all to thrive

As we make some of the hardest decisions of our generation, we should pause to ask: what kind of society and values are we preserving? What future world of work do we want?

The crisis has revealed something important about the nature of good, purposeful work. It’s also taught us about the close link between work and health. Our fight against Covid-19 is a fight on two fronts: health and the economy. A focus on good work for everyone unites these fronts.

Policy response to challenges raised through the crisis will shape the UK’s future of work for generations to come. Let’s make sure that our decisions through this crisis put people first.


Anna Thomas


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