The world of work during and after Covid-19

A man in a face-mask works behind a bar while two customers enjoy a drink. © Miikka Luotio

The Covid-19 pandemic is reshaping the UK and global economies in ways unimaginable just a few short months ago. Whole sectors were essentially ‘switched off’, with millions of businesses and workers reliant on unprecedented levels of Government support in order to try to mitigate the worst impacts of this crisis. Those who have not found themselves out of work or furloughed have had to adapt to home working, many having never done so before.

The truth is that even now it is still too early in this crisis to fully understand exactly what the implications of this virus, together with the responses from the UK Government and their counterparts across the globe, will be. But even the most optimistic forecasts do not predict a quick return to normal, with longer term impacts expected on economic demand, consumer behaviour, investment decisions and almost all associated areas of public policy.

In taking over as Director earlier this year, my ambition was to reconnect with the Work Foundation’s core purpose and re-establish the role we can play in the Lancaster University family. That meant a renewed focus on how we, together with colleagues across LUMS, can successfully influence policy and practice so that everyone in the UK has access to rewarding and high-quality work, no matter their starting point in life.

I believe that the scale and severity of the Covid-19 crisis makes this mission more important than ever. We know that compared to the state of the nation on the eve of the Great Recession of 2008, we now have higher levels of household, consumer and student debt, together with greater levels of in-work poverty, lower levels of household savings, and key state services weakened following a decade of austerity.

Data from the ONS in June suggests the UK claimant count went up by a staggering 1.6 million between March and May this year, and sat at 2.8 million. With nearly a quarter of workers having been furloughed, the Institute for Government estimated that nearly two fifths of UK workers were doing little to no work, and having their income provided in part, or in whole, by the state.

Work Foundation Director Ben Harrison

Looking ahead, as the crisis recedes and Government support begins to taper, the Office for Budget Responsibility have suggested the UK’s GDP is likely to have fallen by 35% in the second quarter of this year, with unemployment likely to go up by at least two million. The likelihood is those who were most vulnerable going into the crisis – the unemployed, the low-skilled, those on low wages, or those who live in parts of the country with big economic challenges – will be hit hardest. Sectors that were already struggling in many parts of the country – such as high street retail and leisure and tourism services – can expect to face new battles for survival.

All of these factors raise significant questions regarding the kinds of Government intervention that will be required over the long term to support workers, businesses and places in the future as we seek to recover from the Covid-19 crisis. They also prompt serious questions for business leaders and practitioners exploring ways to safeguard and grow their enterprises as national and global economic turbulence continues.

That is why we are working with colleagues from across the Management School as we launch our new collaborative research and engagement programme aimed at supporting practitioners, firms and policymakers to navigate the immediate and longer-term challenges presented by this crisis as the situation continues to evolve.

This programme will be made up of a range of different research projects which engage directly with firms and workers in the North West and across the UK, so that we can gain an understanding of how things are playing out on the ground for different firms in different sectors.

To launch the first phase of this work, we have published a short briefing on the ways in which the COVID-19 crisis is increasing insecurity across the labour market. This initial output will be followed by more detailed analysis of which parts of the population are most likely to be affected, and which sectors are most vulnerable to the volatility and disruption over the months ahead.

We will also explore what this means for different places depending on their economic geography, and in particular the sorts of businesses and employment opportunities they are home to.

In later phases, we will provide insights and recommendations on the kind of support Government will need to provide individuals, firms and industries, and the kinds of changes in employment practice we will need to see if businesses and workers are to adapt in the future.

I want to ensure the Work Foundation plays its part in supporting Lancaster University to deliver on its civic role across Lancashire and the North of England at this challenging time. By harnessing the leading academic research produced in our institution and utilising the policy expertise and links to business practice of the Work Foundation, this new programme will support workers and businesses to navigate the current crisis, and thrive in the years to come.

Ben Harrison is Director of the Work Foundation

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