BER20: Focus on people management key to recovery from Covid-19


This blog post was produced for inclusion in the Birmingham Economic Review for 2020.

The annual Birmingham Economic Review is produced by the University of Birmingham’s City-REDI and the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce, with contributions from the West Midlands Growth Company. It is an in-depth exploration of the economy of England’s second city and a high-quality resource for informing research, policy and investment decisions.

This post is featured in Chapter 3 of the Birmingham Economic Review for 2020, on  Labour Market Challenges Pre- and Post- Pandemic.

Click here to read the Review.

The issue of job quality might seem less important than it did six months ago in-light of the devastating effect Covid-19 is having on people’s health, their economic security and employment prospects.

As unemployment has increased during lockdown and its gradual unwinding, the immediate focus has rightly been on the protecting people from the risk of infection and provision of support to protect jobs and livelihoods.

In these circumstances, any job, regardless of its quality, could be regarded as better than no job.

Issues such as testing, the furlough scheme and income support scheme for the self-employed, and the return to the workplace as lockdown measures gradually unwind have attracted the immediate headlines.

CIPD’s Spring Labour Market Outlook survey of 2,000 employers shows that in the first phase of the pandemic businesses have been doing what they can to protect jobs. Organisations have frozen recruitment and pay, re-deployed staff to other roles, and reduced hours working, as well of course, used the furlough scheme.

However, it is crucial that employers seeking to recover don’t lose sight of the importance of job quality and the people management and development practices that underpin trust in the employment relationship.

Managing a safe return to the workplace

How businesses manage and support their people while they respond to this crisis will be absolutely crucial to their resilience and ability to grow in the future.  

A primary challenge facing employers is of course protecting their workers from the risk of infection from Covid-19 but also supporting their mental health in any return to the workplace. This means ensuring social distancing in the workplace, the use of flexible start and finish times and the use of personal protective equipment in some work environments. CIPD has published guidance to support the return to the workplace based on three principles: is it essential; is it safe; and is it mutually agreed.

Risk assessments must be based on close consultation with workers to ensure that, if the work is essential and has to be done in the workplace, individuals are confident that sufficient steps have been taken to protect their health. People will not just be concerned about their own risk of infection but will have worries about passing the virus on to family members particularly if they are more vulnerable due to pre-existing health conditions.

The pandemic has seen levels of stress and anxiety spiral among employees who worry about their own health as well as the health of their loved ones. Employers have to recognise that Covid-19 risk affects people very differently, depending on their job, as well as their family or household circumstances and their individual characteristics such as, for example, their age, gender, age, ethnicity and health.

Consequently, when managing people’s return to the workplace or managing staff remotely, the role of the line manager in knowing their staff and managing them appropriately is critical. Managers need to listen and empathise with staff as well be flexible and provide support where required. These behaviours are the ones that build trust with staff which is a pre-requisite for employee engagement, motivation and wellbeing.

Staff voice and consultation key to positive employment relations

On top of the challenge of protecting the health and wellbeing of the workforce during the pandemic, many organisations will face a further employment relations challenge if they do have to take steps such as freezing or even cutting pay or making redundancies. The furlough scheme is due to end at the end of October and this will inevitably force many more employers to have to reduce head count permanently.

Morale is bound to take a hit but employers that respect employee voice and consult meaningfully in good faith before decisions are taken will be more likely to retain the trust and engagement of their staff over the longer term, as well as meet their legal obligations.

The quality of consultation, both collectively with trade unions or employee representatives, as well as between managers and individuals will to a large extent decide whether the process is regarded as fair and how positively or negatively the organisation is regarded by staff.

Creating more flexible and inclusive ways of work

Looking ahead, the pandemic will leave lasting change on how people are managed, with many more people working from home or more flexibly in other ways. A recent survey by CIPD found that three-quarters of employers believe that the demand for flexible working among employees will increase once lockdown measures have been lifted. In all, more than four in ten of the respondent organisations reported that they would be more likely to grant requests for flexible working after the end of lockdown, with just 7% saying they would be less likely to.

Consequently, organisations will have to improve how they support and manage staff working from home and flexibly in other ways if they are going to get the best out of them. Line managers will have to become more comfortable in managing performance based on outcomes rather than the time people spend in the physical workplace. The pandemic has meant that many managers have much more awareness of people’s personal circumstances and a greater understanding that a more holistic approach to managing people is required.

Good people managers know the people they manage as individuals, demonstrate that they care about them. Organisations will need to invest more time in ensuring that they select and develop people managers who are confident and capable in managing in a more inclusive and human way. This will improve both job quality and will also support efforts to boost workplace productivity, firm performance and future growth.

Ben Willmott
Head of Public Policy