Good Work and the COVID-19 Crisis

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In this blog, Professor Anne Green looks at the concept of ‘Good Work’, exploring the varying definitions, and its impact on both employers and employees and what they can both do to influence the situation.


In 2019 national employment rates rose to historically high levels. In Great Britain, the employment rate for 16-64 year olds increased from 70.2% in the year ending September 2011 to 75.8% in the year ending December 2019. Although employment rates in the West Midlands are lower than nationally a similar pattern of increase is evident with employment rates over the same period rising from 62.1% in the WMCA area and 67.6% in the West Midlands region to 69.1% in the WMCA area and 73.9% in the West Midlands region.

With this increase in employment rates, there was a shift in emphasis of policymakers away from the quantity of employment which was a primary focus in the recession to the quality of work. This reflected ongoing concerns about weak productivity growth, employment insecurity and precarity, in-work-poverty, the impact of technological change on the experience of work, skills polarisation and persistent skills shortages.

From a policy perspective, the Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices added impetus to growing debates on ‘Good Work’, calling on the government to pay closer attention to the quality of work. Dimensions of ‘Good Work’ highlighted in the review include wages, employment quality, education and training, working conditions, work-life balance and collective participation and collective representation. In setting out its Good Work Plan in December 2018 for the first time the UK Government placed equal emphasis on the quality and quantity of work.

While the Covid-19 crisis has led to renewed concerns about the quantity of employment in the context of the closure of sectors of the economy during lockdown, furloughing and redundancies, it has also re-energised debates about the quality of work. This is especially so in the foundational economy where low-paid sectors such as social care have been on the frontline. Moreover, access to good quality employment is central to levelling up and inclusive growth agendas in cities around the world.

For some of those workers able to work from home during lockdown the experience of doing so has surfaced broader questions about work-life balance. The wider context of school closures has foregrounded broader issues about the relative weight given to work and care/ other non-work commitments.

Hence the requirement for ‘more and better jobs’ has come to the fore.

Dimensions of ‘Good Work’ highlighted in the review include wages, employment quality, education and training, working conditions, work-life balance and collective participation and collective representation.
So what is ‘Good Work’ and how is it measured?

There is no single agreed definition of ‘Good Work’. ‘Quality of employment’, ‘decent work’, ‘fair work’, ‘meaningful work’ and ‘good work’ are often used interchangeably. The concept of ‘decent work’ is often used in connection with minimum legislative standards and poverty reduction, particularly in developing countries. The International Labour Organisation defines ‘decent work’ as where ‘all women and men should work in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity’. ‘Fair work’ is part of the policy discourse in Wales with an influential report from the independent Fair Work Commission in 2019. Scotland has an independent Fair Work Convention which aims to put fair work at the heart of Scotland’s workplaces and economy.

Personal, work, job and social factors all play a part in ‘Good Work’ and ‘Fair Work’. Commentators focus on topics such as terms of employment, pay and benefits, job design, health and well-being, work-life balance, and voice and representation. Yet the priority individual workers place on these various topics varies – including over the life course. For some people pay is of paramount importance. For others, flexibility may be a prime consideration. Likewise, ambitions to progress in work vary between individuals and may be of greater or lesser importance to the same individual at different times.

In 2018 a Job Quality Working Group convened by the Royal Society of Arts and Carnegie UK proposed 18 measures of ‘good work’ categorised in six topics:

There are considerable overlaps between these ‘good work’ topics and measures and the components of ‘fair work’ identified by Fair Work Wales:

  1. Fair reward – analogous to ‘pay and benefits’ above
  2. Employee voice and collective representation – relates to ‘voice and representation’ above
  3. Security and flexibility – has some overlaps with ‘terms of employment’ above
  4. Opportunity for access, growth and progression – partial overlap with ‘job design and nature of work’ above
  5. Safe, healthy and inclusive working environment – has some overlaps with ‘health, safety and psychosocial wellbeing’ and ‘work-life balance’ above but Fair Work Wales has greater emphasis on inclusion;
  6. Legal rights respected and given substantive effect – not reflected in the topics above.

While the focus on ‘good work’ has been at a national level, there is likely to be interest from sub-national and sub-group perspectives in monitoring performance on these measures – some of which are captured in the State of the Region report.

Promoting ‘Good Work’: Policy and practice

A range of public policy measures for government and institutions can take to promote ‘good work’ includes:

  • Legislation: Institutions and legislation frame the nature of the labour market. Examples here include minimum wage regulations and pay parity between workers, pay uplift for non-guaranteed hours, enforcement of existing legislation, and raising awareness of employee rights.
  • Interventions along a ‘good employment’ pathway: Tailored active labour market policies, subsidies to increase and/or maintain employment for particular sub-groups and/or in particular areas, and in-work progression initiatives.
  • Learning and Skills: Vocational Education and Training (VET) policies and lifelong learning – for sustaining employment and enabling transitions in the labour market.
  • Wraparound policies: including non-work/ family support policies.
  • Business-/sector-focused initiatives: Business support, sectoral bodies addressing sectoral priorities and sectoral collective bargaining.
  • Place-based policies: to improve work quality and drive a ‘good work’ agenda (e.g. employment charters, living wage places) and procurement policies.
  • Strategic initiatives: Industrial strategy and economic recovery strategy initiatives, and establishing intent by embedding ‘good work’ in performance frameworks.

Factors and changes that employers can implement at workplace level:

  • Business models: Adoption of business models that ‘design in’ Fair Work features.
  • Strengthening management: Management development and engagement of HR staff and management in support initiatives – their knowledge and expertise is central for leading and implementing fair work at workplace level.
  • Job design and innovation: Employers can create space for innovation to improve jobs, empowering staff to take an active role in job design and business improvement.
  • Signing up to external initiatives: Examples of actions that employers can take include implementation of the real Living Wage and adoption of voluntary employment charters.
  • Internal initiatives: Examples include employers working towards providing guaranteed/ predictable hours, employer-led sectoral in-work progression initiatives and initiatives to support lifelong learning.
  • Working with trade unions: to build positive collaborative practices, promote skills development, etc.
Measures focused on and/or which employees can take include Seeking advice and guidance on job changing and career development.

Measures focused on and/or which employees can take include:

  • Career development and job changing: Seeking advice and guidance on job changing and career development.
  • Nurturing social relations: Coming together with other employees (physically or virtually) to provide mutual support and promote improvements to the experience of work.
  • Involvement in collective voice initiatives: including activities with trade unions/ other collective voice platforms for organising, lobbying for/accessing benefits of ‘good work’.
A role for regional and local actors

UK government has responsibility for decisions about minimum wages and employment regulation. However, actions can take place at different levels – from the UK to the regional and local level, as well as to firm, workplace and worker levels. The ‘good work’ agenda is not just about a few discrete interventions. Rather it is about making the whole system work better.

There is a role for regional actors in generating upward pressure on aspects of ‘good work’ and enforcement of existing rights. They can help in promoting debates on ‘good work’. In practical terms, they also have a role in targeting business support and other funding for employers who sign up to voluntary initiatives promoting ‘good work’ practices and in-work progression and adopting place-based local initiatives. In this way, ‘good work’ is prioritised at the regional and local level.

This blog was written by Professor Anne Green, Professor of Regional Economic Development, City-REDI  / WM REDI, University of Birmingham. It draws on work with Dr Paul Sissons, Centre for Business in Society, Coventry University.

The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of City-REDI or the University of Birmingham.

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