As spring heralds our potential emergence from the strongest grip of the pandemic, attention is turning to the question of what work is going to look like under the ‘new normal’. The traditional 9-to-5 rule-book has been torn up as those companies that have survived or even thrived through COVID announce levels of flexibility that would have been inconceivable just a short time ago. There is a great deal to think about, but I would like to make a case for the importance of care within a context of purposeful organisation as we seek to navigate our way towards new ways of working. Care has come to the fore during the crisis as we have lived through a graphic demonstration of just how vital care work is to society, we have lauded those who act with care and concern for others, and yet at the same time we have continued to ration and limit the rewards given to those very keyworkers on whose care we so depend.

Care can mean a number of different things: it can mean ‘taking care of’ but also ‘attaching importance to’. So, when we think about rebuilding work, what is it that we should be taking care of and attaching importance to? There are five fundamental questions to consider that challenge us to care about different facets of the future of work.

Question 1: who will be working? The first issue we need to care about is who will be working. The data reveal the uneven effects of the pandemic on individuals’ employment outcomes, with young people, but also women, low-paid workers, those with disabilities and those from ethnic minority groups the worst affected.  CBI figures moreover show 1:8 of recent graduates were still unemployed at the end of 2020, with 69% of young people feeling their life is on hold. With the risk of a lost generation in sight, the first and most pressing challenge is to build back employment opportunities for these most affected groups.

Question 2: where will people work? According to some estimates, over 50% of UK workers have worked remotely for at least some of the time during the pandemic. With levels of remote working likely to increase 4-5 fold after the crisis as many people continue working from home for at least part of the week, major shifts in the geography of work are likely. In caring about where people work, we are forced to consider not only the impact on those individuals who can work from home but also those who cannot, as well as on the spaces and places where work takes place. We are challenged to reimagine not just the role of the office but also of the home, and of our towns and cities as well as of our transport systems and of transitory working locales such as conference centres.

Question 3: how will people work?  Much of the growth in UK employment levels pre-COVID has been in non-standard forms of working such as zero hours contracts, part-time jobs and the gig economy. However, estimates also suggest that around 1.2 million families in the UK are experiencing in-work poverty due to low pay, inadequate working hours and insufficient employment protections. In caring about how people work, we are challenged to ask whether the types of jobs we are creating as we emerge from the pandemic are those that offer valued attributes such as sustainability, security and wellbeing. The recent Supreme Court ruling that Uber drivers should have worker rights signals a growing awareness of the limitations of unstable working arrangements and places the quality of jobs front and centre in our consideration of where work should be going.

Question 4: what work will people do? Emerging evidence indicates that COVID is accelerating changes in skills requirements within the labour market notably digital and management skills, leading to a growing mis-match between the skills that people have and those that are needed by employers. For example, the OECD found that 40% of the UK workforce is currently in an occupation for which they are not properly qualified, and 83% of employers say they can’t find employees with the skills they are looking for. The UK has traditionally had a large number of low-skilled jobs, but the signs are that the demand for these types of jobs will shrink, and so upskilling and reskilling will become major challenges for both government and employers. We need to care about making sure everyone can access training and qualifications that will enable them to participate in the workforce of the future.

Question 5: how can the future of work be re-imagined to show we truly care about human, societal and environmental needs? Organisations are increasingly exhorted to lead with purpose. The US Business Roundtable principles for the role of the corporation for instance highlight the need for business to act in service of all stakeholders: employees, customers, suppliers, communities and shareholders, while Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the UN, has called upon countries to build more equal, inclusive and sustainable economies and societies for a resilient future post-COVID.

Reuters estimates that the average holding time for a share is 5½ months compared with eight years during the 1960s, signalling the massive shifts we have witnessed in the workings of global capitalism. As we look beyond the pandemic, there is an opportunity to reconsider a neoliberal model that favours consumption, short-termism and shareholder profit, and embrace a more corporatist model of capitalism rooted in strengthened stakeholder relationships and voice mechanisms. Showing we care about all stakeholders challenges us to focus on the longer-term, on co-determination and on sustainability.

COVID has highlighted the converging crises of health and the environment, both arising from human activity that has led to widespread environmental damage. The plight of the regent honeyeater, the Australian bird that has become so rare it has forgotten its own song and is one of the estimated 31,000 species that are soon estimated to become extinct in the wake of activities such as wildlife trafficking and deforestation, is emblematic of the problems we are facing.  Although expanding the green energy sector and infrastructure, creating specific green jobs and green apprenticeships will be part of this, all sectors face the imperative to consider their wider purpose and contribution to society and the environment, as well as ensure they create good work that offers security, sustainability, growth and wellbeing to all.

With an estimated 41% of workers in the UK considering quitting their job for more meaningful work post-pandemic, and with millennials increasingly wanting to know what their organisation’s wider purpose is, employers can seize the moment to think systemically and rise to the challenge of demonstrating an authentic care and concern for their role as responsible world citizens.

Katie Bailey is Professor of Work and Employment at King’s Business School, King’s College London, and convenor of the Meaning and Purpose Network (MaPNet)