When I handed over the IPA to Willy Coupar in 1998, the world of work was very different to what it was in 2019. We had acquired computers/word processors but email was in its infancy, as was the Internet. We communicated mainly by telephone and fax. Social media had not yet gained a foothold, and words like Skype, FaceTime and Zoom were unknown. The Industrial Participation Association had become the Involvement and Participation Association in the early 90s, but we still talked about ‘shop floor’, and ‘white collar and blue collar workers’. Pensions were relatively secure, the pay gap was much smaller than now and employee share ownership was slowly growing. The IPA was primarily a membership body with about 250 member companies; the politics of the Thatcher era resulted in many more companies joining the IPA. 

When I retired I moved away from employee relations to volunteer with various overseas charities.  My wife and I helped to build schools in India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Cameroon, and for nine years I was a trustee of Practical Action, a charity based on the philosophy of E.F. Schumacher, author of "Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered".

I deliberately referred above to 2019, because I believe there will be as much change between 2019 and 2021 as there was in the previous 21 years.  We are all painfully aware of the devastating impact of the COVID-19 crisis on our lives, our economy and the world of work. There will be no return to pre- COVID-19 days. Despite the government’s rapid launch of the furlough scheme, we know that mass unemployment is unavoidable.  Work patterns have already changed with many working from home. Offices which have occupied tall tower blocks will shrink, both from redundancies and from home working. In the short term, we are all fearful about what lies ahead.

So where in this crisis does the IPA stand?  Is its message still relevant or has it lost its way in the relative impersonality of the Digital Age? A brief glance at some recent IPA material reassures me that the philosophy, developed since its foundation in 1884, is as relevant as it has ever been.  It is as my former boss, John Garnett, (the charismatic Director of the Industrial Society) used to say, “only common sense, which is very sensible but not very common”.  It is in one sentence, the recognition that people/employees are the most important and valuable asset in any enterprise, and they must be recognised and treated as individuals (which is why I still prefer the term 'Personnel' to 'Human Resources'!)

As Derek Luckhurst has outlined, many employees think the furlough scheme is the first step to redundancy because it has not been clearly explained by management.  With many employees working from home, some will welcome the end of daily commuting, while others will want to return to the camaraderie of an office or factory. One size no longer fits all and embracing these different attitudes creates new problems for trade unions/ employee representatives. As the IPA emphasizes, it is vital to be truthful and to involve employee representatives in consultation at a much earlier stage. Communications are the key to success in the post- COVID age. The digital age has eased communication, but it has also made it very impersonal, and open to abuse; an email to all staff is no substitute for face to face communication, and with so many set to lose their jobs, there will be a massive demand for retraining to acquire new skills.

As lockdown eases there will be widespread fear and a sense of foreboding. On the one hand, there have already been encouraging signs of a growing community spirit, exemplified by the weekly clapping for the NHS and other frontline workers, and there is a growing awareness of the importance of equality and diversity. On the other hand, many are frustrated after months of lockdown, and this has resulted in angry protests and clashes with the police. So the outlook at the moment is bleak and everyone knows that life will be hard in the foreseeable future.

Yet, I remain optimistic in the longer term.  It takes a major upheaval to stimulate real and lasting change. Take the New Deal, established by FDR In the USA after the Great Depression in 1929, or the establishment of the Welfare State and the NHS in Britain after the Second World War. I can see in time, a new breed of managers, who will not only innovate new ideas, but will also recognise the real value of their employees, resulting in new work relationships and styles of management.

Professor Margaret Macmillan, Oxford historian and Reith Lecturer recently wrote “one of the most dangerous things leaders in crises can do, is to lock themselves into a rigid course of action, guided by blind adherence to old dogmas”. Some managers will do exactly this, falling back on what they know, and they will fail. But I believe that the new enlightened breed of manager, will understand the true meaning of consultation, embrace the need for retraining, listen to the voice  of all employees, improve racial diversity at all levels, ensure the equality of women, recognise the need to reduce carbon emissions, and harness the power of team building. With new thinking in the workplace, engendered by the crisis, the IPA can play a key role in guiding organisations at all levels.

Bryan Stevens is a former Director of the IPA