What impact will the coronavirus pandemic have on the relationship between employers and employees? The threat of the virus, and Government measures to restrict its spread, have had a negative effect on most people’s everyday lives. But the longer-term impact on employee relations seems likely to be more positive.

In the short term, the shift towards working from home has massively reinforced the movement towards more flexible working patterns. Although initially encouraged by government pressure to “stay at home”, its continued widespread adoption has been largely driven by employees. Increased opportunity for employees to influence where and when they work is set to become the new reality for many. Facilitated by the development of the online economy, this represents a shift in working arrangements comparable to the industrial revolution that drove workers into factories. 

The unprecedented scale of financial support by the government in the form of furlough pay has underlined the key role of employees in keeping the economy moving. With unemployment currently the dog that didn’t bark, and emerging labour shortages across many sectors, employers now have every incentive to treat their employees right. 

The pandemic has brought forcefully to employers’ attention their responsibilities for looking after the health and safety of employees, not least in relation to mental health. Fewer employers will now feel it sensible to neglect their responsibilities for managing their people. The pandemic has also helped to drive a wider recognition by society generally of the importance of human resources.  

Looking more broadly, the pandemic has brought to the fore the issue of corporate responsibility. It has been evident for some years that employers can ill afford to take risks with their reputation. This is reflected for example in the recent challenges by investors to companies’ policies on executive pay.

The overwhelming public interest in overcoming the coronavirus and protecting the economy has meant that employers have had to reflect more generally on what is the right thing to do. It’s remarkable too to see the increased recognition that “shareholder value” is not on its own an adequate objective for public companies. 

Where do trade unions fit in to this story? Employers and employees have a shared interest in looking after both public health and the economy, and this will help them find mutually agreeable solutions to any issues that may arise. There is no sign that the disruption to employment across sectors such as retail, travel and hospitality has been a significant source of industrial action.

It is encouraging that trade unions have had some success in representing workers in low paid and insecure jobs. Although union membership across the private sector continues to decline, Uber recently agreed to recognise the GMB for its 70,000 private hire drivers. The agreement was prompted by the Supreme Court’s ruling that the drivers were “workers” and entitled to basic employment rights. However it also shows that unions can help groups of workers that have historically been hardest to organise, and will reinforce a positive public perception of unions. 

The pandemic might hopefully prompt Government to look again at the distinction between employment and self-employment. The numbers of self-employed have fallen in the pandemic, partly due to people changing their reported status from self-employed to employed. At the same time large numbers of employees have adopted working patterns more characteristic of self-employment, including in particular less frequent face-to-face contact with their managers. The government might want to reflect whether the current wide variations between the treatment of employed and self-employed people, particularly in relation to tax and national insurance, are justified. 

Spending one or two days a week in the office may turn out to be the new normal for many employees, but leaves many questions to be answered in order to maximise employee engagement. Employers will need to reflect how to manage a less visible workforce.  Motivating and engaging employees at arms’ length, and encouraging learning and team-working, can be a tough challenge. This needs to prompt some creative thinking about how to ensure a balance between office and home working that works for both sides. 

Old-style employee relations was largely about managing conflict. Today it’s more about motivation, well-being and diversity. The tripartite mantra of mutual trust, fairness and respect is still the only basis for getting it right, and how to do it has to focus on practical issues about communications. The concept of employee voice is the right starting point for individual employers to consider what works best for them, whether it’s informal consultation processes, training line managers or works councils. 

It’s been said that you should never let a good crisis go to waste. The pandemic has required all organisations to confront unfamiliar problems.  But it’s also forced a rethink about the key role of managing people in driving performance. For many employers, developing a more consensual relationship, or “partnership”, with their employees will be the logical response. 


Mike Emmott is a former civil servant, serving as private secretary to Barbara Castle and Michael Foot at the Ministry of Labour, and a former Employee Relations Advisor at CIPD where he worked to popularise the concept of the psychological contract.