Build back better.

It’s not a bad slogan.  Certainly better than hands/face/and boomps-a-daisy (I may have got that one wrong but it is hard to keep up). But if the UK is to make it a real clarion call for national endeavour– as opposed to adding it to the long list of ‘world class’ aspirations we have seen from the government – we all have some hard thinking to do. What do we mean by ‘better’ – in particular, better for whom?  I suggest a programme for building back better must have at its heart three key focusses: better jobs, better corporate culture, and better employment practices.

We need to start with some fundamental honesty about the potential obstacles to rebuilding our economy and society.  Some of those challenges are long standing such as the advent of the fourth industrial revolution in technology, AI and automation. Others have been precipitated by the unexpected: COVID-19.  Still to come is the impact of the political decisions about how to deliver Brexit: a skinny deal or no deal is unclear at the time of writing.

The frightening thing is that these tsunami of challenges risks sweeping away the incremental but real progress made in recent years.  For example, there has been an increasing acknowledgment that workplace culture matters,  that ‘it’s the people, stupid’, that employees are at the end of the day your only asset, and that they need to be motivated, trusted, aligned with the organisational purpose, and treated fairly. Indeed, the most recent revision of the Financial Reporting Council’s Corporate Governance Code requires FTSE 350 organisations to reflect employee voice at board level. Not yet ‘workers on the board’ in many cases, but a real step change nevertheless.

Then there has been the welcome examination of and emphasis on good work, developing the themes in Matthew Taylor’s report on the need for employment protection for non-typical ‘gig economy’ workers, and the increasing demand for fairness in the workplace, for real inclusion along with the recognition of the importance of diversity, and a new and welcome focus on good wellbeing and mental health in the workplace.

And it would be remiss not to acknowledge the recent strong collaboration between workforce and leaders in many organisations, where trade unions in particular have worked to ensure both operational requirements and employee safety, meeting the unprecedented challenges of COVID19 and the virus’s impact on the workplace.

But as we potentially go into a long-lasting recession, with unemployment mounting rapidly and entire sectors of the economy at risk, the immediate danger is that this progress will be lost as job quantity becomes the key metric, rather than job quality.  That would be building back worse.  Not that the availability of jobs is not crucial.  But are they going to be jobs concentrated in the low paid sectors, where skills are not valued, or even required? Are we going to see an increased polarisation between the bottom and the top of the labour market, with the middle hollowed out?  Millions of good jobs are at risk – devastating for individuals and for a balanced economy. 

So what should be the priorities to build back better? Firstly, if we do not come up with a coherent national skills and training strategy, predicated around the real jobs of the future – a long-standing lack in the UK – we will deal yet another blow to the UK’s dismal productivity record. Secondly employers need to keep the focus on employee engagement, on positive workplace cultures, diversity and inclusion programmes and employee wellbeing – not see them as optional ‘expensive’ extras to be abandoned when times get tough.  We’ve already seen how damaging to some corporate reputations bad behaviour from the top has been during the pandemic – and public scrutiny is not going away.  Thirdly, the government must keep its promise and not allow any dilution of employment rights as we finally sever ties with the EU; indeed we need to see rights extended to the precariat to avoid even more social division. Fourthly, we need a national debate about what work we really value, and how best to equalise rewards and opportunity, building on the national acknowledgement and applause for the vital role of key workers, often on little more than the minimum wage, in keeping the country running through the height of the pandemic. In particular, we need to tackle the scandal of low pay and poor conditions for care workers in the domiciliary and care homes sector.

Fifthly, we should seize on the positive lessons from the COVID19 experience so far as working arrangements are concerned.  Without exacerbating the potential gulf between those unable to work from home, and those who can, there are advantages for many employees’ work life balance, for reducing the carbon emissions from heavy road traffic, for example. In the medium term, reconfiguration of production using the new technologies, increased innovation and collaboration in meeting challenges from a more resilient and agile workforce may prove a much needed shot in the arm for the economy.

Finally, if build back better is to be more than a slogan it will require all the stakeholders – government, business, trade union, professional bodies with an interest and expertise in the workplace such as CIPD (and not forgetting the IPA) – to come together to chart a course for the revival of the UK economy and with it our bruised and battered society.


Nita Clarke OBE is Director of the IPA