The Covid-19 pandemic has been the biggest disrupter our society has experienced for over a century, and it will change the world of work forever. My vision of a dystopian future of work may be an Orwellian fantasy, but it includes the issues which internal communicators will be grappling with for years to come.
After the third wave of infection the UK Government made the Covid-19 contact tracing phone app compulsory for everyone with a smart phone and compelled network operators to block network access to any device without it.
During the second wave, the first-generation app released in June 2020 had been upgraded to show the users ‘indicative’ Covid contact status. Green giving the user unhindered access to their workplace, shops and other public spaces, with an indicative red status providing employers and others with the ‘option’ of denying entry. This ambiguity in policy provoked a mass uninstall of the app, the collapse of the UK’s track, trace and isolate strategy and paved the way for the third incursion of the virus.
The daily commute is a distant memory for many workers, with some railway lines now disused or temporarily closed and other public transport scaled back to just meet the travel needs of key workers and those who cannot routinely work at home. In response to this, many employers took the opportunity after the second wave to reduce rates of pay to reflect that their existing employees no longer needed to bear the cost of transport season tickets. Some employees lost thousands from their pay-packets, knowing that their employers’ real reason to make the cut was the desperate need to reduce costs as business barely ticks over. Most did not protest, fearful of losing scarce paid employment if they did.
Many office buildings and other workplaces now stand empty, decaying and up for let, with those which are still sparsely occupied adapted to meet stringent social distancing rules. Workstations are divided by glass and plastic screening and open plan offices have been adapted to become single occupancy rooms and cubicles reminiscent of workplaces in the 1960s and 70s. All workplaces have strict one-way systems in place which must be inspected and approved by the Ministry for Covid Affairs (MfCA). Floors must have permanent markings and there is prominent signage everywhere directing the flow of the few workers within them – ‘One Way Only’, ‘Stay Alert’, ‘No Stopping’, Staircase Up Only’, ‘Lift Not In Use’, ‘No Eating At Your Desk’, ‘Decon Station Here’. Failure to comply is a dismissible offence. Common or communal areas are banned as are gatherings of more than 6 employees in one room. Hotdesking as a concept has been relegated to the history books, no one has missed its passing.
Workplace meetings requiring the physical presence of employees must be absolutely necessary and now take place in Covid secure collaboration areas with 2.5-metre-high screening to separate the participants who must also wear face masks for the duration of the encounter. The meeting room must have a window and this must be open for the duration of the discussion regardless of the weather conditions outside. Office furniture can no longer have fabric coverings, floors no carpet and all surfaces must be cleaned twice daily with MfCA approved products. Some organisations have built outdoor meeting spaces, reminiscent of the smoking shelters built after the smoking ban of 2007, to get around the regulations.
Physical workplace meetings are also strictly limited to 15 minutes following the discovery by virologists that the initial period of exposure to the Covid-19 coronavirus is a significant factor in the severity of the disease following infection. Employees aptitude for brevity and succinctness have become some of the most valued behavioral traits and skills for employers, who now factor their demonstration into the calculation of annual bonuses. Procrastination in meetings is now classed by most employers as minor misconduct due to the wastage of valuable ‘face-time’ this causes, with repeat offenders facing dismissal or sanctions.
Most organisations have been compelled to change their business strategies and plans, their old operating models being simply unworkable in a socially distanced society. This has driven changes in organisational values with ‘Wellness’ and ‘Alertness’ displacing ‘Excellence’ and ‘Empowered’ in many workplace values sets. For many employees it is still questionable if these are any more understandable, relevant and actionable than what was there before and if they drive the right behaviours.
Employees working in some sectors must now have a Certificate of Digital Competence, awarded and administered by the MfCA. This supports the increased reliance on digital technology during periods of intensified remote and homeworking, as the infection rate ebbs and flows and the Government Covid Alert level flickers between amber and yellow. This must be renewed annually at the employees’ own expense with employers obliged to dismiss those who fail the MfCA online test to acquire it and banned from hiring those who do not have one.
Those who are fortunate to have paid employment must now make a compulsory Social Responsibility Contribution (SRC), which is automatically deducted from their salary by employers, to help support those citizens who do not. More commonly referred to as the ‘Furlough Tax’ this supports those who have been furloughed or made redundant as a consequence of a Covid infection spike and the periodic tightening of the lockdown measures. Those made redundant for other reasons do not receive the SRC support payment.
Many employers have rewritten their employee’s contracts of employment and absence policies to shift the burden of responsibility for remaining infection free onto employees. This occurred after several high-profile court cases involving groups of employees infected by Covid 19 in the workplace who successfully sued their employers for compensation in multi-million pound class actions. The Government and Trade Unions have not intervened, fearful of driving yet more organisations to the wall through exposure to the risk of copy-cat claims against the backdrop of an economy still on its knees.
Recruiters must now aim to prioritise those applicants who were furloughed during the first and second waves of infection, after the MfCA issued ‘guidance’ to implement the recommendations of social scientists that rationing available employment shares the benefits of meaningful activity, keeping the lid on an epidemic of poor mental health in the working age population to protect the NHS.
Workplace discrimination has increased as employers covertly ‘select out’ older workers, men and some other groups of applicants during recruitment and performance management processes, due to their apparent increased vulnerability to the disease. Levels of workplace morale and trust have consequently plummeted, with many employers abandoning the annual employee engagement survey, too afraid to expose or stir up simmering employee dissent.
The MfCA has also just issued further guidance on the recommended daily screen time for UK working age adults. This is in response to the epidemic of psychological and physical illnesses which erupted and overwhelmed the NHS as social, leisure, learning activities and work migrated online during the first wave, compelling home-working employees to spend excessive time in sedentary activities online.
The new guidance includes instructions to prioritise screen time allowances for work related activities to protect economic output and productivity, and outlines proposals to monitor the time spent by all citizens online and the activities they engage in to enforce this. Retailers and Social Media operators were not included in the government consultation during the development of the guidance and have objected. It remains to be seen if the Government will relent to their protests and adapt the proposals, perhaps as a reward for their improved compliance with the new draconian tax avoidance legislation hastily implemented after the second wave.
The search for an effective vaccine staggers on, but it seems increasingly unlikely now that one will ever be found. After the success of a widescale vaccine trial in humans shortly after the second wave, the virus mutated rendering the vaccine useless and it was also discovered that infection and recovery only conferred temporary immunity.
Some organisations now protect and retain their most valued talent and senior executives by offering periodic plasma and antibody transfusions to those willing to sign a 10-year lock in contract. The ultimate health and wellbeing benefit for those lucky enough to qualify for it.
The transfusions are administered by private clinics, with the plasma sourced from the socially disadvantaged and unemployed who have survived the virus, in return for a payment. Many have signed up to be donors in this new unregulated health market, desperate for money having not worked since the pandemic began. The poor and the sick finally have something the rich desire ….temporary immunity at a price.
It is 646 days since lockdown and social distancing began……..……..communicate this.
Postscript – Is this such a far-fetched tale? Maybe, but regardless of the dystopian and Orwellian themes don’t dismiss my vision of the near future as a complete fantasy. These are some of the issues which internal communicators will be asked to communicate to employees as the new abnormal unfolds. The Covid-19 pandemic has been the biggest disrupter our society has experienced for over a century, and it will change the world of work forever. Changes to business strategy, organisational values, CSR commitments, workplace practices and policies, reward, benefits, terms and conditions of employment, pay cuts, redundancies, new definitions of wellbeing and mental health and maintaining and tracking morale are the things we will be grappling with for years to come.
© ggelf IC 2020