Last reviewed 30 July 2020

Dramatic changes to millions of people’s working hours and routines during the Covid-19 crisis show how a more innovative approach to work could benefit UK industry, including manufacturing and engineering, a new report argues.

Produced by thinktank, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), The Covid Shift: Working time in manufacturing, engineering, shipbuilding and aerospace after the pandemic can be found at https://www.ippr.org/files/2020-07/the-covid-shift-july20.pdf.

The report claims that the UK is nearing a “pivotal moment” when new working practices could be adopted across the economy, and that changes made during the pandemic offer a glimpse of how these could be achieved, including in sectors not traditionally seen as open to them.

It argues that the experience of the pandemic may hold lessons for how work could be arranged more effectively in future, with greater agency in the workplace.

The IPPR examine the risks and opportunities presented by the coronavirus outbreak for a progressive vision of working time in the UK: the steady reduction of working hours with no loss in income, and greater autonomy and flexibility in relation to how and when work is performed.

Rachel Statham, IPPR Senior Research Fellow and a co-author of the report, said: “The way people work was already changing before Covid-19, but the past few months have shown how far and how fast innovation is possible — fewer hours, more flexible shifts, more flexibility all round”.

It is not just people in professional and white-collar jobs working from home, she went on. Factories and engineering companies across the UK have also been operating differently, in ways that suit their workforce and which they have helped to design.

The IPPR has called on the Government to extend and improve the flexible furlough scheme to ensure businesses can continue part-time furlough until the economy has sufficiently recovered, rather than an arbitrary cut-off date.

It should open the scheme to new applicants, including new employees, to protect against job losses and should also introduce a new bank holiday, in recognition of the contribution of key workers through the pandemic.

Meanwhile, businesses and unions should set up “reduced working time task forces” to gauge whether reductions in working time, including a reduced working week, are possible and desirable.

Comment from Peninsula Employment Law Director Alan Price

The pandemic has acted as a sort of experiment into how flexible working arrangements can impact the workforce.

Some employers who remained open during the lockdown, and allowed staff to work from home, may well have seen an increase in productivity and a better output from staff.

Those employers will likely welcome change towards more permanent flexible working arrangements in the future. However, others, who may struggle to see the benefit of this if they have managed to thrive without it, may argue against it.

Ultimately, the power is in employers’ hands as the Government has so far given them discretion on how they deal with flexible working requests.