How can HR ensure work is good?

The coronavirus pandemic has re-imagined what work is. Despite major hurdles, how can HR ensure work is still good?

Words by Dan Cave | Design by Matt Bonnar

2020 job focus

In 2020 there has been an undeniable focus on jobs. With coronavirus decimating the employment landscape – measured up to September, ONS figures state that nearly three million people are currently claiming benefits for being out of work; a rise of nearly 120% - not only are there fewer people in jobs but many still employed are dealing with increased workplace anxiety, burnout and fear of either being put on a job retention scheme or worse. (One recent Glint study found that over 50% of workers reported feeling less happy at work after seeing co-workers furloughed or laid off, not forgetting an early year study which charted higher levels of employee burnout due to the pandemic ).

Of course, this drastic change in employment levels, and increased workplace anxiety about job retention, loss and quality, impacts the relationship between employer and employee - with follow on questions about how this might transform, broadly speaking, how good work might be considered to be in and of itself. Largely, this is because certain experts are now calling the jobs market an employer’s marketplace (just think of all the headlines about single vacancies receiving hundreds of applications).

CIPD’s seven dimensions of good work

Pay & benefits

Employment contracts

Work-life balance

Job design and nature of work

Relationships at work

Employee voice

Health & wellbeing

Employer’s market & good work

In fact, a recent Harvard Business Review article on the vagaries of hiring, noted that if the jobs market is now an employer’s one it would suggest that this might impact what potential and current employees are offered in terms of work, remuneration, benefits packages, as well as unsaid expectations upon them regards working hours. (WIRED recently reported that many workers are putting in unpaid longer hours because of this insecurity, or are scared of rejecting employer’s pleas to come back into the office, going against Government advice, due to fear of losing their job).

Whilst this might sound like employees are getting a net worse deal, some believe that this year has actually put a greater focus on ensuring ‘good work’ for staff. Jonny Gifford, senior research adviser at CIPD, explained that: “The coronavirus pandemic has brought into sharp relief employers’ duty of care for their people - and many employers have shown particular concern for the wellbeing of their workers at this unprecedented time.”


That said, Gifford is circumspect about how many employees are able to benefit from this increased focus on wellbeing. “The less fortunate include those whose jobs cannot be done from home and, related to this, those who are more likely to have been furloughed or made put at risk. The most immediate concern for these workers is getting back to work and ensuring job security,” he added.

Gifford’s comments are telling about how ‘good work’ can be measured. The CIPD boffin’s words note that it isn’t just about wellbeing. In fact, according to the CIPD there are ‘seven dimensions’ that impact the quality of work, which are: pay & benefits, employment contracts, work-life balance, job design and nature of work, relationships at work, employee voice and health & wellbeing. It is within these dimensions that the human resource management body believe good work can be measured and identified, affected affected by a range of factors, including employment legislation, labour market conditions, HR practices, the quality of people management and by workers themselves.

The equation for good work

The HR body believe that if work is fairly rewarded, offers security, gives a decent work-life balance, offers fulfilment, support and development, as well as a chance for employees to have their voices heard and be ‘well’ then work could be considered good. Yet, even before coronavirus, the CIPD noted that experience of work wasn’t exactly in a good place. Their Good Work Index shows that in January 2020, one in three UK workers (34%) often or always felt either exhausted (22%), under excessive pressure (21%) or miserable (11%) at work. What’s more, this pre-pandemic research suggests that work has become less healthy over recent years, in particular in relation to mental health, leaving HR departments with a headache over how to improve the nature of work itself.

HR strategy tips on how to ensure good work

HR ownership

Gifford: “HR teams also need to take ownership for understanding strengths and weaknesses in job quality in their organisations. Taking an evidence-based approach, they should collect and analyse people data using reliable and valid measures. This will help them to pinpoint areas where they need to improve.”

Speaking in business performance language

Pickavance: “We know the code that runs business is busines performance, innovation, service that’s in the DNA of all strategy statements, we should apply insights from wellbeing into hooks, that will make boardrooms sit up and take notice.”

Shifting understanding of work

Ceron: “Some have adopted Agile methodologies. Some are training their managers in new technologies. Others have immersed employees in startup, incubator, and accelerator ecosystems. Several companies have hired industry 'outsiders' for thought diversity. Tools have been adopted to make communications more networked."

The solution

Of course, there is no one answer to how to make work good. Solutions will depend on company culture, financial ability, and organisational size. However, some experts believe there are basic strategic tenets to follow. For Mario Ceron, CEO at Zereon Associates and ex-HRD of Ball Corporation, the solution to ensuring that work is good involves understanding the current context – fast change, digital-first, flexibility needed – and balancing that with what individual workers need.

He said: “Advanced HR practitioners quickly see major questions arise, such as how HR can ensure jobs are good quality, how to keep engagement and productivity, how to ensure employee wellbeing, and indeed how to prepare for the future of work. What we find is that the best companies understand deeply that technology and the ‘human factor’ reinforce each other, and tackle consequent HR changes in a comprehensive way…creating more inspiring workplaces for the employees and making businesses much readier for the future.”

For Erik Fjellborg, CEO and Founder of Quinyx, like Ceron, he understands that the interplay between employee and technology will be key to driving positive outcomes for both business and workforce. He explained: "Advanced AI-driven workforce optimisation service allows companies to balance different business objectives by fully automating the labour scheduling process, resulting in significant time and cost savings. This type of technology allows employers to create schedules that suit employees’ preferences, resulting in higher retention and engagement. AI and automation is the future for companies needing ROI across their WFM process.”


This differentiation dovetails with wellbeing. Norman Pickavance, ex-Executive Board Director for Group HR at both Morrisons and Grant Thorntons, adds that he believes one part of ensuring better work is for HR to help the Board understand that wellbeing is a core element of the business strategy, and that a focus on wellbeing can drive better results for both the organisation and the individual. (The implication being that ‘well’ workers improve the company performance and ergo their own job security. “HR people need to make a connection between the disconnect, to demonstrate that the business mission and wellbeing agenda are inextricably linked and are the same agenda,” he said.

Gifford largely agrees with Pickavance, noting that to ensure good work the responsibility usually falls with the people function. He added: “HR professionals have a central and leading role to play in championing good work within their organisation. This includes holding their senior management teams to account.

“HR should be reminding them that people are a company’s most important asset and need to be consistently treated as such through management policies, processes and practice.”

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