Shaping a fairer world of work: reflections from the IES Annual Conference

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9 May 2023

Dan LucyDan Lucy, Director, HR Research and Consulting 

Simply describing the contours of our labour market lays bare the inequity across age, gender, ethnicity and a range of other characteristics and circumstances. Faced with the stark realities of the numbers, one can be readily overwhelmed with the scale of the task of creating a fairer world of work. Serendipitously, our excellent range of expert speakers did not succumb to feeling a similar way. Yes, our Institute Director, Tony Wilson, was not afraid of outlining the scale of the challenge ahead but also forward looking in highlighting that improving fairness was a critical means for organisations to address many of the recruitment and retention challenges they are faced with, in the context of a smaller workforce post-Covid and widespread recruitment and retention challenges.

In seeking to address challenges and create a fairer world of work, a few reflections from across our speakers struck me as of particular importance. Firstly, the need for a strong narrative and clearly articulated principles around what fairness at work means, and as a guide to policy and practice decisions. Without that energising North Star of what we should aspire to and hope to achieve, how should we expect to make real progress? Nita Clarke, IPA Director and now happily a colleague of mine, highlighted the importance of this narrative in shaping the wider debate and decisions around fairness.

Second, the importance of evidence and data, and as Heledd Straker, People Evolution Consultant at And Digital, phrased it, ‘how you look at it’. Talking to people, understanding their experiences and insights, alongside other evidence and data helps you not just track and monitor progress but highlight where structural inequities and barriers lie and how to potentially address them. If you do not have the data, these inequities cannot be called out and challenged. Data and insight are also essential to knowing what works, converting sceptics and generating and maintaining the momentum of change. Nicola Smith, interim CEO of Timewise, highlighted the impact of employers introducing flexible working arrangements in frontline roles that are typically perceived to be harder to introduce such measures, for example in construction, retail, and healthcare. Nicola also highlighted research demonstrating the cost-effectiveness of such initiatives, with costs offset by savings from improvements in sickness absence.

Thirdly, I was reminded of the importance of developing a strategy (informed by all that evidence), rather than relying on isolated initiatives shaped by the fads of the day. Dr Duncan Brown, Principal Associate at IES, highlighted that whilst we may never actually achieve perfect fairness, we can and should strive to be more fair, and that this requires looking across the full range of our HR and employment practices through the lens of fairness allied with sustained effort over time. That lens of fairness was also something that Heledd alluded to with the important recognition that we need to build employee experiences which are tailored to meet different needs and expectations, and whilst this is difficult to do, it is indeed possible should we will it so.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.