Shorter weeks and longer holidays: How Covid-19 could transform our working lives

A new report has laid the groundwork for less work, more flexibility and better parental leave options

The ground work has been laid for a shorter working week, shorter and flexible shifts, longer holidays, a better work-life balance and stronger parental leave as a result of the shift in work patterns that has come out of the Covid-19 pandemic.

A new report from the Institute for Public Policy Research and funded by the Alex Ferry Foundation sets out the state of working time during the pandemic.

The report – titled “The Covid shift: Working time in manufacturing after COVID19” examines the risks – and opportunities – presented by the coronavirus outbreak on reduced working time in the UK – including the reduction of working hours with no loss in income, and greater autonomy and flexibility in relation to how and when work is performed.

The authors focus on manufacturing and engineering, which the report rightly says are ‘sectors often left out of the working time debate’. “Manufacturing brings different challenges to the issue of reduced working time to sectors that are primarily office-based”, the authors note.

The government’s policies to slow the pandemic’s spread have caused huge disruption to the economy, and brought about a rapid change to how most workplaces function – with the risk of high unemployment embedding a culture of precarious and insecure work.

But the report states: “The experience of the pandemic may also hold lessons for how work could be arranged more effectively in future…with more time for the important parts of our lives outside of paid labour.”

It also highlights the lessons that which can be learned on the challenges of the coming decades, from automation, artificial intelligence, to climate and natural emergencies, which will also disrupt the economy and could reduce the amount of paid work available.

Among the report’s initial recommendations are that the UK government should extend the flexible furlough scheme to facilitate short-time working while the economy is subdued (and until a recovery has been achieved), with a reformed scheme which could form the basis of a more permanent offer to companies struggling from economic shocks – as they currently do in Germany.

During short-time working, businesses and the UK government should support workers to use spare hours to take up paid training opportunities with a focus on a drive towards upskilling, reskilling and retraining.

The report also recommends that businesses should work with unions to gauge reductions in working time, including a reduced working week and to collect examples from the crisis on how flexible working and reduced hours have been made possible.

It also proposes the introduction new bank holidays in recognition of the contribution of key workers through the pandemic.

Next year being is the 150th anniversary of the original Bank Holidays Act, the report also recommends that the government consider to start with introducing a new bank holiday, to celebrate the health and care workforce – both in reaction to Covid-19, and their wider contribution to society.

This should be the first step in a longer-term plan to increase bank holiday and more flexible annual leave entitlements.

The debate on working hours has already been started and this report, alongside a recent New Economics Foundation report, adds to the strength of the arguments for a progressive reduction in working time.

A full copy of the report can be downloaded here.

The Alex Ferry Foundation is the charity established to run the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions 35-Hour Week Fund set up during a dispute in the engineering industry in 1989.

That fund provided essential financial support to workers who were engaged in an industrial struggle to establish a 35-hour working week. Following the conclusion of the campaign and industrial action, a surplus was left in the fund.

Tony Burke is Assistant General Secretary of Unite and President of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions.

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