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Post-Covid work patterns must not be imposed by bosses with an eye on cost

<span>Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA</span>
Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA

The pandemic has triggered more than a few arguments about the future of work. Some employers have made it clear to staff that there is an office desk waiting for them when all the lockdown restrictions have lifted. Goldman Sachs fits this category.

Others have embraced the prospect of new ways of working and invested heavily in the technology needed to overcome the barriers of distance and lack of information for those based remotely.

Among those ahead of the pack is Unilever, maker of consumer goods from Dove soap to Cornettos, which before the pandemic had been trialling flexible working in all its offices, and a four-day week in its New Zealand subsidiary.

Across the UK, town, city and county councillors will be waiting nervously as the debate unfolds over the coming months. Employers are likely to adapt quickly to changing need and as they do, it will become clear to local government how high the stakes are. A widespread switch to home working will alter the dynamics of plans drawn up in a previous era, affecting how high streets, homes and commercial areas are developed.

Until last week, there was the real prospect of ministers telling people to go back to the office as a matter of public policy. Boris Johnson had indicated that he favoured a new normal that looked very much like the old one.

Talking to staff will be crucial as employers feel their way towards a new framework

This stance appears to have changed. The government is now considering legislating to make working from home the “default” option, by giving employees the right to request it.

Hybrid working, where workers go into the office for only part of the week, already looks like becoming the norm, at least for those employed by major corporations.

The implications for individuals will be profound and long-lasting. The TUC has identified a growing divide between a privileged elite of professionals who work for large employers and can demand more flexibility, and those in blue-collar jobs who find that the only flexibility on offer is to work a variety of shifts at their employer’s bidding.

In other words, blue-collar jobs and the growing gig economy workforce will be even more tightly tied to shift patterns dictated by their employers, and these shifts will be in the workplace. The flexibility, such as it is, will mostly be for the employer’s benefit.

To make matters worse, the next steps will probably be taken by employers based on little more than gut instinct. Accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers has announced a flexible working policy for its 22,000 UK staff that it said was a “direct response to soundings from our people”.

Talking to staff will be crucial as employers feel their way towards a new framework, whether it is based on a policy of working in the office with occasional time at home, a default policy that emphasises working from home or something in between.

What is more likely to happen – and would be a further deterioration in Britain’s amateurish industrial relations – is a rash of arbitrary decisions based on no more than the need to cut costs and a short-term drive to increase productivity.

Most businesses operate with profit margins far below those enjoyed by the likes of PwC, and will put staff consultation in the category of “nice to have” rather than “essential”. It is quite possible that office-based workers will be told to work from home – or the opposite – with no account taken of their personal circumstances.

The government could step in and emphasise the need for new employment practices to be developed in discussion with employees, rather than default options dictated from on high. Local government could be given more resources to support employers keen to adapt.

Otherwise there could be a lurch to new working patterns that are misguided, costly – and become a matter of regret to all concerned.

Sale of Channel 4 is an old repeat the Tories shouldn’t be airing

The idea of privatising Channel 4 has been around for a quarter of a century and the policy has never been adopted, so there is no certainty that the government’s latest review will bring about a different result. But the threat of privatisation clearly exists – a decision is due by the end of this year, the Financial Times has reported – and feels more immediate this time.

For example, John Whittingdale, the culture minister with responsibility for broadcast policy, was one of those early advocates of privatisation. Furthermore, the government may now argue that, in the age of Netflix and others, a dose of bracing private ownership would be good for Channel 4 itself.

No one, of course, would deny that C4 is an odd beast. It is state-owned but commercially funded; profits are reinvested and it is told to attract young audiences. It is also true that the rise of streaming services will have hit its valuation: as a business it would be unlikely to attract offers of £1bn, the estimate at the time of the last review in 2016.

But the idea that the channel is some kind of hapless innocent that can only be saved by the private sector should be rejected. After losses in 2019, due partly to the cost of relocating its headquarters to Leeds, a surplus is expected for 2020. A fifth of revenues are coming from its on-demand digital platforms.

The privatisation threat, then, looks driven by ideology. A private-sector owner would, one assumes, demand a freer hand to run the business purely commercially, potentially threatening its costly but important news output. And the wider danger is that Channel 4’s use of independent production houses would be diluted, or lost altogether.

The case for privatisation looks weak. The best solution may be just to give Channel 4 slightly more commercial freedom. A bit of biodiversity in the TV jungle is a good thing.

What future for old-economy sport sponsors?

Every major sports tournament has its discontent over sponsors, particularly at beer and fast food ads jostling to bask in athletes’ healthy glow. The belated Euro 2020 now has its own mild controversy: Cristiano Ronaldo’s preference for water over Coca-Cola.

The Portuguese player’s move spawned imitators: France’s Paul Pogba moved Heineken beer bottles out of sight at a press conference, and Ukraine’s Andriy Yarmolenko and Italy’s Manuel Locatelli joined in too. England expected its men to do their duty, and manager Gareth Southgate and captain Harry Kane duly stepped in behind the sponsors. “It’s not something personally I’ve thought too much about,” said Kane, after defending Coca-Cola.

Sponsorship always has risks – ask Nike about Lance Armstrong or Tiger Woods. Coca-Cola has sponsored the Euros since 1988, much to campaigners’ ire. With obesity now a global problem, many experts – including, it seems, Ronaldo – view regular consumption of sugary drinks and fatty foods as incompatible with a healthy lifestyle.

The Euros’ full sponsor list is telling. The 2020 brands fall into two broad categories. There are old-economy carbon emitters such as Volkswagen – which is moving gradually away from fossil fuels – long-haul airlines like Qatar Airways, and inveterate Russian gas producer Gazprom. Then there are the tech arrivistes, such as food-ordering app Just Eat Takeaway, Chinese payments company Alipay, and video-sharing app TikTok.

The presence of the latter suggests even a superstar of Ronaldo’s heft is highly unlikely to trigger a reassessment of sports sponsorship. Live sport still draws droves of younger viewers, and they are advertising’s holy grail.

That doesn’t mean regularly assessing sponsors’ suitability isn’t useful. Brands don’t necessarily want to be the focus; they want to be just in view, part of the furniture, noticed only semi-consciously. We mustn’t let them get too comfortable.