Leveraging 'People' Power of Sustainability

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Professor Alan R Nankervis

Professor of Human Resource Management in the School of Management, Curtin Business School, Curtin University, Australia


Alan has more than thirty years’ academic experience at three universities in Australia, and in the UK, Canada, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand, together with consultancies in Indonesia, China and Thailand. He was the Director of the Sydney Graduate School of Management, Research Director and Head of HRM at Curtin University. He is currently the Chair of the Australian Human Resources Institute’s (AHRI) National Program Accreditation Committee.

 Alan has published more than 150 books, book chapters, international journal articles and conference papers for publishers such as Routledge, Palgrave Macmillan, Cambridge University Press, Pearson Education and Cengage Learning; and journals including Personnel Review, Thunderbird International Business Review, Asia Pacific Business Review and Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources. His research interests include the links between performance review and firm performance, comparative Asian HRM/Management, services management, and skills development in the Asia Pacific.

Alan’s most recent book is New Models of HRM in the Asia Pacific (Routledge), co-authored with Professors Malcolm Warner (Cambridge University), Fang Lee Cooke (Monash University) and Samir Chattejee (Curtin University). 

The New (Ab)Normal? 

Not surprisingly, there have been many predictions made about the impact of COVID-19 on the economy, societies more generally; and in particular, the future of work, jobs and the labour market. Some commentary has focused on an entirely transformed business and social environment where people routinely work from home, balancing online study with parental responsibilities, and struggling with the maintenance of harmonious relationships with both partners working from home. These expectations have been greeted with a mixture of optimism and gloom.

In this article, I would like to reflect on three somewhat neglected aspects of the pandemic – the likely impacts on industry composition and employment, occupational health and safety, and intergenerational conflict.

Industry composition & employment

​With respect to industry composition, the three hardest-hit sectors in Australia are tourism and hospitality, the arts, and healthcare, with the former two almost decimated and the latter over-stretched. Arguably, the retail and (parts of) the manufacturing sectors have benefited significantly. However, all sectors have been affected, in most cases adversely. So, where to from here? Whilst there have been ingenious transitional initiatives such as virtual tourism, online museum and art gallery visits, a surge in online purchasing and home delivery, it is likely that the re-opening of domestic and international travel, hotels and artistic venues will result in a complementary blend of actual and virtual travel, real and online visits in the foreseeable future, giving the consumer enhanced options. However, the effect on employment in these sectors may well be less positive, depending on the size, markets and products on offer.

A less sanguine prediction is that some (especially smaller) retail sector service providers may choose to use either close or utilise online trading as their only outlet, reducing their use of labour and possibly accessing offshore employees in order to significantly reduce their overhead costs. A strong possibility also is that larger retail chains will use the pandemic as a catalyst for implementing proposed artificial intelligence technologies in their distribution centres and stores, thus cutting costs, avoiding industrial relations conflicts and making their supply chains more efficient. There is already evidence in Australia suggesting this. Again, the effects on jobs, working conditions and the labour market more generally are likely to be significant. 

Occupational health & safety

​Occupational health and safety (OHS) may seem to be a surprising impact of the pandemic, apart from the obvious safety measures required in present and future workplaces. However, an increase in remote working leads to an extension of employers’ workers compensation liabilities, with its associated costs and legal processes. A myriad of potential issues is associated with employees working from home, including (but not limited) to employer support in setting up home workplaces, duty of care, the prevention of accidents and exposure to toxic substances or transmissible viruses. In a bizarre (but concerning) recent legal case in Australia, an employee is suing her employer for injuries caused by domestic abuse at her home ‘workplace’! Depending on the verdict of the case, there may well be a precedent set affecting many, if not all, workplaces. Given the blurring of work schedules in home workplaces, this Pandora’s box could lead to employer responsibilities for injuries sustained due to alcohol or other drug issues, kitchen burns or mental health concerns associated with working in isolation. Another reason for employers to choose to replace employees where possible with 24/7 low-wage, non-unionised, non-insured robots?

Intergenerational conflict

​My final issue is that of inter-generational conflict, perhaps another unexpected issue with respect to the effects of COVID-19. How could this be relevant? Well, within a broader societal context of increasing divides between the Gen X, Gen Y, Millennials and Baby Boomers - reflected in perceptions that the latter are not digitally competent and are often unwilling or unable to adapt to these new technologies - some COVID-19 commentators have even suggested that ‘eradication’ (rather than ‘suppression’) of the virus will only be achieved if the vulnerable (ie. Baby Boomers) are allowed to be exposed to it in a ‘survival of the fittest’ scenario. Such strategies reflect identity politics movements which have been described as ‘the new political and social culture of the US, Britain and Australia whereby people are encouraged to discover not how we are all essentially the same as each other, but how we are all different – and how we will always be different, with all the consequences that follow. Instead of looking for things on which to agree with each other, we're urged to emphasise how many things we disagree on’ (Roskam, 2019). In other words, we’re not ‘all in this together’! Add to this equation the likely reduction of many workforces, the need for more agile and adaptable employees with digital skills and competencies; and an escalation of the generational conflict to the detriment of older employees versus the loss of experience, expertise and diversity in many workplaces.

(Douglas Murray, in Roskam, J. Identity politics thrives on the ideas that divide us’, Financial Review, 10.10.2019)​