The Social Integration APPG’s inquiry on social connection during the pandemic heard evidence of a wide and impressive array of activities from business, ranging from checking on customers’ wellbeing and supporting food banks to encouraging employees to volunteer.
Businesses made an important contribution to local communities during the pandemic through donations and support. Contributing to food banks, helping to address digital exclusion and other forms of donation can help relieve poverty. But the pandemic has also highlighted the need to address isolation, loneliness and community divisions through social mixing of people from diverse backgrounds.
Volunteering played a central role in this process, with employer-supported activity having particular value. Before COVID-19, an estimated 5-10% of volunteering was supported by employers, with larger organisations more likely to encourage this activity. The pandemic saw an increase in employer-supported volunteering, both from smaller businesses and large companies with a strong local presence. As well as supporting local people and communities, employer-supported volunteering has helped to diversify the volunteer force and promote social mixing.
Working from home, or being furloughed, made it easier for employees to balance volunteering with work commitments. It may also have shifted the focus of many to their local community. Much of the volunteering that took place during the pandemic was informal. As we come out of the pandemic, ways need to be found to secure longer-term involvement of employers and their workforces in volunteering which increases social connection. It needs to be as easy and rewarding for employees to volunteer from the workplace as it has been to do so from home.
Employees can offer skills that charities need, but this requires working with businesses to plan the types of volunteering that best supports communities – including skills, time and frequency. Employees can also learn new skills through volunteering and these should be recognised by businesses including through staff development and appraisal systems.
To take forward employer-assisted volunteering beyond the pandemic, the APPG report suggests a range of measures. These include tax incentives for SMEs and a requirement for larger businesses to engage with their communities as part of planning applications. The benefits of employer-assisted volunteering also need to be more widely publicised through a government-backed national campaign; and all initiatives aimed at recruiting volunteers should encourage employers to get involved and to support the kinds of volunteering that are needed.
Put employment and skills at the heart of the levelling up agenda
The pandemic highlighted issues of poverty, inequality and disadvantage among people and communities. People who experience high levels of deprivation, whether through unemployment or low paid work, were affected more severely by the virus and were more likely to rely on support from foodbanks and other forms of mutual aid. The experience of the pandemic shows the importance of putting employment and skills at the centre of the levelling up strategy. This needs to include programmes to get people back to work.
As the UK recovers, employers, along with central and local government, should provide targeted investment in skills and training. The rollout of programmes such as Kickstart and Apprenticeships should be monitored to check they are taken up by small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and are meeting the needs of people in disadvantaged areas.
Where business investment is insufficient and fails to meet the needs of disadvantaged groups, social enterprises, community businesses and employee-ownership are among a range of different models that can be used to create local opportunities. A report by the thinktank New Local provides some examples: Giroscope in Hull trains local people who are far from the labour market to renovate disused properties; and the Sewing Rooms in Skelmersdale provides training to victims of domestic abuse, ex-offenders and those who are long-term unemployed, to manufacture soft furnishings.
Workplaces are communities too
Unemployment often brings with it social exclusion and isolation, yet being in work is no guarantee of social connection. Shift work, irregular hours and heavy workloads create little opportunity for employees to get to know each other. Migrant workers and ethnic minorities often miss out on social contact because of occupational segregation and long working hours.
A post-pandemic deal for employment must include a focus on how to move these and other workers out of low-skilled, dead-end jobs and achieve their potential. The success of all government-funded programmes in opening up opportunities to ethnic minorities and other groups that are under-represented in particular sectors and occupations should be closely monitored.
There is also a need for workplace-focused measures to increase social contact between migrants and British workers. English language provision can play a part in this process, as well as enabling migrants to progress out of lower skilled work.
Migration Yorkshire has found local employers of migrant workers harder than others to engage in integration activities. It recommends that local authorities should be more proactive in engaging employers of migrants in local partnerships, as well as supporting English language provision, community events and alerting local partners to workplace tensions.
The importance of English language in speeding up integration and in enabling migrants to work at their level of education and ability cannot be over-stated. Workplace provision of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) cannot be funded via the Adult Education Budget (AEB), yet for many it is much more convenient than college or community provision. The flexibilities given to Combined Mayoral Authorities to use their AEB budgets to cover workplace provision should be extended to all local authorities.
Plans for rebuilding struggling communities often include commitments to new infrastructure and developments. Yet smaller-scale investments in skills and employment and ensuring that employees receive social as well as economic benefits at work, can help to build stronger better connected communities. Employers pursuing these aims will find support from local authorities and providers of health education and training services – and also from their own employees.