Belfast Telegraph

What positive economic impacts are being left in the wake of the pandemic?

Sarah McDowell
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The human suffering wrought by COVID-19 will rightly be its overarching legacy.

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However, despite the repeated halting of vast swathes of the economy, many of the feared economic consequences have not materialised; rather, there are several positives that we can take forward as society emerges from the pandemic.

Firstly, it has made us reassess the importance of resilience and the ways we can forge it. OECD data reveals that anxiety levels – already rising prior to COVID-19 – more than doubled in 2020. As a result, there has been a universally increased focus on wellbeing and work-life balance, regardless of job sector or seniority.

In addition, in a King’s College London survey of entrepreneurship during COVID-19, many of those interviewed expressed a greater focus on giving back to their local communities, rather than solely pursuing financial returns.

Perhaps as a result of this shift in perspective, UK entrepreneurs reported some of the highest resilience levels globally, with 55% feeling that the pandemic would positively impact their business in the long-term.

In many ways, the volatility caused by COVID-19 in the labour market (and the free time it has afforded many) has also ignited an entrepreneurial spirit.

Despite Workforce Jobs data illustrating a decline of one-fifth in self-employment in the year to Q3 2021, green shoots are emerging of diversification and increased drive. For example, there has been a marked increase in ‘side hustles’, with workers turning a hobby or passion into additional income. Research by freelancer platform Fiverr found that 58% of these were commenced after March 2020.

Estimates of the value of the UK’s side hustle economy are wide-ranging, but aptly portray its potential. Once measurement, from Henley Business School, suggests that side hustles account for 3.6% of UK GDP.  Applying the same proportion to NI’s GDP suggests that it could be £1.5bn here.

Perhaps the pandemic’s most immediate impact was the overnight transition to remote working. However, the benefits of this virtual transition are more wide-ranging than forgoing the morning commute. It has opened up a previously inaccessible realm of educational, cultural, and social opportunities - from employment support programmes, to exercise classes - to those who live in rural/semi-rural areas, and have limited access to transport, limited time or suffer from reduced mobility.

As we emerge from COVID-19, offices will remain a stalwart of the working world, with 73% of UK workers being keen to return to the office all or most of the time, according to a 2021 Envoy survey. However, a ‘hybrid’ model - with workers and attendees afforded the flexibility to choose the arrangement that best suits their individual circumstances - could offer the best of both worlds.

As society attempts to confine COVID-19 to the history books, there are several lessons that should not be left with it. Choice and flexibility – in the jobs we pursue, the tools we use to promote wellbeing, or the working arrangements we follow – should remain. In doing so, a more inclusive society – and economy – may emerge from COVID-19.