“There is no route to the future that does not have social enterprise at its centre. There is no route to levelling up that does not include social enterprise. No route to stronger communities, to socially responsible businesses, to better society as a whole without social enterprise.”Gordon Brown

This session was all about the world of work, how it has been changed by the pandemic and what role there is for social enterprise when we’re faced with more insecurity, low pay and the threat of increased automation

We opened with a barnstorming call to action from former PM, Gordon Brown, who spoke passionately about just how important social enterprises will be in the future of the economy and of society. Whilst Chancellor and as PM he as involved in the creation of the Community Interest Company, the first social enterprise fund and the appointment of social enterprise ambassadors.

The key aspect of his speech was that social enterprise is more important now than ever when the world of work, the consumer economy and the delivery of public services face great change. We need to value work more, pay better and recognise the importance of community, ending by saying that “we cannot return to the 1980s – we cannot leave our future to chance and expect markets to do everything”

The themes Gordon touched upon were expanded upon in a panel discussion featuring three very different social enterpreneurs, each one addressing issues around access to employment. These were Cemal Ezel from Change Please, Dr Hinnah Rafique from Generation Medics and Kate Bull from Britain’s Bravest Manufacturing Company. The event was chaired by Kate Bull from social enterprise recruitment organisation, Graduate Planet.

Change Please is a social enterprise coffee company creating Living Wage jobs for people who are homeless also providing housing within 10 days and other support services as well. They are set up to break down the barriers of access faced by people experiencing homelessness. Generation Medics helps people from disadvantaged and underrepresented communities get work in the health sector and Britain’s Bravest employ veterans and people with disabilities at their business manufacturing products from road signs to wooden pallets. Here are some key takeaways from the discussion.

Automation is happening but social enterprises are natural innovators, focused on people.

“We start with the problem we want to solve.. automation in some aspects can be really liberating and freeing”

Kate Bull mentioned that the world of manufacturing is already more automated and that it is something that they cannot shy away from. One of the key things about social enterprises is that they are people focused so whereas other businesses may only focus on the bottom line, social enterprises see “the value in the person, not so much the job.” Britain’s Bravest has managed to use automation to keep on investing in people, citing an example of a water jet cutter which, through being made more automated can actually help employees with disabilities, with operators becoming technical experts in how the new machines work.

Dr Hinnah felt that automation in healthcare could lead to a freeing up of staff so they can spend more time looking after patients and Cemal added that automation does create opportunities for social enterprises, who have shown an ability to pivot due to COVID and can do so again as a way of dealing with the changing world of work. During the peak of the pandemic business dropped 95% for Change Please (being a supplier to train companies and Virgin Atlantic – less people travelling resulted in less people buying coffee) however through taking advantage of changes to government procurement rules, they won a £4m contract with the NHS and are looking to work more in this space.

Representation matters, as does pay

Dr Hinnah mentioned the importance of representation in the workplace stating that “it’s really important to have representation at all levels, making sure we have people will lived experience when we’re talking about diversity.” It’s important to champion workplace diversity and see what is valuable about it. Dr Hinnah also focused on the issue of pay, especially in social care. With an ageing population, care work is going to be more important and an increasingly large part of the economy. As such there’s no better time to think about “how we make the health and social care system more fit for purpose for the whole of the UK.”

Some things are not going to return to normal, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing

Zoom calls will be a part of our future as well as our present and the future is looking increasingly digital and increasingly online. Generation Medics have now shifted all their services online and use of Zoom has actually helped Change Please set up in Australia!

For Kate Bull the uncertainty of the situation with COVID led to more transparency with teams and a change the possibilities of what they could achieve – “The mindset that we can break out and be innovative – it broke down some preconceptions in our team of what they are capable of doing.”

On a positive endnote, the panel agreed that the kindness of people shown over the pandemic will continue as will the support networks that have been set up. Hinnah saw volunteers step up and help when she was suffering from long-COVID and Cemal stated that even though people are worried about their incomes, they still want to do good and increasingly want to use their money to buy social and support social enterprises.