Add Your Idea

Taking work seriously

Comment 16th July 2010


A small number of European countries have developed exemplary programmes to support workplace innovation; typically they promote workplace changes that seek simultaneous gains in productivity and quality of working life, and have generated a growing body of evidence that such convergence is achievable. Such programmes are not about regulation – but about creating a environment rich in resources to support workplace innovation. Over four decades and despite regular changes of government these programmes have generated considerable evidence of how targeted intervention can produce tangible gains for business and employees alike, and their outcomes have enhanced collective understanding of ‘what works’ in terms of effective and sustainable approaches to work organisation. Yet these policy measures – and their considerable achievements – remain relatively unknown in the UK.

 

Such a significant policy lacuna extends to the EU itself which, despite token recognition of the well-documented need to modernise work organisation across Europe, demonstrates little policy leadership either amongst member states or within its own portfolio of programmes.

The Challenge

Evidence from the Workplace Employment Relations Survey (WERS) suggests that since 1992 Britain has fallen further behind in the adoption of working practices which are known to enhance competitiveness, inclusion and working life. Yet politicians remain silent about the workplace. The recent publication of the Government’s own MacLeod Review of Employee Engagement  adds further evidence to the argument, and makes this silence even less sustainable.

Government should:

  • recognise that the challenges of competitiveness, innovation, social inclusion, health and active ageing cannot be fully met when what happens in the workplace remains beyond the reach of public policy;
  • learn from the experiences of countries such as Finland, France, Germany and Norway: that governments have a clear role to play in helping companies to modernise their working practices, but that this role is only effective when it is both sustained and when it achieves political consensus.


UKWON (2009) Workplace Innovation in European Countries. A Report to the Korean Workplace Innovation Centre. Available from peter.totterdill@ukwon.net.

Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (2009)  Engaging for Success: enhancing performance through employee engagement. A Report to Government by David MacLeod and Nita Clarke (“The MacLeod Review”).

Why does this matter?

Even before the current crisis it was clear that all was far from well. Productivity and innovation levels continued to lag far behind those of US and Asian competitors; employment levels showed gains during the decade but these proved to be largely cyclical; older workers continue to leave the workforce prematurely despite the UK’s ageing demographic profile and the looming pensions crisis, while many younger workers are marginalised in low-skill and insecure jobs; healthy working continues to be an elusive vision for many workers throughout the labour market; organisations are belatedly realising that disengaged or only partially engaged employees represent a substantial business cost. Meanwhile, notwithstanding the shock of worldwide recession, strategic challenges appear to grow stronger by the day: globalisation and the growth of China, climate change, and the continuous emergence of disruptive technologies to name but a few.

Policy responses to this increasingly volatile global environment have been largely fragmented. Predominant policy interventions have focused on the macro-system level, for example by increasing public subsidies for skills enhancement, reforming benefit systems and pensions to encourage greater labour market participation, and incentives for R&D. With a few notable exceptions the workplace has been largely invisible in this debate.

Policymakers tend not to understand workplaces or the organisation of work. Work organisation is regarded as a private matter for employers, at best involving consultation and participation involving employees or trade unions but this is only sporadically reinforced by regulation or active policy. It is as though UK politicians have failed to understand that work is where the majority of the population spend their most active hours for most of their lives, and that how work is organised is vitally important for individual human happiness and fulfillment, and has a direct impact on the health and wealth of society.

In consequence work organisation has become an underused resource for UK public policy. The design of work processes and the extent to which organisational practices facilitate or inhibit employee participation actively influences the ability of organisations to compete, innovate in products and services or address environmental issues. These factors exercise a major influence on the extent to which employees can utilise their skills and develop them further, and therefore on the return which employers and the state realise from their investment in vocational training. Work organisation is also a determinant of employees’ quality of working life, shaping the extent to which they gain satisfaction and personal growth from their working lives; it therefore shapes their level of engagement, their ambition, their retention by the organisation (not least in the case of older workers able to retire or mothers considering whether to return to work after the birth of children), and their mental and physical health. Yet the evidence suggests that only a small proportion of workplaces, public or private, are deploying participative working methods systemically across the whole organisation. Several obstacles to the dissemination of participative approaches have been identified including lack of managerial awareness and understanding, poor access to actionable knowledge, and the tendency to embark on partial change.

 
 


1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (No Ratings Yet)  adds further evidence to the argument, and makes this silence even less sustainable. Government should: recognise that the challenges of competitiveness, innovation, social inclusion, health and active ageing cannot be fully met when what happens in the workplace remains beyond the reach of public policy; learn from the experiences of countries such as Finland, France, Germany and Norway: that governments have a clear role to play in helping companies to modernise their working practices, but that this role is only effective when it is both sustained and when it achieves political consensus. UKWON (2009) Workplace Innovation in European Countries. A Report to the Korean Workplace Innovation Centre. Available from peter.totterdill@ukwon.net. Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (2009)  Engaging for Success: enhancing performance through employee engagement. A Report to Government by David MacLeod and Nita Clarke (“The MacLeod Review”). " />

Highlighted posts


Comment on this idea

Good idea? Bad idea? Let us know your thoughts.


Back to top
Add Your Idea