Past Events

8th Meeting: Pay

June 2010

The experience of managers is that pay and incentives are strong motivators in affecting how hard people work, but research tends to give more ambiguous answers.  Some sectors with highly competitive cultures (banking and sales, for example) do appear to be acutely money-motivated, but this is not true across the board and incentive-based pay systems are often poor motivators, can damage teamwork and collaboration, and sometimes are even a downright waste of money.

Another major pay topic tackled during this meeting was gender pay.  Commissioners felt neither discrimination nor personal choice really explained the continuance (though it is narrowing over time) of the gender pay gap.  In practice, women, and indeed households, made pragmatic decisions based on their circumstances, but companies were often at fault for channelling women’s careers into areas that limited progression.

Another area was inequality.  The rise in inequality of the 1980s and 1990s may have slowed somewhat during the 2000s, but the extremes of income inequality were testing the perceived social legitimacy of companies and capitalism.  The sense of disproportion in incomes was identified as the central issue.

In a wide-ranging discussion the Commissioners identified three principal causes of change in work as being the forces of globalisation, technology and the power of consumers.  Expectations surrounding work were felt to be very different from when Commissioners themselves first stared working.  The attitudes of savvy consumers were being applied to the workplace, leaving managers with a demanding and critical workforce which was 'always ready to export responsibility'.  Meanwhile, in our lives as consumers, technology appeared to have had a generally beneficial effect: information and choice were available at the click of a mouse.  However, in our lives as workers, technology had had a markedly more diverse effect.

Although some workers had certainly gained from the ability to work in different ways (such as from home or on the move), technology also had the effect of extending working time and deleting the boundary between work and non-work time.  In addition, the technology that liberated some had the capacity to confine others: 'pre-scripts' which oblige workers to follow pre-ordained computerised instructions, reduced autonomy, increased speed and enhanced ability to monitor were also an aspect of the unfolding story of the ICT revolution.

Consumers were also one of the main sources of control over contemporary work.  The theme of 'business purpose' was also prominent at the evening’s meeting.  The efforts made by some companies to clearly articulate a core business purpose were felt by some Commissioners to play an 'activation' role.  Purpose spurred the ability to 'engage' with an organisation.

6th Meeting: Ownership
January 2010

The Commission met to investigate the links between the ownership of a company and the nature of work inside it.  Its guest was Philip Dilley, the chairman of Arup, the engineering and design group which is owned by a trust set up for the benefit of past and current employees and their families.  Following a presentation from Mr Dilley, the Commission also saw and discussed evidence about the effect of ownership on work.  Although often touted as offering a useful spur to 'motivation', research indicates it is most effective when combined with methods which seek to involve and ensure the participation of employees in an organisation – i.e. when financial and practical engagement operate in tandem the bigger gains are likely to follow.

In the public sector, meanwhile, organisations such as foundation trusts had established their own ethos and identity from being 'owned' by the communities that use them.  However, although individual units often benefited from the greater autonomy they possessed, ensuring a system can move forward is harder to gain from ownership type mechanisms.  The Commission also discussed the customer service ethos that many service businesses rely on for a purpose, placing customers at the heart of what they do.  Yet there were some doubts raised that serving customers alone offered a purpose sufficient to engage staff.

5th Meeting: Leadership
November 2010

David MacLeod, author of the MacLeod Review of Employee Engagement, was the Commission’s guest at this meeting.  'Engagement' has become the word through which employers (and others) approach the issues of modern work.  There is little consensus on what it means (MacLeod said he had come across more than 50 definitions), but the concept is appealingly simple at heart: how to unlock the contribution of people. Commissioners were universally persuaded of its effectiveness – “it’s absolute rocket fuel”, as one put it.  Yet the question is not so much what it means, nor its beneficial effects on an organisation’s performance, it is the relatively low levels of adoption and the practical difficulty of implementing it.  In the views of some unions, it can be espoused at the top, but less so at other levels.

The Commission’s other guest was Penny Tamkin, leadership specialist at The Work Foundation, who has led research into the difference between 'good' and 'outstanding' leaders.  One characteristic, here, was that outstanding leaders “give power away” (also, incidentally, one of the drivers of engagement).  However, Commissioners felt some models of contemporary leadership appeared to be idealistic, leaving it difficult to find a real person within them.  One Commissioner observed the desire to empower others that is one of the hallmarks of outstanding leadership runs into the problem that real organisations are sometimes driven more by “fear and paranoia” than the desire to get the best out of people.

Labour markets are never quite like other types of markets because they are markets in people. Yet making sense of the modern employment relationship can be fraught. Peoples’ needs and wants around work are extremely diverse and any statement about what they might be invariably has to contend with a full range of counter-examples. For instance, national statistics on employment insecurity suggest a relatively stable picture of life at work in the UK, but such data may mask change inside organisations (e.g. people changing jobs, but keeping the same employer). Greater harmony in industrial relations may hide the fact that forms of conflict have changed (e.g. absence is reckoned to be one of the most expensive versions of conflict). And meanwhile, efforts to engage run up against the desire of many workers to maintain an emotional isolation from their place of work, while still doing valuable roles. Nevertheless, despite a huge diversity in culture and practice, a consensus among Commissioners emerged that taking steps to construct 'a deal' – a central culture - for how work plays out is a central obligation of employers. Clarity of expectations, support and regular feedback were advanced as simple ways to manage the modern employment relationship.

 

Issues of meaning are notably more pronounced in discussions of work. This is both from the employer point of view (meaning has been linked to engagement) and the individual point of view (the boundary between who people are and what they do has blurred). Meaning tends to mean different things to different employee groups – from professional identities, to craftsmanship, to values, to more straightforward things, such as the people one works with or the extent to which work fits round other life commitments, such as school term times.

 

Meaning can sound like a chattering classes concern, but although income trumps meaning in most people’s attitudes towards work, there are many aspects that affect choices about who people work for. Even in relatively humble jobs, research suggests strong resistance to merely 'working to live'. Although some employers have sought to contend they 'create' meaning for people, there can be a faintly manipulative edge to such claims.

 

 

Engagement is the abstract noun of the hour in employee relations. The idea that 'it works' in delivering enhanced organisational performance is extremely difficult to prove. For example, it could be argued that employers with higher profitability are more likely to enjoy better engagement levels, not that engagement leads to higher profitability. Nevertheless, there is plausible and persuasive evidence from many separate studies (not all using common definitions of 'engagement', however) that engagement predicts future profitability: an increase in engagement scores anticipates an increase in performance data later on.

 

One of the merits of engagement is that it attempts to capture the view of businesses and unify it with a more human point of view. Attempts to prove a performance link can sometimes be over-elaborate, though. Demonstrating a reduction in labour turnover is a simpler way of expounding a business benefit from people-related initiatives than some of the immensely complex regressions done under the banner of engagement. Several Commissioners expressed the view that there was inadequate emphasis among leaders on enabling people to see the connections between the work they do and the operations of an employer. Efforts to engage also frequently run into what was felt to be a 'rising tide' of mistrust and cynicism towards leaders.

 

 

The Commission’s guest was the journalist, Richard Donkin, author of two books, Blood, Sweat and Tears – The Evolution of Work, and The Future of Work.  Historical sweeps characterised the meeting: from the sharpening of flint tools in pre-human history (behold the origins of technology), the creation story of Genesis and the repeated emphasis that the product of it 'was good', the changing attitudes of younger people towards work, and the balance of power between employers and employees in the recession – all were reflected on.

 

A central theme was alterations in the meaning of work.  Commissioners concurred there had been a notable change in perceptions of the meaning of work: work tended to be more 'whole person', more identity-rich, less 'hired hand', a simple transaction of time for money.  But in becoming so, work appears to have lost its place as part of the rhythm of life and has began to take over more of it.  What it is that is driving these changes was identified as a strand for the Commission to investigate further.

 

A prominent challenge to the concept of good work also surfaced: if it 'works' (as in serves the interests of workers and employers), why don’t more employers do it?  There is no consistent measure of a concept such as good work and loosely related constructs in the same broad family (eg. 'job quality', 'engagement', 'satisfaction', 'high performance work organisation') all have intricate internal issues attached to them.   Today’s work was saturated with scientific and technological advance and the people who do it tend to have higher skills and more education, but the culture may be suffering something of a 'Merlin deficit': lots of information and knowledge, not so much wisdom.

 

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