How can we ‘make work better’?

Trust in business is at an all-time low. As the CBI rightly says, the corporate world must rebuild its reputation and reach out to customers. But it must also reach out to employees, who are feeling increasingly frustrated with the lack of real wage growth, dissatisfied with their work, and detached from their employer.

According to the Smith Institute’s new report by Ed Sweeney (former chair of Acas), Making Work Better: An Agenda for Government,  problems at work now affect the majority of employees, and are not just confined to troubled workplaces. Britain’s broken workplaces not only damage trust in business but undermine our productivity, which is still much higher in the USA, France and Germany.

Survey evidence in the report shows that concerns at work today go much wider, covering both blue and white collar workers. For example, 40% of respondents said their job does not make full use of their skills and abilities; a similar percentage said they have no real say in how their work is organised and are neither consulted nor involved in management decisions. Other workplace surveys also show that the majority of employees are worried about their job status and feel worried about work.

“Achieving trust in business and improving performance will ultimately depend on employers achieving better relationships with Britain’s 30m employees”

Government has a role to play in addressing some of these challenges; it can use the power of procurement to raise wages in the public and private sector; reform the ICE regulations giving employees a stronger collective voice; toughen regulations to curtail the abuse of zero hours contracts and bad agency work; and provide support for management training.

But there’s only so much government can do. These findings should be a wake-up call for employers, most of whom recognise the benefits of employee involvement and skills utilisation but are too often in ‘tick box’ mode. Achieving trust in business and improving performance will ultimately depend on employers achieving better relationships with Britain’s 30m employees.

A key problem to address is the widening gap between good and bad management, with too many organisations displaying a top-down culture or crudely adopting performance regimes which encourage a race to the bottom in pay and conditions.

To tackle the long tail of poor performing workplaces the report calls for higher employment standards, a commitment to fair pay and stronger voice at work. It also calls for greater acknowledgement of the HR profession, which is increasingly undervalued within firms.

There’s no silver bullet to solving all the problems at work – especially in vulnerable workplaces. But with business leading the way, alongside action by government we can go some way towards ‘making work better’.

Paul Hackett is the Director of The Smith Institute.

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