Britain needs bosses to put the Big Society to work
Work isn’t working. The British economy is obviously struggling to provide enough work at present. But that’s only part of the story. Our way of work is dysfunctional too. Only a small minority of employees say they are prepared to go the extra mile for their employer, while trust in senior management is generally very low. This hits the bottom line performance of private sector organisations and prevents public sector organisations from providing quality services.
As we argue in a new Demos publication, it’s imperative in straitened economic times to rethink the British way of work in terms of what we call the ‘productive workplace’. This requires policy-makers to hammer home to employers the abundant weight of evidence that people are happiest and most productive when they feel they are working for organisations with a clear purpose, that seek to fully engage the discretionary effort of staff, recognise and fairly reward that effort, give regular, clear and honest information about what’s going on, and listen to and take account of what staff have to say.
The purposeful and collaborative nature of the productive workplace has many obvious parallels with the present government’s Big Society vision but these are seldom drawn by policy-makers. As ever with debates about civil society, community and social capital, there is a bizarre assumption that these are phenomena that only exist outside the realms of markets, business and workplaces. Yet much of what people bring to and gain from voluntary association – enthusiasm, ideas, commitment, friends and psychological wellbeing – they could potentially facilitate through work if organisational cultures were reconfigured in the way both evidence and logic suggests.
It’s tragic therefore that so many workers are disengaged by the daily grind of toxic organisational cultures which reflect a flawed business ideology that continues to dominate British boardrooms, even though it is well past its sell by date.
This is an ideology that crudely emphasises the role of the individual over the collective and seeks to maintain an imbalance of power to buttress management authority. It results in far too many senior private sector bosses couching organisational strategy in the ‘you’re fired’ language of insecurity, which can hamper workplace trust and employee engagement, especially when linked to frequent calls for fewer legal restrictions on employers’ ability to hire and fire staff.
It reinforces a lack of meaningful information-sharing and communication across and within organisations, with the increasing vogue for messaging and consulting staff often a cosmetic exercise in which senior managers are happier to broadcast than receive. It means that despite ever louder management rhetoric about giving staff greater discretion in doing their jobs, employees have experienced a marked fall in how much autonomy they have over their work and a large proportion reckon they are overqualified for the jobs they do. And it supports the opaque individual performance related pay systems that enable top bosses to trouser millions while those they call ‘their people’ feel the squeeze.
The technocrat’s response to such obvious dysfunction is better trained leaders and managers and the spread of various state of the art management practices, including transparent pay setting. But while necessary in a country with the least skilled management cadre amongst the developed economies, this doesn’t get to the ideological root of Britain’s work problem.
What we really need is a political agenda for work that recognises the usefulness of decent employment rights, rather than falsely demonise these as a burden on business, and confronts head on power imbalance in the workplace. In particular we must finally fill the void in collective forms of engagement between bosses and workers that opened up in Britain when trade union membership went into freefall thirty years ago. This has left individual employees with a sense of powerlessness and prevents organisations from developing a genuine sense of shared purpose of the kind we as a nation so desperately need in what looks like being the toughest of decades for the British economy.
This isn’t a call for the restoration of mid-20th century style union power of the kind most mainstream political parties let alone British business leaders resist. But unless and until employers come to acknowledge the damage being done by adherence to a ‘me first’ rather than ‘we together’ workplace culture it’s difficult to see UK plc achieving the gear change needed to meet our mounting economic and social challenges. Government must do more to encourage Britain’s bosses to maximise genuine collaboration with their staff along the lines of our vision of the productive workplace, which would in effect be putting the Big Society to work.