New technology is disrupting established industries at a breakneck pace. Just think of the effect of internet banking on employment in the financial sector; the likely effect of driverless cars on the automotive sector; of social media on taxi services; of drones for logistics; and biotechnology for healthcare. At the same time, customers – whether of public services or private utilities – have become more demanding.
Constantly innovating to anticipate demand, and improving productivity and performance, is the key to success for organisations across today’s economy. But under pressure from the quarterly results treadmill, too often leaders take the short-term view. They slash costs, usually in the form of making people redundant (‘reducing headcount’ in Orwell-speak), rather than thinking more strategically about partnering with employees to improve efficiency, deliver better to customers and develop new products.
Too many organisations are trying to run 21st century organisations in last century’s style. Yet it has become crystal clear that the old view of how people behave at work, based on deference and trust, no longer holds water. Neuroscience tells us why old-style command and control management approaches backfire, because people will only embrace, rather than resist, change in a safe environment.
More positively, many people are no longer willing to hang their brains on the door when they come into work. We seek meaning and fulfilment, and if an organisation does not provide these, many will find another that does. How telling that in the recent Sunday Times survey of the top 100 graduate employers, no fewer than four of the top ten were public sector, with the Teach First programme in second place. Also in the top ten were the NHS, the civil service and the BBC; service sector organisations (including PWC on the top spot) took up another three places and although Aldi and Google made the list, they were joined by Britain’s leading retail mutual, the John Lewis Partnership at number ten. Hardly a ringing endorsement of our private sector from our future leaders. No wonder the CBI has embarked on a groundbreaking campaign to restore trust in British business.
And overlaid on all this complexity is the challenge of transparency. Glassdoor – a website where people rate their employers – receive over a million hits a month in the UK alone, and social media provides open forums for real-time feedback, exposing the reality that can lie behind corporate spin. Clearly, reputational risk is the greatest danger facing even the mightiest organisations today, as the recent experience of Tesco demonstrates.
Of course it remains a key responsibility for the left to ensure that the proceeds of success are shared fairly – or at least that any pain is fairly shared – as well as pointing out the egregious effects of bonus culture at a time when many people at work are struggling financially. So is highlighting the damaging consequences for some workers of zero hours contracts, contracting out and casualisation.
But in my view, supporting a positive, pro-active agenda, which can transform workplaces through engagement, is vital for organisations and individuals alike – not to mention UK plc.
We have seen how this can work in practice. The history of the revival of the UK car industry, and the massive inflows of investment and consequent job creation, is based on a series of agreements between unions, the workforce and management to secure continuous improvement techniques that have led to Toyota, Nissan and Jaguar Land Rover products at the top of the consumer wish list. The UK now has the most productive car plants in the world. BAE Systems reduced the unit cost of the F35 fighter jet through a ground-breaking agreement with its union on workforce skills enhancement. Similar examples of improved productivity through partnership working can be found in the sectors where USDAW, Community and Prospect, among others, organise.
For engagement to be more than just a tick-box survey it has to include a strong strategic narrative that gives meaning to people’s work. It needs managers who know how to treat people as individuals, with jobs designed so that people can bring their whole selves to their work, and which enable individual growth. It requires organisational integrity, where the values on the wall are reflected in day to day behaviours, and inappropriate behaviours are called out. Above all, employees must be respected, informed and listened to, able and willing to speak openly about all aspects of the organisation. And we know that individual employee wellbeing is also essential.
But too many organisations exhibit few or none of these characteristics. The left has a major opportunity to build a common platform with progressive employers who have signed up to the importance of this new way of working – for example those who are sponsoring the Engage for Success movement (www.engageforsuccess.org). This is more fertile territory than a default condemnation of business, but to do that successfully and to have a voice that is respected at the highest levels, we have to acknowledge the unprecedented demands that living in a volatile, complex and ambiguous world are placing on leaders and on organisations.
Nita Clarke is director of the Involvement and Participation Association and was previously Tony Blair’s assistant political secretary with responsibility for trade union liaison.