Empowering your workforce

If
UK productivity is not at the level it should be, failure of UK people
management practices to keep pace with other advances must take some of the
blame. While accepting that old-style ‘command and control’ management has no
place in the 21st century, it is a brave and enlightened employer who seeks to
break down barriers and empower the workforce. But that is what some of our
most productive and successful organisations are doing, writes Elaine Essery

BT
stepped outside the box when it introduced a ‘freedom to work’ option. Under
the scheme, employees agree with their line manager what they need to deliver
and when the need to deliver it, and are free to decide how, when and where
they work.

The
premise is that individuals will choose to work as and when they feel most
productive and engaged. “It’s all about trust and breaking down barriers
between people and the organisation, between colleagues and between staff and
customers,” says BT’s head of employment policy Caroline Waters. “We are
trusting and open and try not to be prescriptive. People are empowered and they
just respond.”

The
policy has paid off. Given control over their working lives, employees have
found solutions which are right for them, their customers and the business. And
productivity has increased. “Managers who have experienced the approach and have
seen the bottom line going the right way have become fantastic advocates,” says
Waters. “Get an enthusiastic line manager who has got the results to go out and
talk to others and it just takes off. 
One converted line manager is worth 10 people in HR.”

Nissan
Manufacturing UK believes that improved quality of method should not just be a
management consideration but that everyone has a part to play. New workers at
its Sunderland plant are introduced to the company’s continuous improvement
culture from day one. They are actively encouraged to consider ways in which
the current way of doing things can be improved and trained in the relevant
techniques.

Another
linked concept deals with workshop management. It empowers the people
responsible for building the car to take immediate action to resolve issues on
the shopfloor. “In an intensive manufacturing environment such as ours, the
greater the ability of employees to use their own initiative to solve problems
quickly, the greater the productivity benefits,” says HR director Philip
Ashmore.

Both
practices rely on other factors to make them work. At BT, ‘freedom to work’ has
changed the whole concept of line management. “Line managers have had to become
coaches, supporters and enablers, and for some that’s been a difficult
transition,” says Waters. “They have to work hard to ensure team spirit and
human contact are not lost.”

Ashmore
cites similar issues. “The role of the supervisor is crucial,” he says. “It is
their job to motivate, train and get the best out of their team.” Communication
is another key contributor. “We work very hard to communicate with our
employees. We do it reasonably well but we’re striving to improve,” Ashmore
adds.

See
this week’s Personnel Today to find out how HR is boosting productivity in some
of the UK’s largest companies

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