Hard reality is that ‘soft’ issues matter

For more than 80 years, The Industrial Society campaigned to improve the
quality of working life, emphasising the high performance potential of any
organisation that had the capacity to enthuse its workforce by respecting its
humanity.

The Industrial Society’s renewal as The Work Foundation takes that vision
and places it at the heart of the productivity debate.

How to increase the productivity levels of our workforce has become the
Government’s core economic problem. The apparent health of the UK economy – low
unemployment and commendable job creation – masks a dangerous and growing
productivity deficit compared to the US and our principal European trading
partners.

The UK has more work, but the majority of our workplaces are not especially
productive. Nor are they especially happy. Yesterday, The Work Foundation
released research showing that the level of worker satisfaction with their
prospects, pay levels, hours worked, and workload have all roughly halved –
some from a very low base. The largest fall has been in satisfaction with
working hours. The next largest has been in satisfaction with workload. There
is not a single item defining the core of their economic and psychological
contract on which satisfaction levels have not deteriorated.

The accepted solution to the productivity challenge has been to focus on the
input base and supply side of the economy – investments in new technology and
people, and the growth of knowledge work, for example. That these have not
generated the step changes that we have been led to expect indicates that only
half the story is being told.

The Work Foundation’s contention is that poor productivity and workplace
organisation leading to disaffected workforces are different sides of the same
coin.

What is needed is a workplace that binds employees, shareholders and other
stakeholders to a common vision, with the resulting commitment to the
organisation’s performance becoming the fulcrum of the business rather than
immediate high returns to shareholders. Unfortunately, in too many
organisations, the toolbox of social capabilities to help to produce such an
outcome – time and place sovereignty for workers, recognising and rewarding
their creative potential, service-centred leadership, a coaching culture and
social responsibilities – are dismissed as ‘soft’ against the ‘hard’
proposition of maximising the bottom line.

The paradox is that companies that are built to last and generate sustained
profits all instinctively find ways to boost employee commitment by taking such
‘soft’ propositions seriously.

By Will Hutton, Chief executive, The Work Foundation

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