Acas chief: What will employees look for from work in 2019?

Susan Clews was appointed as chief executive of Acas in November 2018

Faced with an uncertain economy and little control over external events, employees seek fairness and “good work”. Susan Clews, the new chief executive of conciliation service Acas, takes us through the findings of its latest poll.

Employment relations is never going to grab the headlines in the same way that ‘industrial action’ might. But as the newly appointed chief executive of Acas, I believe how employers and employees work together will always be a critical driver of both business success and employee wellbeing.

A newly published Acas poll asks some interesting questions of just how well this relationship is going. Do we live in a working environment of polarised views, where it’s ‘them and us’, or is there a sense of ‘we’re all in this together’? Here are my thoughts.

1. Workers get what businesses need

When we asked workers what the top priorities were for their workplace in the coming year, they seemed well attuned to the issues of wider concern to their employers. They identified:

  • getting the right people with the right skills (53%);
  • productivity (36%); and
  • technological change (36%)

A recent CBI survey also identified skills as a major concern with 83% of firms saying access to skills is the most significant currrent threat to the UK’s labour market competitiveness (up from 79% in 2017).

It may be telling that equality and fairness (17%) and fit and healthy staff (18%) were not rated as higher priorities for workplaces, but workers do seem to have a good sense of what might be on the agenda for their leadership team.

Investing in people’s skills, looking after their wellbeing and involving them in making decisions at work does not happen overnight”

2. The pace of change is slow

Asked to identify the three most important issues for employees in their working lives “balancing work and home life” (53%); “staying healthy and feeling well” (51%); and “job security” (44%) were the top three.

But when it comes to how they see these concerns being reflected in actual change in the workplace, the story is very different. The majority of workers (63%) think flexible working arrangements will stay about the same in the next year, while fewer than half (46%) agree that mental health will be taken as seriously as physical health by their employers in 2019.

Despite the ongoing campaigns for more flexible working arrangements and the benefits of positive mental health and wellbeing, there still seems a lot do to in terms of changing workplace culture and practices.

Acas is part of the government’s Flexible Working Taskforce which aims to improve opportunities for flexible working; and we have recently published a new “Framework for Positive Mental Health at Work”  which sets clear steps for employers to address employee wellbeing.

3. Workers value ‘job quality’

The recent focus on what constitutes “good work” – fuelled by Matthew Taylor’s Review of Modern Working Practices – has caused politicians and stakeholders to take a fresh look at the balance between job quantity and job outputs.

The issues highlighted in our poll reflect some of the ongoing work being carried out by the Carnegie Trust and the RSA, supported by Acas, to define suitable metrics for job quality (something the government is committed to measuring).

Interestingly our poll shows that workers value:

  • Fair pay. In view of the gender pay gap, it is noticeable that this issue was only marginally more important for women (40%) than men (38%)
  • Career progression (24%). This is an important component of ‘job design and the nature of the work’, one of Carnegie’s recommended measures of job quality.
  • Leaders who motivate and inspire (21%). A stream of research tells us that people leave their job because of their line manager and Acas has just launched a new ‘Framework for Effective Leadership’ to address the leadership challenge at all levels of management.

I am often asked whether the needs of business are compatible with the needs of employees. My answer is always “yes”, but with the following caveats: investing in people’s skills, looking after their wellbeing and involving them in making decisions at work does not happen overnight. Attitudes and cultures take time to change.

The pace of this change is often contentious but I’d suggest that doing more to enable flexible working arrangements, create better awareness of mental health at work and embed a deeper recognition of the need for job security is a win-win for everyone at work.

Susan Clews

About Susan Clews

Susan Clews is chief executive of the conciliation service Acas
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