Dispensing with the disposable

Long-term relationships at work are back in vogue as employers tire of the disposable workforce. Or so the facts suggest

There is a fear that work is such a dreary subject that no one would want to read about it on top of doing it. So successful books on work tend to be speculative, metaphorical, stargazing, polemical – anything which makes a pint of mild in Stoke on Trent more like a cocktail in Las Vegas. Surely, no one would want to read about the reality of the blank patch between one evening and the next when they could be tantalised with tales of empty raincoats, corroded characters, willing slavery, dancing elephants, Eupsychian [‘good society’ coined by Abraham Maslow] managers, highly effective habits and other equally shocking futures?

There is much about new book, Managing to Change?, that seems calculated to repel. It costs £50, it is written by a committee, it has an awful title, has no racy organising metaphor, and it contains nothing but analysis of the experiences of managers and employees. Yet it is one of the most vivid portraits of contemporary work that has been published in the past year or two.

The facts, when handled authoritatively (the book comes out of the Economic and Social Research Council’s future of work project) do not need a lot of top-spin to be startling.

The book finds that the single biggest change that is gripping British workplaces is people management. In 2002, when the survey of 2,000 employers in workplaces of between five and 7,500 was carried out, 62 per cent said they devoted more time to managing people than three years previously. Human resource management (HRM) is now the way that organisations compete, adapt, and try to gain value from new technology. It is around the central idea of the capacity of people to absorb change, which the authors see as nothing short of a ‘cultural revolution’ in management, that all the other trends battering the workplace are played out.

Forget all that stuff about the death of the job, let alone the absurd prophesy of the end of work: careers are booming, the book finds. Organisations engaged in de-layering are outnumbered by those expanding grades by two to one, while the number of employees who see their best chance as staying with their existing employer has rocketed.

The authors note that buying-in flexibility – in the form of casual or temporary staff, or through outsourcing – is a near universal trend. In fact, the more go-ahead and knowledge-dependent the workplace, the greater the use of flexible labour. There is some truth to the belief that employment is shifting to organisations whose job it is to supply specialist labour. Yet the book argues buying flexibility is nearing a plateau, and total employment is expected to increase more sharply than flexible employment. New users of flexible labour are becoming rarer, while a majority of employers do not expect their use of flexible working to increase.

Instead, in the ascendancy is the idea that flexibility is not a ‘numbers problem’. It is about a culture of ‘intelligent flexibility’ – being adaptable so that perpetual uncertainty can be mopped up internally. This kind of flexibility necessitates the rehabilitation of a forgotten friend – the long-term relationship. With it comes HRM in mighty doses.

The use of teams, task variety, job rotation, continuous development, pay-for-performance, involvement, and so on are all advancing fast, while appraisal is ubiquitous. This trend has reached such a pitch that it is now possible to declare the end of the rigid task specialisation that came to us via Adam Smith’s model pin factory. Two-thirds of employees regularly perform a different set of tasks to their usual work. Half now work in multi-skilled groups.

As always with HRM, the faintly sulphurous whiff of managerial control lingers. Teams are a great way of keeping an eye on people. Meanwhile, the use of appraisal for setting pay in four in 10 workplaces could also be seen as an extension of arbitrary boss-power.

However, HRM has some unlikely champions. A trade union presence coincides with a high instance of HRM practices such as career ladders, work improvement groups and intensive information technology use. A little short of a third of employers are now bundling advanced HRM practices such as group participation, individual incentives and consultation into ‘high-performance work strategies’.

Many of the inter-linking trends are generally positive. Where information and communications technology is most in use, gender barriers crumble; where change is at its most relentless, diversity increases.

But there is one area where the authors reckon employers have “a blind spot”: families. Family-friendly policies operate in less than half of all workplaces. The one practice that would greatly assist working parents (especially mothers) – flexitime – is available for less than one in seven workers.

Naturally, there are excuses: “Employers can reasonably point out that if the state is unwilling to make such provisions [childcare], it is not for them to fill the breach”. Possibly. But employer thinking on families is trapped in a short-term, cost-controlling mindset.

If ever the HR profession feels appreciation-starved, it should look no further than this book. You, all of you – well, a lot of you – are actively transforming work. You are the basis on which organisations survive, and maybe thrive. Put away the speculation, the abstractions, the rainbow-coloured dreams. The facts are there in front of you, somewhere over the filing cabinet.

*Managing to Change: British Workplaces and the Future of Work, by Michael White, Stephen Hill, Colin Mills and Deborah Smeaton, is part of the Economic and Social Research Council Future of Work series (general editor: Peter Nolan); published by Palgrave MacMillan

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