HR message gets through at last

The Workplace Employment Relations Survey (WERS) is quite simply the most authoritative statement on life at work in the UK that there is.

Involving 2,295 managers, 991 employee representatives and no fewer than 22,451 employees, all drawn from the same workplaces, the sheer scale of WERS 2004, the first results of which were released last week, make it matter like no other survey.

But as with all previous WERS surveys – in 1998, 1990, 1984 and 1980 – this authority means the results are certain to be used to support conflicting points of view as fierce opponents draw support from its findings in years to come.

The survey shows that British workplaces are changing slowly and steadily along familiar trajectories. HR professionals are likely to be pleased to see messages they have been pushing for years at last being heeded.

One of the main areas of change is around flexible working. There has been a substantial increase since 1998 in the availability of part-time working, homeworking, flexitime, job-sharing, term-time working, parental leave and annualised hours.

Availability does not equate with take-up, of course. And the results show how far there is to go: that 26% of workplaces offer flexitime is an improvement on six years ago (when the figure was 19%), but it doesn’t exactly suggest the demise of ‘nine-to-five’.

Nevertheless, attitudes are changing. In 1998, 84% of managers thought it was up to individuals to balance work with family life. In 2004, 65% thought so.

The survey confirms the pre-eminence of HR management techniques across UK workplaces, with the vast majority of employers using teamworking, performance appraisals, off-the-job training, and multiskilling (which fell slightly in use in 2004). Today, these are as much a feature of the employment landscape as collective bargaining once was.

Encouragingly, the survey shows that conflict, whether of the individual or collective variety, is fairly rare – just 8% of employers have had a tribunal claim brought against them, for instance.

Similarly, it reports high levels of job satisfaction. Remove the issue of pay, and the figures indicate surprisingly warm feelings among workers about their work: 70% are satisfied with the sense of achievement, 72% with the scope for using their initiative, 63% with job security and 72% with the work itself.

However, managers are accumulating even more power. In 1998, 49% of workers had their pay set unilaterally by management; in 2004, it was 57%.

On the other hand, WERS 2004 also suggests a concentration of power in the hands of management. Most workplaces do not inform, consult or negotiate with staff. Pay, training, pensions, holidays, hours, staff selection, staffing levels, health and safety and appraisal are all issues handled principally by management.

The survey also shows that the glass ceiling is still prevalent in UK organisations, with the proportion of workplaces where women are under-represented in management virtually unchanged at 73%.

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