We all believe employers are having to respond to rapidly changing
conditions by increasing the flexibility of their workforce. But are they? Stephen
Overell examines whether the talk is pie in the sky
Those who believe that working life has changed beyond all recognition in
the past 30 years do not have to search too hard for people who agree with
them. Consultants, management schools and thinktanks have churned out a view of
working patterns, careers and organisations being in the throes of chaotic
transformation. "The only continuity is flux," the wags say.
But their opponents, offering a pragmatic message of "much like it’s
always been", seem to be getting stronger by the week. The Economic and
Social Research Council’s Future of Work programme1 surveyed HR managers
recently, and found – well, that the future of work bears an uncanny
resemblance to its past.
Few organisations have sought to boost performance by strengthening
commitment and loyalty. Family-friendly work practices are not widespread. Most
companies offer staff no more than the minimum entitlements on employment
rights and leave. The amount of sub-contracting work is tiny. Trade unionism is
inching ahead due to recognition legislation and employment law eats into
managerial time. Open-plan offices and hot-desking are popular, but teleworking
and working from home are insignificant. Managers do not have a "here
today, gone tomorrow" attitude towards their staff and are not keen to
make it easier to dismiss them. They believe jobs should have career ladders.
It is an unexciting picture, but it underlines how far removed much of HR’s
talk actually is from the real work in real organisations. This is not to say
that the banquet of clever-sounding ideas we swallowed in the 1980s and 1990s –
about the end of good, steady jobs and the arrival of the just-in-time,
disposable, self-managed workforce – were completely wide of the mark. Yet,
with hindsight, an awful lot of expensive cogitation about work that was
indulged in now seems fanciful – as if too much time with a telescope trained
on distant galaxies had blinded writers to the grey carpet tiles and
veal-coloured filing cabinets.
Remember William Bridges and how the nature of work was changing from
"a structure built out of jobs to a field of work needing to be done. Jobs
are artificial units imposed on this field"?2 Or what about Charles Handy:
the monolithic "palace" structures of companies were giving way to
"a world of tents. Soon there won’t be promotion prospects after
Happy, vivid days. But as we know from the Labour Force Survey, change is
glacially slow. New working patterns and the new psychological contract have
indeed affected sectors such as professional services, media and IT. But most
people in most organisations have hardly been affected at all. Permanent jobs
in nine-to-five workplaces are still the norm, and average job tenure has not
budged since the early 1970s.
Change was blamed for destroying the ‘traditional’ psychological contract
operating at work – the exchange of employment security for motivation. In its
place, psychological contracts were alleged to mutate in new directions. For many,
the nature of the exchange became more ‘transactional’: it was a short-term,
narrow, written, unemotional, economic exchange, often with pay for specified
performance. For others, employment blended into the rest of life and was
indefinite, wide-ranging, subjective and social – in effect, a long list of
But as time has rolled by, it has become apparent that the pertinent
question is not the nature of the transformation, but whether the word
‘transformation’ is accurate.
Grand, earth-shaking pronouncements on how employment relations have been
turned upside down by technology, globalisation and ruthless devotion to the
bottom line, are increasingly taken with a hefty salt chaser. Surveys detecting
change in certain groups are now met with sceptical questions about whether
they marginalise the majority’s experience of work.
For example, Tim Osborn-Jones of Henley Management College has argued that
among managers, the traditional relationship with organisations has been
undermined by a far more independent turn of mind. Managers’ principal
requirements of their jobs were self-fulfilment (27 per cent), accomplishment
(20 per cent) and fun and enjoyment (16 per cent). A sense of belonging was
irrelevant while job mobility was a high priority. Commitment is conditional –
an emotional attachment, dependent on circumstances within individual
Such results are striking and ought to make HR practitioners think about how
they attract and motivate managerial talent. But to what extent do they apply
to the others? The latest instalment in the CIPD’s psychological contract
research has once again torpedoed any simplistic notions of mass metamorphosis
Job security is neither terribly important to people, nor has it decreased;
many people hope to change jobs shortly of their own accord. Work matters to
most, but is only central to about a third. They feel that promises made by
employers are likely to be kept, and almost three-quarters say they are fairly
rewarded. Despite the exalted talk, however, use of high-performance work
practices and employee involvement have actually decreased.5
One of the most widely cited results of tearing up the "old deal"
at work is that dissatisfaction has risen, leading to an epidemic of apathy.
The Policy Studies Institute found that the proportion of people who felt
completely or very satisfied with their working lives fell from 52 per cent to
45 per cent between 1992 and 2000.6
The CIPD study agrees that satisfaction did wane during the 1990s (though it
is not bad by international standards). But it disputes the charge that work
has become worse in itself, because commitment remains surprisingly high: 76
per cent are proud to work for their employers. "We can see no clear and
consistent trend towards a more negative experience of work," the authors
Trends hardly seem to have taken off these days before the revisionist
back-swing of the pendulum strikes them down in their infancy. But in truth, a
more agnostic approach to workplace change is no bad thing – attitudes are
static for most and fragmented among others.
Unlike those who spend their lives pontificating about work in the abstract,
HR practitioners doubtless always knew that a few well-heeled couples
downshifting from the rat-race to a life of rural indolence do not a zeitgeist
make. It should be remembered that manufacturing still employs more people than
retail, hospitality and call centres put together. And there are still jobs for
life out there, should anyone want one.
1 Managing Workplace Change, by Robert Taylor, ESRC, 2002
2 Jobshift: How to prosper in a world without jobs, by William Bridges,
3 taken from Director magazine, September 1989
4 Managing Talent, by Tim Osborn-Jones, Henley Management College, 2001
5 Pressure at work and the psychological contract, by David Guest and Neil
Conway, CIPD, 2002
6 PSI/LSE Working in Britain Survey, 2001
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