Reforming the world of work

Talking about the workplace and our experience of work has become taboo for the Labour party. In particular, our politicians seem unable to talk about the relationship between worker and manager. This needs to change. The Labour party needs to talk about how this relationship can be reformed and improved to make us a more prosperous nation of more fulfilled citizens.

This subject has been so downgraded that when people hear the term ‘workplace relationship’ they are more likely to think of drunken office Christmas parties than anything else. This may well reflect the fact that politicians spend hardly any time talking about improving the relationship between workers and the organizations they work for.

It is not hard to see why. The disastrous general election in 1983 and the fall of the USSR both left a deep impression on the Labour party. In different ways these two events have given the party a deep and abiding fear of saying anything that might give even the slightest impression that they are anything but completely behind the free market.

This has been a very sensible strategy. You only have to look at the overly dramatic reaction to Ed Miliband’s perfectly sensible speech in favour of “responsible capitalism” which instantly drew numerous and intense criticisms from a range of commentators who denounced the speech and characterising him as ‘Red Ed’.

Faced with both this completely disproportionate hostility and the memories of the failures and struggles of the 1980s, it is completely understandable that discussing ways to reform and improve the workplace has become off limits for many in the Labour party.

Understandable but wrong.

Our work and our workplaces do more than almost anything else to to determine our happiness and how much money we have in our pockets. Left wing politicians with a credible plan to make people’s experience of work more creative and empowering will see enormous rewards. Reforming the relationship between workers and managers is good for workers, good for the economy and is achievable for politicians. It is something the Labour party needs to be talking about.

Lets look at the evidence. Currently, by international standards, British companies are poorly managed. To give one example, in America 56% of people say their supervisor treats them like a partner, whereas only 42% say the same in the UK. Although there are many excellent companies, there is a long tail of organizations that are anything but. They are a drag on our nation’s productivity and a drag on their workers’ spirits. Improving them would make us a richer, more productive, competitive nation.

Asked to describe their manager’s style in a survey for the Chartered Management Institute, the majority of British workers, said “bureaucratic”, “reactive” or “authoritarian”. Hardly a ringing endorsement. In expanding organizations however people were more likely to say their managers are accessible, empowering, trusting or consensual. In other words, successful outfits have managers who respect and work with their staff.

Organizations showing this kind of leadership reap enormous rewards: fewer sick days, greater customer loyalty, higher productivity, lower employee turnover and even better safety at work. This is not consistently happening. A recent authoritative report by David MacLeod and Nita Clarke found many workers do not feel engaged with their work because of a “failure of leadership and management”.

This failure of management inhibits workers from feeling engaged at work. This is vitally important for our national prosperity because employee engagement is what Professor Julian Birkinshaw of the London Business School described as the “sine qua non of innovation”. We simply will not ever be or become a country creating world beating innovative products and services if workers do not feel engaged,

Improving people’s experience at work, and especially their relationship with their managers, would bring about dramatic improvements to our nation’s productivity and competitiveness. More importantly, it would bring about a dramatic improvement in the wellbeing of our citizens. Creating more empowering workplaces would mean citizens who felt happier and more positive. If the Labour party cares about improving the happiness of the public it cannot afford to ignore the issue of reforming our workplaces.

At present only a quarter of British workers are engaged at work, according to surveys by Gallup. The rest are either neutral or actively disengaged. Engaged workers are more productive, they have better health, are more likely to say that they are “thriving” and, perhaps most remarkably of all, are immune to the negative effects of commuting. Being engaged at work is so good for you that it prevents you from getting depressed by endless hours stuck in traffic or forced into trains like sardines in a can.

This issue goes deeper than “work/life balance” a topic that is already widely discussed. In fact, that term is part of the problem. When people talk about “work/life balance” they often view work as bad but necessary and life as good but crowded out.

Surely, it would be much better if work was not viewed as some kind of necessary evil to be suffered through before we can get on with life. Surely it would be better if we felt energized by our work and engaged by our employers.

That is why the Labour party needs to talk about how we can improve workplaces across the country. It is too important a topic, for the country and for us all, to be kept taboo.

Such debates could open up options such as incentives for companies to improve employee engagement, support for worker managed firms, modernizing the organizing work of trade unions in the private sector, democratising the annual budget setting cycle within companies so that each worker gets more of a say on where money is spent or simply improving access to training for managers.

But whatever policies we ultimately favour we need to grasp the nettle and start to seriously examine the ways in which the Labour party can improve people’s experiences at work. We should feel so confident that when we speak to voters at the doorstep we can say “if you vote for us you will feel good about your work!”

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