From the TUC

Can we make 2015 the year of good work?

20 Jan 2015, by in Labour market

What is a good company? This morning, the Co-operative Bank announced an update of its ethical policy based on responses from 74,000 customers and staff. As a result, the bank will not lend to companies involved in irresponsible gambling, payday lending or fracking, as well as those companies seeking to avoid paying their fair share of tax. We might all have different views of what behaviours should or should not be supported, but the idea of an ethical code is one which most of us would share.

So is a good company one that simply avoids doing “bad” things, or should it strive to do something actively positive, over and above making profits and keeping shareholders happy? And how does this relate to the nature of work? Last year, the Association for Finnish Work and The Futures Company published ‘Making High Value Work’.

This report describes high value work as that which is:

  • Productive because it creates new value;
  • Sustainable because it creates value over time; and
  • Inclusive because it creates shared value across businesses, employees and society.
  • For these reasons, high value work is also meaningful.

The report identifies four routes to high value work, each of which represents a way of thinking about business models and business processes. Those are service innovation, resource innovation, value in authenticity and rich knowledge. A subsequent business briefing suggests four practices to help companies get there:

  • “One step beyond”, i.e. thinking more widely and long-term, seeking to learn from outside the core business;
  • “Running towards the problem”, i.e. tackling head-on the business issues that cause the greatest concern for customers;
  • Human centred, i.e. putting people first – both employees and customers, which can make a business more productive and more innovative; and
  • “Lean in the right places”, i.e. investing in those areas that create value and being lean in those that are merely necessary, automating them if possible.

The briefing stresses the value of ‘living the story’, which is described as “identifying the core values” of the business and making them central to brand message. The briefing goes on: “The core values are the pivotal elements of what creates value and differentiates you from your competitors. By living by and investing in these values, the business can create a clear vision and focus.”

This is interesting stuff, but is it anything more than glitzy PR? Interviewed ahead of this week’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Katherine Garrett-Cox of the Alliance Trust spoke of the importance of climate change, quality of life, sustainable consumption and resilience. Garrett Cox told the Observer: “Organisations need to take account of more than just the numbers when they are managing businesses. Some people fail to recognise that this is not soft fluffy stuff … This is good business practice.”

Perhaps this debate is a sign of our increasingly unequal world. The TUC campaigns strongly against zero hours contracts, companies that flout the minimum wage and generally in support of the most vulnerable employees. At the same time, knowledge workers with highly prized skills and savvy consumers, whether trade unionists or not, are less willing to work for or buy from companies that flout ethical standards or work in exploitative ways.

I think the ‘Making High Value Work’ report is interesting. As a trade unionist, I am obviously interested in the idea of human-centred working practices. The TUC has previously highlighted how companies adopting high performance work systems are more productive than their competitors and such systems seek to both foster the development of human capital and enhance the motivation and commitment of employees. However, evidence suggests that the presence of a union is associated with both more and more effective high performance work practices and this brings me to my one important concern about ‘Making High Value Work’. There is no mention of unions or any other form of collective employee voice in the report, which makes me wonder: how will the company know when it is putting its employees first? We know that good companies are more and more sophisticated in understanding what motivates their workforce. Nevertheless, the best way to find out is to ask them. And whilst the views of individual employees can be canvassed, the imbalance of power in a company between managers and individual workers can make honest feedback difficult. Finland is a northern European social market economy and to really bring the idea of human-centred work alive, I think a union voice is necessary, both to feedback innovative workforce ideas and to act as a brake on what doesn’t work.

The report and business briefing do, nevertheless, raise important issues. And here’s another thought: alongside Greece on Sunday and Finland itself in April, Britain, Spain, Poland, Denmark, Portugal and Estonia all have elections this year. In the UK, progressives, including the TUC, hope that a fairer economy and a better model of capitalism, including the voices of workers and other communities, will follow. In our 2012 report ‘German Lessons’, the TUC called for a social market economy for the UK. But this debate could go the other way. Centre right voices in existing social market economies call for more UK-style liberalisation. I hope that, by the end of 2015, the cause of good work is one that more European governments, not less, are committed to.