Engineers in front of turbine. Photo: Monty Rakusen
Worker Voice: the missing element of the Government’s Industrial Strategy
How important is the voice of workers to the success of industry?
Needless to say, industrial success is a collaborative process: the best companies enjoy the benefits of excellent management, engaged shareholders (or a visionary owner) and a talented, well-trained, properly paid workforce.
Despite this, received wisdom in the UK has long been that company strategy should be left to the boss. Margaret Thatcher famously spoke of the “right to manage”. Does this mean that workers should be “seen and not heard”, like the children of a Victorian novel?
In the modern world, when competition is fierce and innovation is essential, a company that overlooks the voice of its workforce is one that will fall behind. And apart from reasons of company success, there are good, democratic reasons for a workers voice within companies. Yet in what was a comprehensive Green Paper setting out the main themes of its industrial strategy, the outgoing Government of Theresa May had nothing to say about this issue.
The TUC believes this to be a serious mistake; in fact, in our submission to the Green Paper consultation, we argued that the Government had set out 10 pillars which encapsulated its approach, but there should be an eleventh pillar, entitled ‘workforce participation for successful industries’.
Why is worker voice so important?
First, the basics. It won’t surprise anybody to know that people prefer working for an organisation that treats them with respect, values their views and input and in which they feel their skills and knowledge are making a valued contribution. Higher levels of commitment translate into lower staff turnover rates and lower levels of sickness and absence. This much is obvious.
But there are more reasons for giving workers a greater voice in the companies for which they work. Workers voice can help with the introduction of new technologies, the management of change, and the harnessing of ideas for innovation and incremental improvements.
In March 2016, a survey of nearly 7,500 workers conducted by the Smith Institute found that while 87% of respondents agreed with the statement, “I am keen to embrace technology and maximise its benefits”, less than one in four (24%) said their employer gave them a say in how technology affects their work. Meanwhile, a 2009 study by Alex Bryson et al found that managerial innovations are associated with lower worker well-being and job satisfaction, except when workers are covered by a collective bargaining agreement. And the WERS survey of 2011 found that less than half (47%) of employees thought that managers were good at responding to suggestions from employees. Just over one in three (35%) said that managers were good at allowing employees to influence decisions.
What’s being done now?
Workforce input into strategic decision making through worker representation on company boards is almost non-existent in the UK, in contrast to much of the rest of Europe, where it is an established and valued part of doing business. The TUC believes this is an idea whose time has come in the UK.
And what is good at the micro level is also good at the level of the wider economy. Trade unions have been represented on the highly successful Automotive Council for many years, as well as on other such bodies. Any new sectoral bodies established as part of a future industrial strategy should include trade union representation. This will allow for better decision making and, ultimately, higher productivity.
Finally, a major theme of the Government’s Green Paper is its emphasis on technical education and skills. This is very welcome; for too long, the UK has prized academic education, while technical skills have been overlooked. The Apprenticeship Levy is an important innovation, as is the drive to put in place measures to boost the quality of apprenticeships, including ensuring that all participants receive their entitlement to the requisite amount of decent off-the-job training. What is lacking in the UK, however, is the safeguarding of skills standards through a combination of statutory regulation and high level collaboration involving government, employers and unions. In this situation, as in those above, worker voice would make a vital difference to the quality of work, as well as boosting economic success.
The modern world of work is replete with buzz phrases like “creative disruption” and “disruptive technologies”. We shouldn’t try to hold back technology, but we can try to shape it for the benefit of all stakeholders, including the workforce. That will not eliminate the fear of change, but it will help to empower those at the sharp end. It will ensure that change is made in a way that maximises possibilities, for those seeking to make a profit in a tough market and for the ultimate wealth creators, the workers who give the best years of their lives for the companies for whom they work.