Saturday’s child: Work and employment (Seven days of social science research)

Saturday’s child: Work and employment (Seven days of social science research)

I’m Stephen Wood, and we’re here outside the
headquarters of the TUC. The Trades Union Congress was started in the 1860s, and represents
currently about 6.5 million trade union members. And it’s trade unions, employment relations,
pay systems and so on that I’ve been studying for the best part of 45 years. How many people are represented by trade unions?
How many people are not represented? Is it true that interpersonal relationships are
more important than the way you design jobs? Is the pay system not as important as we think?
Have modern forms of flexibility – such as flexi-time, or job sharing – have these things
increased or decreased in the recession? And if they’ve increased, has it helped manage the recession? One of the great sources of data that I’ve
been using now for 20 years is the Workplace Employment Relations Survey. These surveys
concentrate on employment relations and began primarily with trade union studies, pay systems,
and the core of industrial relations; but they’ve developed now so that they include
a much wider agenda. There’s now been six of these, which means that we’re able to map
the evolution of employment relations or industrial relations very accurately, whilst at the same
time keeping abreast of policy developments and issues in society. For example, work-life
balance is now much more important than it was 20 years ago. One of the fundamental questions that people
often ask about work is whether pay is a really big motivator, or whether it’s the jobs themselves.
What we do know is that job design is very important, but that is not necessarily at
the expense of pay. We can also answer the question: ‘Does performance-related pay have
an effect on satisfaction?’ – and the answer is no. Firstly, because it’s trumped by job
design. Secondly, some performance-related pay systems are better than others, and some
will indeed increase satisfaction – but even those have the problem, that those that don’t
get a pay increase will be dissatisfied. The biggest trend of course over the last
20 years has been the decline of trade union membership and trade union representation.
The implication of course is that many workers don’t have a voice in industry, and all their
pay is determined unilaterally by management; there’s no pay bargaining. But then the question
is, have there been alternative voices emerging, non-union representation and so on? And there
have been – but whether they give the same independence and same sense of fairness as
trade unions is of course a very big question. There’s more white-collar workers, more managers,
less manufacturing. These are well-known trends, but ultimately it’s got something to do with
two things really. One is, if you like, the taste of youngsters – youngsters are just
not into trade unions. And also, the role of trade unions in getting to members – potential
members I should say – is important, and they perhaps haven’t done as well as they could
do. Is it true that firms are taking family-friendly
practices more seriously? What I was aiming to do was to develop a measure of family-friendly
firms – and what this shows is that the firms that use one particularly family-friendly
practice, like job sharing, are more likely to use another one, like giving subsidies
for child care or time off for elder care. We’re then able to ask questions like: ‘Does
it lead to higher performance?’ – and the answer is yes, but it’s qualified. Where firms
were showing their commitment through having these practices, it was being reciprocated
by a high level of commitment by the employees, which was then leading to their performance. The use of these practices, the family-friendly
practices, is on the increase; but not to a great extent, so there’s still many firms
or workplaces that don’t have these practices. The latest survey will be completed this year,
and the big innovation is to ask questions about the economic situation facing the workplace
– and particularly how they have suffered or taken advantage of the recession. I think
we will find that firms have not been so quick to shed labour as they did in the past, and
some of the reasons for this would be that they value human capital more than they did
before, because they don’t want to lose skills – particularly in manufacturing, because they
never come back. The whole area of employment relations is
a really important topic. It affects people’s pay levels, it affects their sense of wellbeing,
it affects employment performance. If we’re interested in happiness at work and wellbeing,
I think it’s vital that we do monitor these trends and we look for relationships to either
correct prejudices or confirm common sense.

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