Back to the Future

Last week, I had the pleasure of visiting Old Trafford Cricket Ground. It was a fine day, the sun was out, and the pitch looked full of runs. It’s only a matter of weeks before the cricket season kicks off, when of course it will be snowing. I was there to speak about CIPD’s Megatrends project at a joint CIPD/ACAS conference ‘Megatrends: the changing face of the world at work’. There was a really good mix of speakers, combining future thinking with practical insight.

The discussion kept coming back to a small number of common themes. One was the importance of employment relations being built on trust between employees and management. Another was the role of employee engagement in unlocking employees’ discretionary effort – the energy and creativity that comes from motivation and commitment. And a third was the need for employee voice and the challenges created by social media for both employers and trades unions. We didn’t provide all the answers but hopefully gave the delegates plenty to think about.

On the way back to London, I read some papers sent to me by a former CIPD member, now long retired, about his work nearly half a century ago for an organisation called the Manpower and Productivity Service (MPS). This was part of the Department of Employment and Productivity, the ministry headed by Barbara Castle in the latter stages of Harold Wilson’s first Labour government (and where CIPD’s very own Mike Emmott worked in Barbara Castle’s private office!). The MPS had the job of validating so-called “productivity agreements” between employers and unions. Were these genuine improvements in efficiency, that could generate extra revenue to pay for higher wages – or were employers and unions colluding to get round the limits on pay and price increases in place at the time? The MPS also had a pro-active role, working with firms and sector organisations to improve productivity in a regulated, unionised environment. The nearest equivalent today would be the best practice and collective conciliation functions of ACAS combined with the Manufacturing Advisory Service.

The piece of paper that caught my eye was a 9 page note on “productivity agreements”, written by a Mr John Keal, essentially a best practice guide to one of these agreements. It tells us so much about what has changed – and what has not changed – in the years since 1970.

At Manchester, the talk was about using engagement to tap into discretionary effort. It is a narrative connecting the employer with the individual and is about hearts as well as minds. The 1970 perspective was rather different. “Custom and practice” determined how things were done. If management wanted to do something different – to change “custom and practice” – they had to negotiate the changes and invariably pay for them through higher wages or some other benefit. The problem for management was to ensure that the changes to “custom and practice” that they had negotiated (and paid for) actually did increase productivity. This is a much more hard-headed narrative in a context where the employees, through their unions, had considerable bargaining power. It would be another decade before employer-union confrontations, such as that between Michael Edwardes and “Red Robbo”, saw the re-assertion of “the right to manage”.

The 1970 perspective on voice was also rather different. One gains the impression that many managers felt more comfortable negotiating with shop stewards and union officials than they did talking to individual employees. The model approach to productivity agreements involves management drawing up a list of the changes to current “custom and practice” that they would like to make. Then, to quote the paper: “Views vary as to whether detailed proposals should be developed by management and then presented to the employees’ representatives for discussion and negotiation, or whether the employees’ representatives should be brought in at the very beginning to participate in the development of the Agreement. Furthermore, views vary as to whether the negotiations should be conducted primarily with the employees’ representatives within the company or with outside Union officials.” Seeking the views of individual employees on how to improve things appears a step too far, although there is a reference to Joint Problem Solving, an approach that ACAS still finds valuable.

The paper also feels it necessary to state: “Management frequently make the mistake of believing that it is the job of the workpeople’s representatives to keep their members fully informed. It is unquestionably management’s job also and a considerable effort is necessary to ensure that it is carried out effectively”.

But there is a common thread with the issues of today, and that is trust: “In many cases where management introduces new systems and procedures the employees are apprehensive of the likely results or management’s overall intentions. They therefore seek at least partial control of the results by adopting countervailing customs and practices. They designate these as Protective Practices whilst management, understandably, designates them as Restrictive Practices … These customs and practices are rarely introduced with malicious intent towards the other party. They are predominantly adopted due to fears of injustice or the need to protect legitimate group interests; they can easily become damaging, however, to the operating effectiveness and future prosperity of the business … To change such practices the underlying fears must be exposed and attitudes must be changed”. It goes on to assert: “… where there is substantial trust and confidence between management and workpeople, little difficulty will be experienced in introducing change”. Where trust needs to be improved: “… to secure a change in attitudes these beliefs and fears [of the other party’s intentions] must be exposed, openly and in a relaxed manner, by face to face confrontation.”

The context may have changed but trust is still a serious problem in many UK workplaces. Only a third of employees say they trust senior management. Employees may rarely be able to erect “countervailing customs and practices” against unwelcome change but they can signal resistance by withholding the discretionary effort that employers are looking for or by finding another job or – and this is the modern twist - by posting a review on glassdoor.com. Where past and present combine is in reminding us that trust will always be essential for any successful relationship and that it can never be taken for granted.

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