Previous Article Next Article We all believe employers are having to respond to rapidly changingconditions by increasing the flexibility of their workforce. But are they? StephenOverell examines whether the talk is pie in the skyThose who believe that working life has changed beyond all recognition inthe past 30 years do not have to search too hard for people who agree withthem. Consultants, management schools and thinktanks have churned out a view ofworking patterns, careers and organisations being in the throes of chaotictransformation. “The only continuity is flux,” the wags say. But their opponents, offering a pragmatic message of “much like it’salways been”, seem to be getting stronger by the week. The Economic andSocial Research Council’s Future of Work programme1 surveyed HR managersrecently, and found – well, that the future of work bears an uncannyresemblance to its past. Few organisations have sought to boost performance by strengtheningcommitment and loyalty. Family-friendly work practices are not widespread. Mostcompanies offer staff no more than the minimum entitlements on employmentrights and leave. The amount of sub-contracting work is tiny. Trade unionism isinching ahead due to recognition legislation and employment law eats intomanagerial time. Open-plan offices and hot-desking are popular, but teleworkingand working from home are insignificant. Managers do not have a “heretoday, gone tomorrow” attitude towards their staff and are not keen tomake it easier to dismiss them. They believe jobs should have career ladders. It is an unexciting picture, but it underlines how far removed much of HR’stalk actually is from the real work in real organisations. This is not to saythat the banquet of clever-sounding ideas we swallowed in the 1980s and 1990s –about the end of good, steady jobs and the arrival of the just-in-time,disposable, self-managed workforce – were completely wide of the mark. Yet,with hindsight, an awful lot of expensive cogitation about work that wasindulged in now seems fanciful – as if too much time with a telescope trainedon distant galaxies had blinded writers to the grey carpet tiles andveal-coloured filing cabinets. Remember William Bridges and how the nature of work was changing from”a structure built out of jobs to a field of work needing to be done. Jobsare artificial units imposed on this field”?2 Or what about Charles Handy:the monolithic “palace” structures of companies were giving way to”a world of tents. Soon there won’t be promotion prospects after30″?3 Happy, vivid days. But as we know from the Labour Force Survey, change isglacially slow. New working patterns and the new psychological contract haveindeed affected sectors such as professional services, media and IT. But mostpeople in most organisations have hardly been affected at all. Permanent jobsin nine-to-five workplaces are still the norm, and average job tenure has notbudged since the early 1970s. Change was blamed for destroying the ‘traditional’ psychological contractoperating at work – the exchange of employment security for motivation. In itsplace, psychological contracts were alleged to mutate in new directions. For many,the nature of the exchange became more ‘transactional’: it was a short-term,narrow, written, unemotional, economic exchange, often with pay for specifiedperformance. For others, employment blended into the rest of life and wasindefinite, wide-ranging, subjective and social – in effect, a long list ofprojects. But as time has rolled by, it has become apparent that the pertinentquestion is not the nature of the transformation, but whether the word‘transformation’ is accurate. Grand, earth-shaking pronouncements on how employment relations have beenturned upside down by technology, globalisation and ruthless devotion to thebottom line, are increasingly taken with a hefty salt chaser. Surveys detectingchange in certain groups are now met with sceptical questions about whetherthey marginalise the majority’s experience of work. For example, Tim Osborn-Jones of Henley Management College has argued thatamong managers, the traditional relationship with organisations has beenundermined by a far more independent turn of mind. Managers’ principalrequirements of their jobs were self-fulfilment (27 per cent), accomplishment(20 per cent) and fun and enjoyment (16 per cent). A sense of belonging wasirrelevant while job mobility was a high priority. Commitment is conditional –an emotional attachment, dependent on circumstances within individualworkplaces.4 Such results are striking and ought to make HR practitioners think about howthey attract and motivate managerial talent. But to what extent do they applyto the others? The latest instalment in the CIPD’s psychological contractresearch has once again torpedoed any simplistic notions of mass metamorphosisat work. Job security is neither terribly important to people, nor has it decreased;many people hope to change jobs shortly of their own accord. Work matters tomost, but is only central to about a third. They feel that promises made byemployers are likely to be kept, and almost three-quarters say they are fairlyrewarded. Despite the exalted talk, however, use of high-performance workpractices and employee involvement have actually decreased.5 One of the most widely cited results of tearing up the “old deal”at work is that dissatisfaction has risen, leading to an epidemic of apathy.The Policy Studies Institute found that the proportion of people who feltcompletely or very satisfied with their working lives fell from 52 per cent to45 per cent between 1992 and 2000.6 The CIPD study agrees that satisfaction did wane during the 1990s (though itis not bad by international standards). But it disputes the charge that workhas become worse in itself, because commitment remains surprisingly high: 76per cent are proud to work for their employers. “We can see no clear andconsistent trend towards a more negative experience of work,” the authorswrite. Trends hardly seem to have taken off these days before the revisionistback-swing of the pendulum strikes them down in their infancy. But in truth, amore agnostic approach to workplace change is no bad thing – attitudes arestatic for most and fragmented among others. Unlike those who spend their lives pontificating about work in the abstract,HR practitioners doubtless always knew that a few well-heeled couplesdownshifting from the rat-race to a life of rural indolence do not a zeitgeistmake. It should be remembered that manufacturing still employs more people thanretail, hospitality and call centres put together. And there are still jobs forlife out there, should anyone want one. 1 Managing Workplace Change, by Robert Taylor, ESRC, 2002 2 Jobshift: How to prosper in a world without jobs, by William Bridges,Perseus, 1995 3 taken from Director magazine, September 1989 4 Managing Talent, by Tim Osborn-Jones, Henley Management College, 2001 5 Pressure at work and the psychological contract, by David Guest and NeilConway, CIPD, 2002 6 PSI/LSE Working in Britain Survey, 2001 Join the Xperts XpertHR is a joint venture between Personnel Today and leadinginformation providers LexisNexis, Butterworths Tolley and IRS LexisNexis.XpertHR has more specialist HR knowledge in one place than any other onlineinformation source in the UK for one subscription.Subscribe nowCall: 020 8652 4281 or visit www.xperthr.co.uk Comments are closed. Job theories need a little more workOn 10 Dec 2002 in Personnel Today Related posts:No related photos.