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14 August 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 6:02pm

What is ‘good work’, and can it be encouraged?

In today’s changing economy it is time to look at the quality of work, and how it can be improved for the benefit of employees and companies alike 

By Peter Cheese

The publication of the Taylor Review into Modern Working Practices, initiated and supported by the Prime Minister, sought to address issues around employment rights, benefits and taxation, and working practices. It analysed these considerations within the context of various forms of self-employment, contract work, and in light of the growth of the so-called gig economy.

There are welcome proposals on rights, and definitions of different types of working relationships, such as the distinction between independent and dependent contractors. However there also needs to be a conscious effort to ensure workers, and their employers, understand their rights. That is why the CIPD manifesto calls for a ‘Know Your Rights’ campaign, run by government alongside employer bodies and trade unions. This would help ensure that the rights were not just clear for individuals at a legal, technical level but understood by managers and employers, in order to help encourage good working practices.

Importantly Matthew Taylor took a big step back and recognised that the debate we need to have today is not just over understanding different forms of work, but should also be about what could be called “good work”, and why that is important. Good work is work that is engaging, gives people a voice, treats them fairly, is good for their wellbeing, and helps them to progress. It should be positive for individuals, but also lead to wider positive organisational and economic outcomes: higher levels of productivity and output, and greater innovation and adaptability.

The idea of focusing on “good work” is not new. With support from business and HR leaders the Work Foundation founded a Good Work Commission in 2010, but the concept has lacked consistent traction. As we face a more uncertain future of work, with the growing impact of technology and geopolitical change, now is the time to focus on this vital agenda.

Amongst the G20 nations the UK ranks in the bottom quartile for productivity, and the rate of progress has slowed almost to a halt. Many of the challenges we face in addressing productivity have their roots in the very nature of the jobs and roles we create, how they utilise and develop skills, how well people are led and managed, and how we do more to invest in our people and workplaces. Following the Productivity Review in 2016, led by Sir Charlie Mayfield, the creation of a Productivity Council aims to provide more support to businesses in all these areas. The reality is that we have under-invested in our workplaces over the last decade or more, perhaps being too tempted to take on relatively cheap and flexible labour instead. We have neglected to create the kinds of jobs, roles and support that can draw the best from people.

We also are seeing the growth of work-related stress, and in turn greater attention being paid to wellbeing at work. Most surveys on levels of engagement at work make for concerning reading, and again the UK does not compare well. Good work should result in positive individual outcomes, and there is plenty of evidence that points to the relationship between wellbeing and engagement to productivity and creativity, and more broadly overall wellness and longevity.

The Taylor report offers a strong reminder that good work should be a unifying theme in addressing these challenges, and creating opportunities for more people to have fulfilling working lives. As the report describes, we need to re-focus our attention away from a strict adherence to quantity of work, and promote the idea that quality of work is just as important. With a long-standing labour market policy focus on the number of people in employment, policy-makers have tended to prioritise proposals that boost full time employment, while potentially treating other forms of work as less important.

More flexible working opportunities are crucial for the many workers who have other life commitments, such as caring, and can help retain older workers in the labour economy. However, flexible or part time working, particularly zero-hours contracts or roles within the gig economy, are framed in a way that often suggests they are inherently inferior to full time work. While in some cases workers on those contracts are not treated fairly, and there has been significant media coverage around some employers and their practices, it’s also important to note that bad practices can exist for any type of work or employment. Indeed, many of the CIPD’s own surveys find that workers on these kinds of contracts are generally satisfied, and in many cases particularly positive about the flexibility of work provided.

If we are to make progress around the idea of good work, we need not only to define it but also ensure we encourage good practice, whatever form the work or employment arrangement takes.

There is recognition of the need to define good work at a national as well as international level. However, there are significant challenges to any attempt to agree a definition. There have been some studies that use wages as a guide, while others use job satisfaction, but both of those methods only tell part of the story of someone’s experience at work. Building an agreed framework, and possible measures, around good work is important to help government and businesses understand it, and can therefore be held accountable. It will require bringing together academics, practitioners and policy makers, and should involve the intersection of ideas across productivity, wellbeing, pay and reward, and the changing nature of work. The Taylor review has given this work a positive impetus.

Regulatory reform is not going to be the silver bullet, and needs to be pursued with caution. There will be critical areas that government can positively influence, from skills investment to improving careers advice and guidance. Nevertheless, the responsibility for creating good work must primarily lie with business. They have an obligation to consider the quality of work they are offering, opportunities for progression and fair treatment of all their workers. It is crucial they understand how these factors are key drivers of long term business performance. 

Peter Cheese has been the Chief Executive of the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development, since July 2012. He previously had a long career at Accenture and is also a Companion of the Institute of Leadership and Management, the Chartered Management Institute, and the British Academy of Management.  

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