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Acas and the people's powerhouse

Source: PSE Feb/March 2019

Ahead of her speaking slot at this year’s EvoNorth, Acas chief executive Susan Clews assesses the current climate of workplaces and what matters most to workers, and argues that job quality and business performance go hand-in-hand.

Are workers in the north worrying about the same issues as their counterparts in the south? The answer seems to be broadly ‘yes’ but with some interesting variations. This was brought home to me by a poll YouGov carried out for Acas. The poll asked workers in Great Britain a series of questions about the issues that will matter most to them and their workplace over the coming year.

The usual suspects came to the fore: getting the right people with the right skills, productivity, work-life balance, and staying fit and healthy. There were, however, some particular issues for workers in the north: for example, workers in the north-east seem more concerned about productivity (43% vs. 36% for Great Britain) and job security (51% v 44%) than other regions; and there’s an indication that workers in Yorkshire and Humber seem slightly more confident than workers in other regions that their jobs won’t be done by robots any time soon (88% v 85%).

Every working area is different and has its own unique opportunities and challenges, but I would like to share some personal reflections on two questions all businesses and workers may be asking themselves in the coming year and beyond.

Can two different agendas have one shared vision?

It is easy to assume that what is good for business – for example, increased productivity through harnessing the latest technological change – may not be so good for workers in terms of wellbeing or job security.

This is certainly re-enforced in our poll results. For example, while British workers feel that ‘staying healthy and feeling well’ is important to them (51%), fewer (18%) identify having ‘fit and healthy staff’ as a priority for their workplace.

There are some other interesting findings. Although workers rank ‘balancing work and home life’ as the most important priority for 2019 (53%), the majority think that the use of flexible working arrangements will stay about the same (63%). And while ‘staying healthy and feeling well’ is the top priority for workers, the vote is very much split on whether mental health will be taken as seriously as physical health by employers in 2019 (46% agreeing and 43% disagreeing).

Is higher productivity compatible with good work?

The government’s Industrial Strategy for the UK states that: “We will drive productivity in businesses of all sizes by increasing collaboration, building skills, and ensuring everyone has the opportunity of good work and high-paying jobs.”

Acas’ seven levers of productivity identify workplace issues, such as fairness and employee voice, that are absolutely critical to job quality and business performance. It is my belief that the interest of business and employees go hand in hand. Acas advisors know that involving people, listening to their concerns, and developing their skills builds engagement and boosts the bottom line. We have been helping the Carnegie Trust and the RSA to find the right metrics for job quality – something the government is committed to measuring in the future.

There have been many alarming stories over the past year or two about how ‘the robots are coming’ to take our jobs, so it is not surprising that many workers highly value job security (44%) – but our poll shows that the overwhelming majority of workers are not actually worried about losing out to machines (85%), which may reflect more recent research that indicates that new technology may create as many jobs as it replaces. We just need to ensure they are good-quality jobs and that workers are skilled up to take new opportunities.

As a northerner, I fully identify with the vision for a ‘powerhouse.’ And for me, the people – both employers and employees – are the critical ingredient for business prosperity, good jobs, and employee wellbeing, both in the north and beyond.


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