Thought Pieces

One workplace even older than IoIC has been helping transform people’s experiences of work for more than 100 years. Lesley Giles, director of The Work Foundation, explains how the concept of “good work” has changed.

The Work Foundation has a common agenda with IoIC. We work with professional bodies and trade unions to advance working conditions and, in particular, create more good work, enhance employment opportunities and show that people are a company’s greatest asset.
We were set up in 1918, as people started moving from rural areas to the cities, and factories were creating unsafe working environments. With many servicemen not returning from the war, a lot of young boys were going into labour. This started a philanthropic movement, with businesses such as Boots and Rowntree coming together to invest in their workforces, as they recognised the value of health and education in their communities.

Strengthening social values

What does good work look like now? At a basic level, it fulfils certain hygiene factors. Security of fair pay and rewards empowers individuals to live their lives. That is an important principle to start with.
Over time, it’s become apparent to organisations that human beings look for social aspects of being at work: purpose and meaning. Communication has an important role in strengthening social values, as good communication can strengthen teams and make our work more efficient and rewarding.
The thing to remember here is that there are different weights and measures to the purpose determined by the individual. Some people want to work for an ethical business because, for example, it’s helping to combat climate change, but others might be looking for less of a crusade.
I recently worked with someone who was doing a study on London transport and he interviewed a London Underground train driver. One person’s interpretation of going up and down the Central Line every day might be that it’s a dull job, but for him it came down to local factors. He had control over issues, he was looking after customers, he had job flexibility around when he did his job, the company provided well for him.
Businesses need to consider what is important in terms of the elements that make up good work.

Fulfilling an entire workforce’s needs

Sometimes people inaccurately think good work must be highly skilled and professional. It doesn’t. It means working practices have to fulfil the collective issues of the whole workforce, but customised, with an understanding of your employees’ individual needs, whether that’s flexible working hours or workplace adjustments to accommodate a disability or health condition.
Our domestic policies have changed how businesses adapt to this. There was the post-war settlement phase in setting up a health and education system; and the ’70s was an important decade for equality.
Being part of the EU had a big bearing on this evolution. While Europe tends not to always dictate what happens in member states in terms of a legislative platform, its directives set the tone for national debate.

Developing high-performance teams

Leaders’ communication styles have changed – moving away from the command and control model of the 1980s, and formal appraisal systems where you fill out forms at a set point through the year. Hierarchies are flatter now. It’s more project-based and about developing high-performance working teams and building people’s strengths.
From our research, we can see that outstanding leaders are those who have conversations at all levels and create open environments for sharing and problem-solving.
More recently, technology disrupters and radical changes in business models have enabled flexibility to evolve even more. Technology means we can access what we want, when we want it, in real time.
Digitally enabled applications and social media have supported new forms of teamworking and collaboration in the workplace. The notion that people can communicate through global, shared, digital networks and video conferencing has transformed workplaces and where we can work. Businesses have got to meet those demands.
Many processes may now be operating through technology, but people still have – and will continue to have – an important role to play alongside machines.

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