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Industrial Society becomes Work Foundation – feature

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This feature on the reorganisation and renewal of the Industrial Society, which has now become the Work Foundation, was contributed by CEO Will Hutton.


For over 80 years, The Industrial Society campaigned to improve the quality of working life, emphasising the high performance potential of an organisation that had the capacity to enthuse its workforce by respecting its humanity. The Industrial Society’s renewal as The Work Foundation takes up that vision, in a 21st century guise which places it at the heart of the productivity debate.

How to increase the productivity levels of our workforce has become the UK government’s core economic problem. The apparent health of the UK economy - low unemployment, and commendable job creation - masks a dangerous and growing productivity deficit between ourselves, the US and our principal European trading partners. In short Britain has more work, but the majority of our workplaces aren’t especially productive.

Nor are they especially happy. On April 8, The Work Foundation released research showing that the level of worker satisfaction with their prospects, pay levels, hours worked, and workload have all roughly halved - some from a very low base. The largest fall has been in satisfaction with working hours. The next largest has been in satisfaction with workload. Perhaps worse still, there is not a single item defining the core of their economic and psychological contract on which satisfaction levels have not deteriorated.

The accepted solution to the productivity challenge has been to focus on the input base and supply side of the economy - investments in new technology and people, and the growth of knowledge work for example. That these have not generated the step changes that we have been led to expect indicates that the story is only being half told. It is time for business leaders to listen to the rest of the narrative.

The Work Foundation’s contention is that poor productivity and workplace organisation that leads to disaffected workforces are different sides of the same coin. In practice it means the workplace has to be organised to bind employees - along shareholders and other stakeholders - into a common vision, the resulting commitment to the organisation's performance becoming the fulcrum of the business rather than immediate high returns to shareholders.

Unfortunately in too many British organisations, the toolbox of social capabilities that would help to produce such an outcome – time and place sovereignty for workers, recognising and rewarding their creative potential, service-centred leadership, a coaching culture and social responsibilities - are dismissed as " soft" against the “hard” proposition of maximising the bottom line. The paradox is that those companies that are built to last and generate sustained profits all instinctively find ways to boost employee commitment by taking such ’soft’ propositions seriously. This does not mean that they have to behave in an uncompetitive, altruistic manner - the marketplace forces tough decisions and uneasy passages at some time in most organisations’ lives - but it does mean that they engage with their workforce and its needs as part of building their business and that progressive profitability must replace simple financial profitability as the sole yardstick of business success.

Enter the Work Foundation. With our new research capacity and ability to translate our ideas into practice, we will be doing our best to get this message across and embraced by the leaders of the British private and public sectors alike. It’s the former Industrial Society’s core message, but updated for today. If Britain could get this right, we could address our productivity deficit and declining workforce morale simultaneously. It’s a very great prize.


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