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Workplace Employment Relations Survey - Is involvement at work really getting better?

Workplace Employment Relations Survey - Is involvement at work really getting better?

Paul Sellers

The Workplace Employee Relations Survey is a vital resource for understanding the changes in the world of work. In this article, Paul Sellers of the TUC examines the early findings which demonstrate both the scale of the impact of the recession, and the changing patterns of involvement at work.

After five years of recession then stagnation, with no strong recovery in sight, British workers are being hit by an historic living standards squeeze at the same time as an increased risk of redundancy and unemployment.

The recently published results from the 2011 Workplace Employment Relations Survey certainly show that the effect has been broadly felt. More than four in ten workplaces have suffered a pay freeze at some point during the economic difficulties, sometimes accompanied by further cuts in paid overtime and training budgets. In addition, compulsory redundancies (14% of workplaces) and voluntary redundancies (7%) will have made the long-term future seem less certain for many employees.

The percentage who feel that their jobs are secure has fallen by 7 points since the last survey was completed (2004), to 60 per cent. This equates to an extra 1.75 million people feeling worried about their futures and behaving accordingly.

Employees may feel that managers are underestimating the consequences of the economic difficulties, as more than twice as many employees as managers believing that the impact had been quite strong (47 per cent of employees compared to just 19 per cent of managers). Yet managers are also amongst those who have felt the chill wind of recession most strongly, with 39 per cent reporting that their workload has increased compared with 29 per cent of employees overall.

Whilst trade unions are in no way complacent, they have proved to be reasonably resilient in recent years.  It is true that the incidence of union membership and recognition have both declined slightly since 2004.   However, in terms of the quality of union representation, the incidence of unionised workplaces where there is a union rep has risen by 1 per cent since 2004, and in workplaces where the union is recognised for pay bargaining, over two thirds of union members (69%) said that their trade union would best represent them on this issue.

Here is where the story becomes more complex, because employee concern and uncertainty have not translated into significant increases in industrial action, and the rate of individual grievances is down.

What does this all mean for the quality of involvement in workplace change? The sharpest situation is when redundancies are on the cards. Here, the findings are mixed. On the positive side, 87% of managers consulted staff, yet there is still some sense of going through the motions. For example, only 22% identifying alternatives to redundancy or any ways to the reduced the number of staff being lost.

Looking at life at work more broadly, managers reported that the most important changes were those made to work organisation (22%), work techniques (22%) and new technology (21%), and of those workplaces making these changes, 68% consulted staff on work organisation changes, 52% on work techniques, but only 47% on new technology. Moving the focus from consultation to actual negotiation, the figures followed the same pattern, albeit in a much attenuated form- only 14%, 12% and 8%.

Nevertheless, there are some signs that managers are making more efforts to communicate and engage with employees. For example, 61% of workplaces now share some information about finances (55% in 2004).

This approach seems to have made some inroads. Consultation seems to have improved slightly, as 52% of employees now report that their managers seek the views of employees, 46% say that their managers respond to suggestions and 34% say that employees have some influence over decisions. This represents a small increase on each measure since 2004.  

 More strikingly, organisational commitment is up strongly, with 65% of employees now saying that share the values of the organisation – a rise of 10% since the previous survey. Yet the old adage about the gap between managerial and staff perceptions still holds true. Thus 95% of managers think that they have a good relationship with their staff but only 64% of them agree.

What is hard to disentangle from the WERS findings is the extent to which all of these soundings of life at work represent entrenched movements and to what extent the survey is affected by the economic cycle, given that the previous survey was conducted in boom conditions. In particular, this makes it harder to be certain to what extent the quality of involvement is really changing rather than the results merely reflecting compliance during frightening times.

The challenge for unions will be to construct a narrative that boosts recruitment and bargaining capability. This is an obvious “must do” for us, but it is also an essential condition for building real and lasting participation at work.  We know from WERS that where people have union representatives they value the work they do – the challenge is to increase their reach across Britain’s workplaces.


Paul Sellers is a Policy Officer at the TUC