The last few years have seen continued slow or even stagnant productivity growth in the UK (0.6% in 2018), a challenge which policy makers have struggled to find a solution to for many years now. Successive governments have targeted skills acquisition and past Conservative governments’ employment relations legislation has weakened trade union power beyond all recognition. The problem, therefore, must lie elsewhere: presumably in work organization and management.

The question though is which management practices or approach are required. Is it a strengthening of the recent emphasis on performance management, with its focus on targets, monitoring, and individualized performance-related pay? Or an approach centred more on employee involvement and enhancing coordination and intra-organizational relationships? Drawing on a rich body of knowledge – much of which is British and based on a national survey which is the envy of the world, the Government-led Workplace Employment Relations Study (WERS) – which shows employee involvement is good for productivity and other related measures such as product and service quality, this new report argues for the adoption of the high involvement route.

High-involvement design firstly includes job- or role-involvement management, often known as empowerment or enriched job design; an approach to the design of high-quality jobs that allows employees an element of discretion and flexibility over the execution and management of their primary tasks. Secondly it includes organizational-involvement management which involves workers participating in decision-making, beyond the narrow confines of the job, in the wider organization or the business as a whole. Thirdly it involves putting this as the centre of Human Resource Management (HRM). All three elements have been increasingly neglected as the concept and techniques of performance management have taken centre stage.

The value of high involvement design is partly that it increases employee well-being, but more significantly that it changes, for the better, the way people connect what they do with what others do, develop shared understandings, and learn from each other. It helps workers to develop a sense of collective destiny and improve coordination in organizations. This approach would also help address concerns about excessive stress and mental health problems at work; while there has been much recent discussion on the role of coping and support strategies in the workplace for those suffering from these problems, there has been insufficient attention given to the stressors themselves – particularly those generated at the organizational-level such as wage freezes and lack of opportunities for involvement. TUC and other surveys of employees find that stress is the number one concern of employees, they feel over monitored and that surveillance in the workplace is on the increase, and there is a large unmet need to have a say in how work is organized. Opportunities to learn, advance and do fulfilling work are high on the list of employees’ priorities.

Extending employee involvement is a principle that should extend to the whole organization and the design of all elements of HRM. This report makes suggestions for how the involvement principle could be applied. For example, recruitment processes should involve employers soliciting job previews from applicants and not just giving their own realistic job previews. Training and development needs to be focused on supporting the requirements of involvement, team working, creativity, and diagnostic skills, and built into day-to-day activities. Appraisal processes should include frequent feedback and be focused on development and not ensuring obligations are fulfilled or means of determining pay increases. Individual performance pay systems could be forsaken in favour of collective ones. Idea-capturing through improvement or project teams must be targeted as well-circumscribed problems and the membership of these should include people from across hierarchical levels. Conventional ‘employee attitude surveys’ need replacing with instruments designed through employee involvement processes. High involvement design also has implications for management education, as it implies this should be oriented towards deep learning and developing principles, dispositions and attributes; not simply a process of alerting management to best practices, as a literal interpretation of evidence-based management might suggest.

The Chancellor recently stressed that the future of the UK will be less about Brexit than “it will be about a technological revolution of a speed and impact the like of which the world had never seen before…” There is little hope, however, of the UK being able to fully seize the opportunities of this revolution while the involvement of users and all employees in the design and implementation of new technologies remains so woefully limited. If we are to seize the coming technological revolution, we first need a revolution in our workplace management. The time for high-involvement design is now.


High-involvement design: the time has come is available to download here.

Professor Stephen Wood is Professor of Management at the University of Leicester

He is contractible on 07757727260 or [email protected]