Will the Industrial Society's relaunch as the Work Foundation help to make happier workplaces?
What’s in a name? The Boys’ Welfare Association, founded by a London vicar in 1918 to address poor working conditions, changed its name to the Industrial Society in the 1960s and became a pioneer in management theory (1).
Now, in April 2002, the organisation has changed its name again – to the Work Foundation (2).
At a lavish launch event to celebrate the rebrand, UK chancellor of the exchequer Gordon Brown lamented the failure of his predecessors at the treasury to engage with public discussion about work. As Brown spoke, the words ‘innovative’, ‘enterprising’ and ‘collaborative’ swirled about, projected behind him in a soothing font. Presumably intended to give an impression of exciting new ideas about work, these disembodied words were more indicative of an anxiety about what, exactly, work is for.
Given the decline of British industry over the past few decades, the desire to drop the ‘industrial’ tag from an organisation’s title is understandable. And what might seem a more obvious choice, the ‘Post-Industrial Society’, was presumably ruled out by its acronym. But, as we were repeatedly informed, ‘the Work Foundation’ represented more than just a name change.
‘Work is more than a source of income’, said Work Foundation CEO Will Hutton, before explaining that work ‘is the daily means by which we grow and express ourselves’. UK prime minister Tony Blair concurs with this view, in his foreword to the first report published by the rebranded Work Foundation: Working Capital: Intangible Assets and the Productivity Gap (3). ‘Work is central to all our lives’, says Blair (4). All of this is designed to show the importance of management techniques geared around creating happier, more fulfilled workers.
Apparently, ‘the level of contentment of UK employees has declined markedly…the level of genuine worker satisfaction with their prospects, pay levels, hours worked and workload have fallen by between one third and one half’ (5). Between 1993 and 2000, ‘the proportion of men and women who work only as hard as they have to has doubled’ (6).
Yet this dissatisfaction seems to coexist with employees’ desire to find their work fulfilling. ‘An increasingly widespread experience in the labour market is to love your job, but to have growing unease about work’, states Working Capital (7). The more people expect to be happy at work, it seems, the more disgruntled they are.
Businesses have attempted to ameliorate this situation, through complicated management strategies designed to improve their employees’ happiness. In the absence of any bigger vision of what companies want to do and why, there has been an ascendancy of the human resources (HR) department and a proliferation of new management techniques.
But without a bigger vision in place, no amount of B2E (business-to-employee, in the popular jargon (8)) is likely to retain or inspire workers. By creating the (false) impression that work should be the most fulfilling thing in people’s lives, companies set work up for a fall, and risk dissatisfying employees further.
Hutton concluded his speech by proposing the creation of a new government position – ‘minister for management’. But a focus on management is unlikely to result in either a successful business or a happy workforce. There are already too many managers in business – and, some would argue, too many managers in Whitehall. The last thing we need is another one.
The work thing, by Jennie Bristow
Stressing vulnerability, by Ken McLaughlin
(1) See the history of the Work Foundation, on the Work Foundation website
(2) See the Work Foundation website
(3) See the Executive summary (.pdf 48.6 KB) of this report
(4) Working Capital: Intangible Assets and the Productivity Gap, The Work Foundation, 2002, p1
(5) Working Capital: Intangible Assets and the Productivity Gap, The Work Foundation, 2002, p31
(6) Working Capital: Intangible Assets and the Productivity Gap, The Work Foundation, 2002, p36
(7) Working Capital: Intangible Assets and the Productivity Gap, The Work Foundation, 2002, p40
(8) See the definition of B2E on Whatis.com
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