‘Building Back Better’ Or ‘More Of The Same’? Just Where Is 'UK Plc' Going And What Can HR Do About It?
©Professor Chris Rowley
Kellogg College, University of Oxford and Bayes Business School, City, University of London
Are we in the UK are told to ‘learn to live with Covid-19’, just what might the future hold for work and employment and where is the UK going? The idea of moving the UK and its businesses away over-reliance on its deleterious diet of low wage - low productivity is not particularly new, but has taken on some more recent resonance and traction. For example, the government’s oft used stap-line of ‘building back better’ and creating ‘a high wage, high productivity economy’ had a high resonance during the Covid-19 pandemic. Along with some of the requisite measures taken to ensure the continued functioning of the economy and society and the successful roll-out of ‘working from home’ (WFH) orders and practices, it seemed for a moment that we might expect some ‘flesh on the bones’ of this government – and business – rhetoric and to turn it more into reality.
Furthermore, both urgency and opportunity in this area could also come from other global trends, such as more manufacturers ‘reshoring’ sclerotic supply chains given the Covid-19 pandemic’s snarling up of routes and denting of the allure of the former search for ever more ‘just in time’ operations in the name of ‘efficiency’. For example, according to a Make UK survey, some 75% of British manufacturers have increased the number of their British suppliers in the past 2 years and almost 50% intended to further boost their supply base in the next 2 years (Thomas, 2022).
Alas, as time has moved on the ‘volte-face’ towards a different, better, brighter future is increasingly looking like just another mantra and sop. Many policy-makers, businesses and practitioners want to the ‘go back to the future’. Recent crass and unsympathetic calls by business leaders and the government for staff to blithely return to offices as if Covid-19 had not happened are indicative examples. This myopia and ‘head in the sand’ was reinforced by the woeful lack of substantive proposals to move towards the stated aims of rebuilding UK into a better place to work with aspects such as a right to ask for flexible working in the last Queen’s Speech, which was very sadly disappointing.
We have these simplistic and naïve assertions that returning to the office is good for you, business and productivity despite its results being unclear and contested. Part of this is due to not just lazy thinking, it is also politician, policy maker and management tendencies. These are to not only confirmatory bias but to systematically over-generalise both praise and blame (Shaw, 1976; Rosenzweig, 2007; Harford, 2022). For example, there us the influence of the ‘halo’ versus ‘horns’ effect whereby a single event, instance, policy, etc colours the whole view of the experiment, person, company performance, etc. Too many struggle to acknowledge that something can be good in some ways while being bad in others.
Interestingly, the UK remains an international outlier in moving back from WFH for a set of reasons. These include its service based economy, size of professional services sector, more flexible labour market, long and costly commuting and a mindset shift. This means office occupancy is unlikely to return to pre-pandemic levels - still a quarter down in February 2022 - and Google mobility data for office working peak day (Thursday) from May 12 showed commuter numbers remained over 20% below pre-pandemic levels and broadly unchanged since September 2021 (Romei, 2022). A survey from WFH Research showed that in international comparison the UK had the highest share of employees who said they would quit if forced to return to workplaces full time and more believed WFH had increased their efficiency (Ibid.). The reluctance to return to offices is especially acute on London with its high density of professional services. For example, Google data showed trips to workplaces in the capital still down by more than 30% compared to pre-pandemic levels and Transport for London statistics on people though stations in the City on the last Thursday in April showed this was 42% down on pre-pandemic levels (Ibid).
There is some international support for on-going WFH practices from unexpected quarters. From a US perspective some argue that while many things have returned to pre-pandemic levels, one thing has not – white collar workers attendance at the office and boldly argues: “This is a good thing. Work from home is better for almost everyone in the long run and a return to it is, rather than being a disruption, would actually represent a return to historical norms” (Lehrer, 2022). Workers who work from home average 1.4 more days work per month than their in-office counter-parts (Caramela, 2022) with better work-life balance and overall happiness (Apollo Technical, 2022). An historical approach also puts WFH into perspective –when working at an office can be seen as a relatively recent trend – and one now undermined by pervasive internet, cheap communications and ubiquitous access to knowledge and which may never return to its high tide of early 2020 (Lehrer, 2022). Such views are supported by research from clinical research on the other downsides of much office work, including its distractions and stresses from overhearing ‘halfersations’ to simple lack of private space (see O’Connor, 2021).
Furthermore, as ever, there is touch much ‘rose tinted spectacle’ wearing here. Pre-Covid-19 UK was not a nirvana of secure, well paid, respected, high quality work and conditions and employment relations and world-class productivity in innovative sectors. These were not halcyon days but rather were all too often underpinned by the very opposite factors and conditions, such as the following. For instance, there was the all too commonplace lazy thoughts and thinking and management with short term and narrow-minded use of low wages as a competitive strategy. Yet, this simply reduces quality and removes the encouragement for training and investment in the trap of an ever downward spiral. Except for non-tradable goods, such businesses just face the harsh reality of the teat from the furnace of international competition and all that is wrong with globalisation. All we need to reflect on to bring this home is the recent dreadful debacle at P&O ferries and its ‘tone deaf’ and ‘tin eared’ management with zero empathy. Some reading and reflection, especially by leaders, of the excellent books Why Should Anyone Be Led By You?: What It Takes To Be An Authentic Leader (Goffe and Jones, 2006) and Why Should Anyone Work Here?: What It Takes To Create An Authentic Organization, (Goffe and Jones, 2015) would massively repay the time invested.
Elements of a better way to manage work and employment contains some simple key ingredients and here human resource (HR) practitioners and HR management (HRM) practitioners have roles to play, both tactically and strategically. The practice of better employment relations is at the tactical level. Additionally, at the strategic level HRM – armed with its researched and measured cost-benefit analysis of practices and suggestions - needs to argue and force its way into the minds - and practices - of senior executives from all functions and the board.
The areas where HRM can add value are across a range. They can start with from the very best recruitment, selection and retention, especially in the era of the ‘Great Resignation’. Parts of this include the importance of both ethics and corporate social responsibility, not least in terms of company image and PR. Here the role of worker respect, involvement and voice are blindingly obvious. Another key area is fair and equitable rewards. There are far too many examples of ‘fat cat’ executive rewards at one end of the pay scale to ‘scrooge-like’ employers at the other. These are not mutually exclusive within an organisation either. Here reports that New Zealand’s fair pay agreements would reverse decades of labour market deregulation also indicate its impacts may ripple outwards (O’Connor, 2022). A further area for HR practitioners revolves around building and sustaining careers and investment in training, personal development and lifelong learning.
At a more strategic level, HR practitioners should reflect that similar calls have been made in the past, most clearly, articulately and persuasively by the leading HR thought leader Dave Ulrich (1996) over a quarter of a century ago. He argued that the roles of HR professionals must be redefined to meet the competitive challenges organisations faced then and into the future. He provided a framework that identified four distinct roles of HR professionals: Strategic Player, Administrative Expert, Employee Champion, Change Agent. He included many examples to demonstrate that HR professionals must operate in all four areas simultaneously in order to contribute fully. He urged a shift of HR professionals' mentality from "what I do" to "what I deliver" and makes specific recommendations for how individuals in HR can partner with line managers to make organisations more competitive.
We should use the Covid-19 pandemic - and terrible human costs - to at least reflect on work and employment practices and where we want to go as a society and economy. Is it to be ‘more of the same’ or to genuinely ‘build back better’? Over to you.
Apollo Technical (2022) ‘Statistics on remote working that will surprise you’, Apollo Technical, 11 May
Caramela, S. (2022) ‘Working from home increases productivity, Business News Daily, 13 April
Goffe, R. and Jones, G. (2006) Why Should Anyone Be Led By You?: What It Takes To Be An Authentic Leader, Harvard Business School Press.
Goffe, R. and Jones, G. (2015) Why Should Anyone Work Here?: What It Takes To Create An Authentic Organization, Harvard Business School Press.
Harford, T. (2022) ‘The oil slick effect, or why we systematically overgeneralise’, Financial Times, 13 May
Lehrer, E. (2022) ‘Many workers may never return to the office, and that’s a good thing’, InsideSources.com, 15 May
O’Connor, S. (2022) ‘New Zealand’s job law will cause ripples beyond its shores’, Financial Times, 10 May
O’Connor, S. (2021) ‘Long live the (reconfigured) office’, Financial Times, 29 June Romei, V. (2022) ‘UK ahead of European peers on shift to working from home’, Financial Times, 15 May
Rosenzweig, P. (20o7) The Halo Effect… and the Eight Other Business Decisions That Deceive Managers, Free Press
Shaw, B.M. (1976) ‘Knee-Deep in the Big Muddy: A Study of Escalating Commitment’, Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 16 (1): 27-44
Thomas, D. (2022) ‘UK manufacturers ‘reshore’ supply chains after pandemic and Brexit, Financial Times, 16 May
Ulrich, D. (1996) Human Resource Champions: The Next Agenda for Adding Value and Delivering Results, Harvard Business Review Press