Just Why Can Management Get It So Wrong When Dealing With Work?

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Just Why Can Management Get It So Wrong When Dealing With Work?
05
Apr

Just Why Can Management Get It So Wrong When Dealing With Work?

Crisis, Change and the P&O Saga 
©Professor Chris Rowley

Introduction

In light of all the sacrifices, examples of ‘going the extra mile’ and both direct health threats and burnout for some workers during the Covid-19 global pandemic, it never ceases to amaze me the crassness of some managers decisions and behaviours towards their staff. One would think such examples of worker commitment, loyalty and performance would be recognised and rewarded by managers. This seems not always to be the case given some of the resultant staff frustration and anger, as reflected in the idea of a bubbling up of ‘The Great Resignation’.

One possible way to address ‘The Great Resignation’ is head on – such as is via of bundle of best employment standards, such as high performance work practices (Cai and Rowley, 2021). This would not only help produce better organisational resilience for future crisis but also go towards developing ‘The Great Retention’. Yet, despite the research on the downsides and costs of high staff turnover, some managers do not seem to worry about it. Some even encourage it, for example, Amazon which has its policy of ‘The Offer’ – each year after the peak Christmas period, warehouse staff are offered a few thousand pounds (depending on tenure, etc) to quit on the condition they will never be allowed to work for Amazon again (O’Connor, 2022). Interestingly, this did not happen this year.

Furthermore, some companies happily took government support and funding during the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet, seemingly some managers do not think this comes with at least a modicum of responsibilities, such as acting ethically and fairly regarding their workforce. Despite all of these events, clearly some managers just want to go back to pre-pandemic 2019 – or even 1919 - employment practices.

This has been brought to light by the recent P&O saga. Its dismissal of all its workers allegedly via a brief Zoom call announcement and replacement with cheaper workers has hit the headlines. Exactly what did the person who thought this strategy and method was the best way to address a problem think was going to happen and how it would be received by staff and the outside world? Statements and machinations about the legality or not of this sorry situation concerning the exact process and legal niceties about meeting requirements and which jurisdictions covered the staff, and so on, only obfuscates and misses the point entirely. A cacophony of condemnation from the media and politicians resulting in poor PR for P&O and its far away owners has followed. Not only workers, but society more widely, should expect better.

Furthermore, this example has shown that change in businesses does occur and choices are made. It is useful to reflect on why and how this might happen.

Why Might We Expect Change?

Crisis, such as the one caused by Covid-19, with all its terrible and sad personal costs and loss, are at least ‘useful’ in terms of proving a systemic ‘jolt’, with both blocking of existing practices and forcing experimentation on everyone at the same time (Hartford, 2021). This reflects the earlier conceptualisation of change by Lewin (1947) in terms of seeing it in an analogy of an ‘ice cube’, which once ‘unfrozen’ can be reshaped before ‘freezing’ again in. This notion and idea remains popular, despite criticisms such as its over-simplicity, and it is used in more recent works (eg Gratton, 2022).

Of course, the exact shape to any ‘refrozen’ structure and practices is open to moulding. This is where management choices come into play. This also brings us back to the recent P&O case.

Perspectives on Employment Relations

We can hazard at a guess that whoever made – and agreed – this action by P&O’s owners can be firmly placed in the unitary perspective of employment relations (Fox, 1966; 1974). This covers the ‘macho management’ school and view of working life. In this perspective this would be underpinned by strong views that there is one centre of authority, loyalty and purpose in a business and this is to be unquestioningly followed. Yet, of course, the reality of work if far more complex and mixed. Also, ideas around stakeholder theory, corporate governance and ethical management also cut against stark unitary positions. In businesses, workers have a range of competing rationales and loyalties, as in a pluralist perspective. Some better recognition of this complex situation perspectives by management would be a useful starting block to ‘build back better’ following the Covid-19 crisis.

Conclusion

As we continue to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic and are told to ‘live with it’ and its risks - and I guess for managers to ‘manage’ it - it would be opportune and good to reflect on any positive lessons in relation to work that we can draw from it. At a minimum it has shed light on the plethora of types of work and contacts – often exploitative - that have been simply ignored. As a crisis it systemically blocked existing ways of doing things and forced rapid, common experimentation with working arrangements and a range of flexibilities, some of which were possible and in use already - even leading to a reconsideration of work-life balance for many workers. Now as the world of work ‘ice cube’ begins to refreeze it would be good to think that we do not forget what was tried while it was melted and that the resultant frozen shape is moulded and changed into one that reflects a better world of work. That is to say, one that is fairer, more equitable and respectful and trusting. Then we really can ‘build back better’ as they say.

References

Cai, Y. and Rowley, C. ‘Pandemic Lessons for Management, Perspectives on Work, 25, Nov 2021
Fox, A., ‘Industrial Sociology and Industrial Relations’, Research Paper 3, Royal Commission on Trade Unions and Employer Association, 1966
Fox, A. Beyond Contract: Work, Power and Trust Relationships, 1974
Gratton, L. Redesigning Work: How to Transform Your Organisation & Make Hybrid Work for Everyone, 2022
Hartford, T. ‘When obstacles become opportunities to work better: Or why going back to 2019 is not progress’, Financial Times, 24 Sept 202
Lewin, K. ‘Frontiers in group dynamic: Concept, method and reality in social science’, Human Relations, 1: 1, 1947
O’Connor, S. ‘How did a vast Amazon warehouse change life in a former mining town?’ Financial Times, 17 March 2022
Fox, A., (1966), ‘Industrial Sociology and Industrial Relations’, Research Paper 3, Royal Commission on Trade Unions and Employer Association
Fox, A. (1974), Beyond Contract: Work, Power and Trust Relationships

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