Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour University of Liverpool
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We will only get truly inclusive organisations if we question the way work works

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6th Jul 2016
Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour University of Liverpool
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The Women and Equalities Select Committee recently estimated that a failure to use women’s skills is costing the UK £36 billion a year. This is clearly a problematic issue that we need to address as a society, but it isn’t just the skills of women that are being underutilised.

It is the skills of anyone who cannot, for whatever reason, conform to the standard definition and organisation of work.

An outdated model of work

The eight hour, five days a week model of work was created and established, for all the right reasons, over a century ago.

Prompted by the industrial revolution, the “eight hour movement” played a critical role in encouraging healthier working conditions. Since then, the organisation of paid work has increasingly reflected the rationalisation of time into quantifiable units and as a resource that can be bought and sold.

Yet we must consider that, any arrangement created before the advent of electricity, let alone the internet, will need revisiting in terms of its relevance to contemporary society.

We live in an era in which work is central to our own identity, one in which the ideal employee is expected to be completely devoted to their work; ready, willing and able at all times.

One consequence of this, at least in terms of working hours, is that we have regressed to a time before the “eight hour movement” when long, unhealthy hours were the norm.

We live in an era in which work is central to our own identity, one in which the ideal employee is expected to be completely devoted to their work.

Commitment today means not only ‘going the extra mile’ but also putting in the extra hours to get there.

Society continues to change, while our workplaces lag behind

If we want to encourage inclusivity in our organisations we must consider the compatibility of work alongside other important societal institutions such as the family.

In spite of massive changes in the composition and working profiles of households today,  many workplace cultures continue to (implicitly or explicitly) assume an outdated model of male breadwinning, even though two-parent families where only the father works continue to decline (now making up only 22% of families in the UK (EU Labour Force Survey)).

Commitment today means not only ‘going the extra mile’ but also putting in the extra hours to get there.

Such organisational cultures are maintained by the persistence of ‘ideal worker’ norms, which reinforce the centrality of work over and above other responsibilities.

Non-work demands are rarely considered, in any substantive way, to be the problem of organisations, but rather of individuals and families themselves.

Discussions surrounding long hours at the office are often used as a way for individuals to portray their value and importance, with the number of hours spent engaged in paid work considered a measure of a good worker, a good citizen and perhaps even a good human being.

These values and norms are reinforced through practices designed to encourage organisational flexibility rather than employee flexibility, with employee visibility and availability often rewarded with promotion / career advancement.

This is problematic for a number of reasons

Individuals who are not able to readily conform to these constrained views of work and employment are common place.

Whether this is due to being a single parent, being part of a dual-career couple where two careers need to be considered and negotiated, or dealing with the increasing demands of eldercare within our aging population.

Non-work demands are rarely considered, in any substantive way, to be the problem of organisations.

These are normal circumstances faced by the majority of people. These individuals, unable to conform to the ‘ideal worker model,’ are forced to compromise their careers and underutilise their skills in order to achieve flexible working arrangements which enable them to effectively meet their numerous responsibilities, otherwise drop out of the labour market altogether.

In making such compromises people are prevented from reaching their full potential and effectively utilising and developing their skills and resources.

The range of responsibilities encompassed in our diverse societal roles, whatever they may be, frequently do not align with the clear time demarcations associated with the current organisation of work. Yet this infrequently leads organisations, and indeed our society as a whole, to really question our out-dated model of work, which does not fit with the current needs of our society. There is a real problem here.

For those who are able to conform to the expectations associated with the ideal worker, the reality is often a demanding and competitive environment which ultimately has a detrimental impact on health, work life balance, & performance.

Such workplace cultures reinforce values surrounding the prioritisation of career & personal ambition at the expense of other non-work roles such as caring. 

So what can we do?

Organisations and the domain of paid work need to keep pace with other societal changes if we are to effectively use all the skills that we as a country have at our disposal.

The bottom line is that current organisational practices do not represent an efficient, nor sustainable, use of human resources, with many skilled employees now turning to self-employment as a source of flexibility, autonomy and meaning.

Large employers would benefit from noting this trend which suggests that choices about work cannot be artificially separated from choices about ‘non-work’ roles.

Employees are individuals with many varied responsibilities which may often take priority over their role as ‘employee’.

Current organisational practices do not represent an efficient, nor sustainable, use of human resources

Whatever the rationale, it is time that we started to really explore what is preventing real change to the way work is organised and carried out. Despite much talk of increasing innovation potential within UK organisations, we seem to be limited in creativity when it comes to this crucial issue.

The good news...

There are now some exemplary organisations within the UK challenging the way we think about work, creating cultures and working practices that place a real emphasis on inclusion, and rewarding their diverse employees based on results alone.

For example, The Hoxby Collective are an innovative marketing company who advocate to“work whenever and wherever they choose, so their workstyle fits around a lifestyle that fulfils their personal goals”.

The not so good news...

Unfortunately such organisational practices are still the exception rather than the norm.

It is in the hands of organisations and leaders to explore these kinds of practices within their own organisational and industry contexts, to challenge the way we work, to question current practices and workplace norms and to consider how we can create truly inclusive workplaces.

Such considerations must be engaged in, not only as a means of achieving a sustainable competitive position in the market, but also with the genuine desire to act in an ethically responsible manner towards others.

In summary, to achieve truly inclusive organisations we need to begin by doing three things:

  • Move beyond paying lip service to ‘flexible working’: explore ways that employees can be offered genuine flexibility, choice and control of their lives in a way that permits a diverse range of individuals the opportunity to fully engage with work (see my previous Academics Corner article, ‘How to make flexible working work’). This will usually require a complete shift in organisational culture.
  • Take the time to engage in genuine self-reflection considering personal underlying assumptions, beliefs and values. In order for organisations to survive and thrive, they need to be able to adapt, but as Ronald Heifetz, an expert in adaptive leadership, explains; the process of adaptation requires members of an organization to perform ongoing critical interrogation, challenging deeply-held beliefs and values that may have once made us successful. What is holding you back or contributing to resistance? For example, has the traditional model of work always worked for you and therefore are you reluctant to consider ways in which it might be problematic for others?
  • Draw on the innovative potential available within organisations:  Government innovation reports state that “innovation is vital for prosperity” and that we “remain one of the world’s leading innovators” (UK.gov Innovation Report, 2014). Use these skills and resources, making a conscious effort to engage in ‘out of the box’ thinking, to consider how the practice of work might be changed in a way that is more sustainable and fitting with our current society. Use examples from other organisations to explore how this might work. Consider alternatives, including those which support and contradict your own ideals, while remaining open-minded. Focus on solutions rather than on problems.

Change requires us to look at work in a fundamentally different way and asks us to question what we have taken as gospel for over 100 years.

This is undoubtedly a real challenge. But the bottom line is that the current conceptions of work no longer reflect the needs of our society and are therefore unsustainable. Real change is needed and begins with questioning existing views of work.

Let us make sure that we use our innovative potential to make a real difference, ensuring that we are at the forefront of the creation of innovative organisations focused on ensuring that work is really working for everyone.

This article was co-authored with Dr Sara Nadin from the University of Liverpool.

Replies (1)

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By Mr_Lizard
07th Jul 2016 14:02

Superb article. You've condensed and coalesced a lot of items which on their own don't necessarily have much substance, but together form a remarkably strong framework.

Thank you.

Thanks (1)