HR has crucial role in ensuring "good work"

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A CIPD annual conference panel discussed how to ensure good quality work in an age of automation, Brexit and gig working

HR has a critical role to play in ensuring the future of work is one of “good work", a panel agreed at this year’s CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition.

The panel consisted of principal director, unions and business at The New Economics Foundation Stefan Baskerville, head of economic and social affairs at the TUC Kate Bell, and HR director at Addison Lee Mathew Davies.

Davies stressed – in light of the growth of the gig economy, Brexit, the potentially radical reshaping of work by AI and automation, and ongoing challenges relating to the UK’s low productivity – that there's never been a more important or exciting time to be in HR.

“I’ve never been more excited than now as an HR practitioner,” he said. “What we do every day, every week, every month has a profound effect on people’s sense of opportunity, drive and purpose in the workforce. As an HR practitioner I take a huge level of responsibility for that… it’s a fantastic opportunity.”

Davies said employers need to realise the poor logic of squeezing wages but also wanting the economy to grow. “There’s a really interesting dichotomy at the heart of UK PLC,” he said. “We want people to spend lots of money but in the same breath we say we won’t give them decent pay... We have to start thinking about how we want to shape our economy.”

Baskerville agreed on the crucial role of HR in ensuring good, economy-boosting work for people: “HR has a really crucial role to play because it will all come down to the relationships [people] have with their managers and employers, which dictate how they experience these changes.” He urged HR professionals not to forget the role of “judgment, accountability and responsibility” in the workplace – qualities he said have been neglected by some gig economy platforms.

Employers can play a key role helping people reskill as jobs evolve or become automated, said Davies. “It’s getting people to be more self-reliant about recognising that the job they’re doing doesn’t validate who they are,” he said. “HR practitioners can remove the fear… helping people through that is more than a nice thing to do; it’s a fundamental part of being a good employer. Equipping people to land in another organisation in a successful way is an important thing to do.”

The TUC’s Bell highlighted the example of BMW, which guarantees the number of jobs that will be available but not the type of jobs. Large employers particularly should be “helping people develop into the roles they’ll hold in three years' time,” she said.

The state also has an important role to play in ensuring good work, the panel agreed. Greater regulation around pay and working conditions could constitute part, but by no means all, of the solution regarding the role of government, they concurred.

“I would say a cautious ‘yes’ to regulation,” said Davies, citing the example of the apprenticeship levy as a successful state intervention. “I don’t think my organisation would have done this stuff without a level of encouragement,” he said. But he highlighted that “typically markets move faster than regulators, and even faster than the tax man.”

Baskerville pointed to the minimum wage’s introduction in the '90s as an example of regulation that many said would stifle business but proved a success, adding the introduction by George Osborne of the National Minimum Wage in 2015 as a further example. “Zero-hours contracts might be an area for government action,” he added. “Not banning them entirely but regulating them somehow.”

He called, however, for a more “sophisticated” role for the state than legislation. “We need to think more broadly about the role of the state,” he said, pointing to the government’s crucial role in convening industry groups around current challenges, as already happens in Germany, and ideas such as Trust Funds to help adults re-skill mid career.

He added that the living wage, as set by the Living Wage Foundation, is a good example of how employers could be encouraged rather than mandated to adopt best practice, and go beyond the legal minimum expected of them.

Unions can also play a crucial role, said Bell. She pointed to the TUC's efforts to engage with non-unionised workers to find out why membership is in decline.

She added that different organisations and different sectors will face different challenges in providing good-quality work. “There’s not one thing all employers are doing wrong,” she said. “But most have one area where they can step up.”

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