Expert panel says productivity and inequality challenges can be solved by strong HR

The huge rate of technological change is creating a new tranche of winners and losers in the British workforce – but HR can help business become a force for good in society by prioritising investment in managerial competence and L&D.

That was the verdict of an expert panel convened at the CIPD Annual Conference to discuss one of the most pressing issues facing policymakers and business leaders: how we create ‘good work’ in a rapidly changing economy.

By some measures, the prognosis is bleak. Stefan Baskerville, principal director for unions and business at the New Economics Foundation, pointed out that real wages had been stagnating for a decade or more despite the low levels of unemployment.

“We have created a disincentive to pay well – there are an enormous number of people who are in work but don’t earn enough to live on,” he said. The decline in union membership, he added, had reduced collective bargaining power: “If union density among low-paid workers under 30 is 10 per cent, it’s no surprise so many of them aren’t earning the living wage.”

Kate Bell, head of economic and social affairs at the TUC, said the future could be viewed through different lenses. Some people, she said, were pessimistic on productivity, believing that employers were locked in a race to the bottom to drive down the cost of employment by offering more ‘flexible’ forms of work that forced more of the costs of employment back onto the employee.

Other people were relatively optimistic and felt the next leaps in technology would see automation drive greater human productivity. “Through it all… the quantity of work is probably going to stay the same, but what we need to think about is how that work is divided up,” said Bell, adding that workplace learning had to form part of the answer. “If the discussion about the future of work leads to one thing, it should be when we’re going to start investing in training.”

Automation and the potential for reskilling are pressing concerns for the drivers of Addison Lee, who see the proficiency of driverless cars being trumpeted every time they turn on the news. The firm’s HR director, Mat Davies, admitted it couldn’t shy away from the conversation about automation.

And he said Addison Lee had to confront the reality that its employment model might change in the future, and that it must help staff deal with the issue. “We’ve had people who’ve worked for us for 25 years and the idea that one day that they might not work for Addison Lee is very traumatic,” said Davies. “We have to help them with that, and that’s a vital part of what it takes to be a good employer.”

For now, he added, the more pressing challenge was differentiating the business through better managers, a theme the panel returned to multiple times. “We’re spending a lot of money encouraging line managers to equip people with purpose. We’re in the customer service industry, so why wouldn’t we do that? We’re helping our line managers have the fleetness of foot to adapt to the speed of change in our marketplace.”

Often, said Bell, managers want to do the right thing but have not been adequately supported in their own development and may, in some industries, be earning little more than their direct reports. She responded to criticisms that unions had lost relevance in the digital age by pointing out the engagement they are undertaking with younger workers, who bring a new mindset to the workplace: “Some of their expectations about work are particularly low – they think it’s normal, for example, to turn up 15 minutes early and not be paid for it because there is a safety briefing.”

But despite the multiple challenges and the uncertainty about where the economy will shift next, the panel remained essentially optimistic about the potential for employee voice to be emphasised in progressive workplaces – and for HR professionals to be at the forefront of economic change. As Davies said: “HR has been waiting for years to shape the future of work, which is why it’s great we are moving the discussion from talking about quantity of work to quality of work.

“According to the dystopian vision of the future, we are passive observers. Yet the things we do every day and every week have a massive effect on people’s sense of purpose and opportunity. I’ve never been as excited.”