Joe Dromey

Joe Dromey is Head of Policy and Research at the Involvement and Participation Association (IPA)

The UK is facing a productivity puzzle. Productivity, which measures economic output per unit input, stalled with the economic crash and remains barely above 2007 levels. Had the pre-recession trend continued, productivity would be 15% higher.

This is a real cause for concern. Strong, sustainable productivity growth is essential to strong, sustainable wage growth. The stall in productivity has coincided with the longest squeeze on real incomes since Gladstone’s time. Boosting productivity is vital if we are to compete in what the Prime Minister calls the ‘Global Race’. The average worker in Germany now produces more in four days than a worker in the UK produces in five. And with massive further spending cuts planned, boosting productivity in the public sector is essential in order to mitigate the worst impacts of austerity.

A new report by the IPA argues that involving employees at work is essential to boosting productivity in the UK. It highlights a wealth of evidence from a variety of experts, all showing that when employees are given a say at work, productivity is higher.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Frontline staff understand an organisation’s customers, processes, products and services. Employees know where things are going wrong and how they can be improved. When employees are given a say, they are more engaged and motivated.

It is then a concern that the UK performs poorly on employee involvement. Only one in three employees say their managers let them influence decisions at work (WERS 2011). With the decline in collective bargaining and our light touch regulatory structure, too many employees lack a voice at work.

Many enlightened employers are well aware of the link between involvement and productivity. Take our world-beating automotive industry, which combines high levels of involvement in continuous improvement, high levels of union membership, high productivity and high pay.

The Government’s response to flat-lining productivity though has been tardy and lacklustre. ‘Fixing the foundations’, their plan to boost productivity was today criticised by Iain Wright MP, the BIS Committee Chair as a ‘vague collection of existing policies’ that will sit ‘collecting dust on Whitehall bookshelves.’ Worryingly, their plans have virtually nothing to say about the workplace and employee involvement. In addressing the productivity puzzle, workers are barely visible.

There are many possible solutions to our employee involvement deficit; more inclusive approaches to management and more self-managed teams; stronger trade unions and more widespread collective bargaining; employees on boards and works councils. And, of course, more cooperative and mutual workplaces. These are not mutually exclusive; we need a mix of them.
The growing focus on the productivity puzzle is to be welcomed. But employees need to be involved in solving it. Voice at work is not just a moral imperative and a social good, it matters for productivity and growth too.

Joe Dromey is Head of Policy and Research at the Involvement and Participation Association (IPA)