Who holds the power in today's world of work?

Written by
Louisa Baczor

21 Nov 2017

21 Nov 2017 • by Louisa Baczor

In the modern world of work, many of us appear to have much more choice and control in our jobs – with an increase in remote working, flexible hours and the ability to take on multiple short-term assignments to develop a variety of skills. 

These ways of working have advantages for organisations, too, including improved productivity and lower staff turnover, as well as maintaining business agility in a constantly changing external environment. 

But the autonomy that such (largely technology-driven) forms of work provide for individuals can mask the insecurity that often comes with it. The CIPD’s research found that nearly two-thirds of gig economy workers believe regulation should be put in place to guarantee them basic employment rights, and benefits such as holiday pay. 

Our Employee Outlook survey this year found that almost a third of employees say remote access makes it difficult to switch off from work in their personal time, while 17% believe it makes them anxious and affects their sleep quality. Meanwhile, organisations are not necessarily providing people with enough development opportunities to help them advance in their careers.

However, we can’t ignore the positive side of modern working practices. Most people who take on temporary work via online platforms in the gig economy, for example, find it a useful way to boost their income in addition to a regular job. And flexible workers are significantly less likely to feel under excessive pressure than those who don’t work flexibly, with reduced commuting time and better work-life balance. 

The key factor is how much influence people have over their working conditions. Working from home may not empower people if managers are constantly checking up on them, and neither does low-paid temporary work if it’s a last resort after struggling to secure a full-time job. So, has the power in the employment relationship shifted over to the side of the worker, or do employers in fact hold more power than ever before since they are less obliged to provide long-term job security?

Employee voice

 Having a voice at work is a fundamentally important way for individuals to influence matters that affect them in the organisation. Typically, organisations provide channels for employee voice such as all-staff surveys, consultations, town hall meetings, and feedback boxes. In light of the diversity of employment contracts and atypical working that now exist in many firms, these approaches to voice may not be effective or sufficient. 

For contractors, who are often not regarded as part of the ‘core’ workforce, opportunities to have a say or express concerns about their work are limited. Gig economy workers in particular may never actually meet their employer or co-workers in person; instead interacting with a piece of software, which raises questions about their ability to have their voice heard. Arguably, if individuals are self-employed, the organisation does not have the same level of responsibility for their welfare. But they could be missing a big trick by not hearing the views of their contractors – both in terms of suggested improvements to the way things are run, and, at the more extreme end, the risk of disgruntled individuals taking industrial action (as in the cases of Uber and Deliveroo). 

What is good work?

So what does good work look like in the modern economy? This is, of course, a topic of much debate following the Matthew Taylor Review, but a simple principle sits behind it: treating all individuals in the workforce as human beings. That means going beyond the bare minimum in terms of legal requirements, and genuinely considering the impact of working conditions on people and their well-being. It also means not focusing only on business profit, but upholding ethical values when it comes to making decisions. 

For example, instead of creating mechanisms for employee voice which have the sole purpose of improving organisational processes or reducing conflict, it’s important to also prioritise outcomes for workers, in order to foster sustainable benefits. Having a voice holds intrinsic value for individuals, as a way of establishing a sense of identity and autonomy – it’s not only about pursuing the organisation’s goals. 

HR professionals have a key role to play in understanding individual needs and motivations, to help create organisational solutions that not only drive value for the business, but also for its people.