A light(bulb) at the end of the tunnel?

Written by: Pete John is senior consultant at Penna.
Published on: 15 Sep 2022

If, like me, you were stranded in central London over the recent ‘holiday season’ due to a series of cancellations and reworked train schedules linked to industrial disputes, I suspect you’re also recognising (if you’re old enough) the great weather as a throwback to the summer of 1976, and one of the most well-known long and bitter miners’ strikes in 1984. It feels like there’s a fresh wave of gloom awash across the UK, surged forward by the pandemic. The rise in inflation, costs of energy and costs of living are fuelling a rising level of apprehension and discontent.

Increasingly, this can also be reflected in our work/life outlook and the relationship we have with the organisations we work for. We are, and have been successfully working for some time, across the UK transport and infrastructure agenda where the impact is clear for us to see and feel. Transport organisations typically operate on the cusp of the private and public sector interface and so can reflect the working practices of the partners and stakeholders they work with.

The potential parallels within local government are also stark, with the changing landscapes of hybrid working, pressure on public sector pay and the flexing of the employer/employee ‘contract’ brought into sharp focus. Interestingly, it is something we are also increasingly being asked about in our work at Penna; to explore candidates’ experience in successfully and productively working with unions and building positive industrial relations, as well as their basic team building skills.

Mindful and planned HR practice can avoid the extremes of striking which is seen as a last resort by many but is sometimes seen as the only tool for employees to protect themselves. Though it’s covered by the statute it can also be seen as a democratic necessity and a human right to provide more of a balance between worker and employer power.

Most strikes are linked to addressing pay and working conditions and became common during the industrial revolution in the 1800s. This same penchant for ‘rocking the boat’ can also be potentially seen as a trait in our future workforce, with candidates and employees now much more vocal about their needs and demands which appear clear, and they only want to join organisations that align with their ethical values and positive behaviours.

It is sometimes said people leave poor managers and not poor organisations, though particularly in the current environment the discussion is much more nuanced that that. Positive employee/employer relationships are key to support both employee retention and productivity, and organisations need to be mindful of this when managing collective bargaining arrangements too.

The findings from a recent YouGov survey of 1,075 senior HR professionals and decision-makers in the UK were outlined in July’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development Collective Employee Voice report. This covers public, voluntary and private sector organisations and included the following recommendations for working with employee representatives for mutual gain:

• Ensure your organisation informs and consults employees in line with their statutory rights.

• Develop a holistic employee voice framework that combines individual with collective voice channels.

• Establish effective information and consultation structures and practices for employee representation.

• Take a joint working approach with unions so they understand and feel part of the strategy.

This represents a great framework and the data gathered earlier this year suggests a lack of engagement with employee representatives can ultimately lead to (more) strike action and/or discontented staff. Almost half (46%) of employers in organisations with union representatives said their relationship had remained the same, and the majority of employers believed unions are needed and provide essential protection for employees from bad management.

There is a need for employee and employer cooperation and concession, to both attract and retain staff in a particularly strong candidate marketplace. As the current cost of living and work/life balance discussion grow, positively engaging in this employment relationship between employer and employee becomes even more vital.

Both HR professionals and line managers need to recognise early on in any employee conversations how some employment issues might develop a momentum of their own and become a catalyst for a much wider expression of dissatisfaction, and rebuilding trust between employer and employee is essential. People rarely forget what has been said and done during uncertain times and engaging with staff at a personal and collective level makes good HR sense.

Nevertheless, we all live in hope. As they say, both optimists and pessimists contribute to the society we live in. The optimist invented the aeroplane, while the pessimist invented a parachute.
Is that a light I see at the end of the tunnel or is it merely the light of an oncoming train? 

Pete John is senior consultant at Penna
pete.john@penna.com