United Kingdom: Recent Developments in Work Organisation in the EU 27 Member States and Norway

  • Observatory: EurWORK
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  • Published on: 24 Listopad 2011

United Kingdom

Disclaimer: This information is made available as a service to the public but has not been edited by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. The content is the responsibility of the authors.

National data on work organisation in the UK is limited. Much attention has focused on ‘high-performance working’ (HPW) which is seen as having the potential to improve productivity, organisational performance and employee outcomes. However, take-up remains limited, and there is debate concerning its definition and impact, particularly on employees. In terms of the main trends in work, the evidence points to people being increasingly offered jobs with high work intensity, limited autonomy, and pressure from customers to deliver, in an increasingly polarised labour market.

Block 1: Existing main sources of information dealing with the issue of work organisation at national level and its relation with working conditions, innovation and productivity

  • Are there national statistical sources (censuses, special surveys, other surveys, etc) that analyse the issue of work organisation or are used for analysing the issue of work organisation in your country? If so, identify them and explain the way work organisation types are defined and asked in these surveys.

There are two main sources of national statistical data:

The Work Employment Relations Survey (WERS) which is a nationally representative survey of employment relations and working life in Britain, based upon data collected from both managers and employees, which has been conducted in 1980, 1984, 1990, 1998, and 2004. The survey provides information on the incidence of different forms of team working, use of problem-solving groups, and the take up of HPW (see Kersley et al 2006).

The British Skills Surveys Series comprises the 1986 SCELI survey, the 1992 Employment in Britain survey and the three UK Skills Surveys (1997, 2001 and 2006) (see Felstead et al 2007). Based on a nationally representative sample of working individuals in Britain aged 20-65, the survey provides relevant information on levels of task discretion and different types of team working (see also Gallie 2009).

  • Are there any other main sources of information published after mid-2000s that may provide valuable information on the issue (i.e. ad-hoc studies, sectoral studies, administrative reports, articles, published case studies, etc)? If so, identify them.

The UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) has recently examined the use of 16 HPW practices in a survey of over 13,000 employers (UKCES 2008a).

  • Have there been any innovations introduced/expected in the existing national statistical sources intended to take into account the issue of work organisation in your country?

Not to our knowledge.

Block 2: Identify existing patterns of work organisation at national level and recent evolution in time

  • Describe existing patterns of work organisation at national aggregated level (according to existing used national definitions) and their associated characteristics per pattern, based on the existing information. Provide information on the (quantitative and qualitative) importance of the different forms of these work organisations in the national context. In order to reflect the workplace practices, NCs are also requested to provide information on different work organisation-related-items, based on the national Working Conditions surveys that stress the main changes that have taken place in the last 5-7 years (i.e. higher/lower presence of team work; higher/lower presence of autonomy at work; higher/lower presence of job rotation; higher/lower assistance from colleagues or hierarchy; higher/lower task complexity; higher/lower degree of learning, higher/lower problem solving capacity, etc), stressing existing differences by sectors and enterprise sizes, and identifying the main reasons behind these changes

Team working

There is evidence that team working has diffused widely across the UK economy. WERS 2004 found that around three quarters (72%) of UK workplaces had at least some of their core employees in formally designated teams. In 83% of workplaces with team working, teams were given some responsibility for products and services, and in 61% teams could jointly decide how work was done. In only 6% of workplaces were teams allowed to appoint their own leader. Advanced team working (team members work together, have responsibility for some specific activity, decide how work is done, and appoint their own leader) is rare, and found in just 4% of workplaces (see Kersley et al 2006: 89-90).

Gallie (2009), using data from the British Skills Survey Series, found that 59% of employees surveyed worked in teams in 2006, compared to 47% in 1992. However, the proportion of employees in ‘self-directed teams’ (have influence over work effort, choice of tasks, how to do the work, and quality standards) declined from 21% to 14% between 1992 and 2006, while those in ‘non-self-directing teams’ increased from 26% to 45%. The proportion of employees in ‘semi-autonomous teams’ (i.e. controlled work tasks but not team member selection, group targets and choice of team leader) was 10.7% in 2006. ‘Self-managed teams (exercise control over work tasks, target setting, team member selection and appoint their own leader) were confined to 3.5% of employees in 2006.

Task discretion

The Skills Surveys show a marked decline in task discretion in the 1990s, which flattened off after 2001 (see Felstead et al 2007). Those in ‘skilled trades’ were least affected, whereas ‘associate professionals’ and ‘personal service workers’ suffered the biggest fall. The decline was slightly greater in the public than the private sector, and particularly pronounced in education. The surveys found that the decline was linked to more intrusive performance management systems and increasing pressures from customers, clients and colleagues. WERS indicates that less than half of employees in 2004 reported a lot of influence over how work was done and the order in which tasks were undertaken, and only a third did so in respect of the tasks performed (Kersley et al 2006: 95-97). There is also evidence of significant work intensification in the 1990s (Green 2009), rising levels of ‘over-qualification’ (Felstead et al 2007), and skills not being fully utilised at work (Kersley et al 2006).

A knowledge economy?

Research has questioned the extent of ‘the knowledge economy’ and ‘knowledge work’ in the UK. A 2008 survey of employees by the Work Foundation (Brinkley et al 2008) found that the UK labour market had a 30/30/40 structure, with 40% of employees surveyed performing ‘few knowledge tasks’, 27% undertaking ‘some knowledge tasks’ from time to time, and 33% undertaking ‘many knowledge tasks’. Of this latter group, only one third combined cognitively complex knowledge work with high level management tasks. The research concluded that around one in ten UK workers were in high knowledge-intensive jobs.

A polarising labour market

To this can be added evidence of significant labour market polarisation, with growth in professional and managerial occupations occurring alongside rapid increases in low skill, low paid jobs, such as sales assistants and shelf-stackers (Noland and Wood 2003, Goos and Manning 2003, Warhurst and Thompson 2006). In 2006, there were an estimated 7 million jobs in the UK that did not require any qualifications to obtain them (Felstead et al 2006). It has also been argued that many UK firms produce low specification goods and services in price-competitive markets, using a predominantly low skill, low wage workforce and neo-Fordist forms of work organisation which afford employees limited scope for discretion (Keep and Mayhew 1998, Delbridge et al 2006).

  • Identify (if possible), the recent evolution in time of work organisation patterns in your country (last 5-7 years). Pay special attention to the effects derived from the current economic crisis.

There is no information available on this.

  • Identify existing differences in work organisation patterns accordingly to sector and company size considerations, as well as (if possible) recent changes in these patterns.

Work systems requiring relatively high levels of skill and autonomy are more likely to be found in sectors exposed to international competition, where organisations compete on the basis of high-specification goods and services and high added value, and where innovation and creativity are at a premium (see Geary 2003, Mason 2004). Research also suggests that highly routinised forms of work organisation remain entrenched in many parts of the UK economy, such as call centres, food processing and large parts of retailing (see Lloyd et al 2008a). Case studies of meat and confectionary firms have uncovered ‘very simple jobs’, such as packing, ‘placing a chicken onto a conveyor belt’, ‘counting and placing ten sweets into a confectionary box seven times in one minute’ (James and Lloyd 2008). While there is some high-end call centre work in the UK, studies indicate that the vast bulk of agents work in large ‘mass production’ type call centres, with Taylorist work organisation, reflected in high call volumes and an average call length for the industry of under four minutes (see Taylor and Bain 2007, Lloyd et al 2008b).

  • Identify work organisation patterns associated with high performance working environments/enterprises.

Definitions of ‘high-performance working’ are highly variable and contested as is their impact upon organisational performance and employees (see Lloyd and Payne 2006, Hughes 2008). There is evidence that take-up has been confined to a minority of organisations and that it did not increase significantly between 1998 and 2004. WERS 2004 found that the proportion of workplaces combining ‘team working, multi-skilling and problem solving groups’ rose from 22% in 1998 to 29% in 2004. However, it only increased from 15% to 19% when the definition of team working was confined to teams which exercised some autonomy over how work was done (Kersley et al 2006: 97). The WERS data has the advantage of concentrating upon some core work organisation practices. Other studies adopt looser definitions. A survey by UKCES (2008), which looked at 16 ‘management practices’, found that around 30% of employers were using HPW (defined as having 10 or more practices).

Take up appears to vary by sector, company size and product market strategy (UKCES 2009). The aerospace industry has been cited as a sector where take-up is relatively high, with around 20% of firms said to be using HPW practices to a significant degree at the end of the 1990s (Thompson 2000). Mason (2004) found that high value added production techniques and HPW were more prevalent in manufacturing, especially engineering, where firms were facing intense international competition. The UKCES survey (2008) found that the presence of HPW practices was higher in the public sector and lowest among smaller organisations.

  • Identify the main drivers for change or barriers to change underpinning these recent developments in work organisation in the country, paying special attention to the effects derived from the current economic crisis.

In the UK, the issue of barriers to change has been mainly discussed in relation to the low take-up of HPW (see UKCES 2009). They include:

  • Lack of knowledge of HPW among firms and managers.

  • Lack of capability and skills on the part of UK managers.

  • The persistence of a traditional ‘command and control’ culture among UK management.

  • Pressures from financial markets to maximise short-term shareholder returns which can make implementing long-term change difficult and which may encourage management to view labour as a cost to be minimised.

  • Too many firms competing on the basis of low value added strategies, involving relatively low skill, effort-intensive forms of work organisation, linked to an institutional environment where trade unions are relatively weak and a lightly regulated labour market.

  • Partners are requested to identify one/the most dynamic national economic sector in terms of work organisation changes and for whom information is available. For this selected economic sector, NCs are requested to provide information on existing predominant work organisation patterns in this sector, as well as recent trends and changes in the last 5-7 years and reasons behind these changes. Also, and in the case the selected economic sector is a non-tertiary one, NCs are requested to provide some general information on recent trends and changes in work organisation patterns in the last 5-7 years and reasons behind these changes in any tertiary sector selected by each NC (i.e. consultancy services, HORECA, consultancy services, call centres, etc).

Aerospace has been cited as a sector where HPW has spread relatively widely. Since the 1980s, the sector has been subject to restructuring as a result of state deregulation, changes in civil and defence markets, and intensifying global competition. Some companies have moved from previously bureaucratic and hierarchical organisational structures, decentralised managerial responsibilities to intra-plant business units, and introduced lean production/HPW techniques, such as just-in-time, cellular team working and kaizen ( practices aiming at continuous improvement of manufacturing processes, with origin in Japan) , alongside other HRM practices (see Danford et al 2005).

Block 3: Associated effects of identified different forms of work organisation and work organisation-related items on working conditions

  • Identify associated effects of different existing patterns of work organisation and work organisation-related items on working conditions (i.e. training, skills and employability; health, safety and well-being; working time and work-life balance). Particular elements to be analysed may include stress, job satisfaction, work life balance, workloads and learning

High Performance Working

Studies looking at the impact of HPW on employees remain rare (see Lloyd and Payne 2006, Hughes 2008). Some have identified positive benefits such as improved staff retention (CIPD/EEF 2003), while others find evidence of work intensification (Ramsay et al 2000, Danford et al 2005). Much is said to depend upon the context into which practices are introduced and whether they are implemented in ways which take account of employees' concerns and anxieties (see UKCES 2009).

Team working

The debates around HPW parallel those on the impact of ‘team working’ on employees. In a recent study, Gallie (2009: 24), analysing data from the British Skills Survey Series, finds that it is the level of autonomy afforded to teams which is key in terms of productive potential and employee well-being. He observes that, ‘types of teamwork that involve significant opportunities for team decision making (…) are associated with greater opportunities for employees to exercise individual initiative in their jobs; more opportunity and motivation to learn on the job; stronger commitment to the organisation and more frequent work effort over and above what is strictly required by the job. It is notable that there is a consistent pattern whereby the higher the level of responsibility accorded to the team the stronger these effects. They are most evident among employees working in self-managed teams.’ He also notes that while those who work in teams tend to experience significantly higher work pressure, this does not necessarily translate into lower levels of job satisfaction. Indeed, ‘[t]he only type of team work that was associated with reduced job satisfaction was non-self-directed teamwork,’ the type which appears to have expanded most rapidly in the UK (see above).

‘Bad’ jobs

Case studies of work in the food processing industry (James and Lloyd 2008) indicate that working conditions can be both extremely unpleasant (e.g. meat processing plants) as well as harmful to health and safety. Repetitive work routines that are physically demanding, even allowing for the use of job rotation (frequently to other similar type jobs), can often result in injuries to the back, neck, hands, and shoulders. In some cases, employees work long hours to make up their pay and ‘gruelling’ ten hour shifts. Opportunities for learning and progression are extremely limited, pay is low, and there is evidence of work intensification as large supermarket chains apply increasing pressure upon suppliers to cut costs. In many UK call centres, the combination of high work pressure and limited autonomy can also result in high levels of stress and low job satisfaction for many agents. This, in conjunction with low pay and limited progression opportunities, help to explain the relatively high average labour attrition rates found in the industry (Lloyd et al 2008b).

  • Identify (possible) changes in working conditions associated to each work organisation pattern in the last 5-7 years, as well as the main reasons underpinning these changes

There is insufficient data or research available to answer this question

  • Partners are requested to provide information focused on the existing relationship between predominant work organisation patterns and existing working conditions in the economic sector selected in previous section.

Danford et al (2004, 2005) investigated the use of HPW in two UK aerospace firms and found limited evidence of increased task discretion, greater participation in decision making, enhanced skill levels and higher reward possibilities. The main finding was that HPW practices, introduced in a lean production environment, resulted in greater work intensity and higher occupational stress (2005: 96-7). They also explored training provision and found that it was mainly management and new graduates who benefitted, while women and temporary workers were often excluded.

Block 4: Social partners’ position with regard to the issue of work organisation patterns

  • Attitude/opinion of the social partners in your country on the importance of encouraging changes of work organisation in the national economic context.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) have both given their backing to HPW (see CBI/TUC 2001: 60, CBI 2002, TUC 2002). The Engineering Employers Federation (EEF) and the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD), the professional body representing HR managers in the UK, have also argued in favour of HPW (CIPD/EEF 2003).

  • Main elements identified by social partners and associated with forms of work organisation, which have an impact on the improvement of working conditions and performance.

HPW is seen as having the potential to deliver ‘win-win-win’ outcomes in terms of national productivity, organisational performance and employee well-being by helping to create an environment in which employees have the opportunity and incentives to apply their skills and capabilities at work.

  • Please distinguish (if possible) different views between trade unions and employers organisations.

There are, however, important differences in the position taken by the CBI and TUC. The CBI (2002: 3) stresses that it is ‘direct involvement which plays the key role in bringing about a high performance and committed workforce.’ In contrast, the TUC (2010) states that, ‘While supporting many aspects of the high performance model, the TUC has also consistently highlighted two concerns. First, the HPW model advocated by many academics and policy makers gives insufficient attention to the importance of collective employee voice and trade unions. Secondly, in certain circumstances the introduction of HPW practices can lead to negative outcomes for the workforce, especially high levels of work intensification.’ In addition to emphasising the need for union involvement in successfully implementing HPW, the TUC (2003) has also highlighted institutional obstacles, namely financial market short-termism and a lightly regulated labour market which allows many employers to compete on cost/price using a low paid workforce.

  • In some countries, agreements have been signed between social partners or initiatives/programmes have been developed by employers and/or trade unions in order to support changes in work organisation for different reasons (e.g. facing the economic crisis, improvement of productivity/performance and/or working conditions). Please, describe one/two relevant agreements or initiatives with the aim of supporting changes in work organisation.

There is very little national or sector level collective bargaining in the UK which means that the kind of collective agreements that one finds elsewhere in Europe, which may include work organisation, are largely absent here. General ‘partnership agreements’ have been signed at workplace level, which commit employers, trade unions and employees to working together in partnership. It is unclear, however, to what extent these have allowed trade unions to exert influence over work organisation. Bacon and Samuel (2007) examined 126 partnership agreements and found that while most included statements on ‘trade union commitment to organisational success’ and ‘recognition of the legitimate role for trade unions’, issues around job security, the quality of working life, and gain sharing for employees were rarely included.

Commentary by the NC

Work organisation has received relatively little policy attention in the UK and national data is limited. The main policy lever for improving international competitiveness and productivity has been education and skills. Unlike in many other European countries, the UK has no ‘Ministry of Labour’ – the nearest equivalent being the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (DBIS) – which might be expected to provide leadership on issues such as work organisation and the quality of working life. Insofar as policy makers have engaged with this issue, it has tended to be through the lens of HPW. The problem is that HPW lacks clear definition, take-up remains limited, and research is divided as to its impact on employees. There is evidence that cost-based competition remains entrenched and that many UK employers continue to design jobs which require low levels of skill and offer limited opportunities for discretion, not to mention low pay (see Lloyd et al 2008).


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  • CBI (2002) High Performance Workplaces: The Role of Employee Involvement in the Modern Economy, CBI Response, London: CBI.

  • CBI-TUC (2001) The UK Productivity Challenge, CBI/TUC Submission to the Productivity Initiative, London: CBI/TUC.

  • Danford, A, M. Richardson, P. Stewart, S. Tailby, and M. Upchurch (2004) ‘High Performance Work Systems and Workplace Partnerships: A Case Study of Aerospace Workers’, New Technology, Work and Employment, 19, 1, 14-29.

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Jonathan Payne, SKOPE, Cardiff University School of Social Sciences

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