Progress on new forms of work organisation - a role for the social partners?

In April 1997, with its Green Paper on Partnership for a new organisation of work, the European Commission launched an EU-wide consultation process on how to improve employment opportunities and competitiveness through a better organisation of work. This feature presents some of the results of the consultation process, including case studies highlighting good practice disseminated at a conference in April 1998, and considers the next steps to be taken in order to make this ideal a reality.

In April 1997, the European Commission adopted a Green Paper on Partnership for a new organisation of work (EU9707134F) - a consultative document on the scope for improving employment and competitiveness through a better organisation of work at the workplace, based on a ideal model of high skill, high trust and high quality. The document launched an EU-wide consultation process on how to improve employment opportunities and competitiveness through a better organisation of work.

Policy context

Establishing a positive relationship between work organisation, productivity, innovation and employment has been a central theme in EU policy discussions for some time. For example, the 1994 Essen meeting of the European Council stressed the need for an approach to flexible work organisation which could deliver a clear convergence between the interests of employees and the requirements of competition. The Green Paper argues that workplace innovation can make a contribution to the competitiveness of European firms whilst both enhancing the quality of working life and increasing the employability of the workforce. Essentially, it calls for the renewal of the structures and agreements which govern the organisation of work at all levels. The crucial policy challenge posed by the Green Paper is how flexibility can be reconciled with security. The Paper places considerable emphasis on the involvement of the social partners and public authorities in fostering a framework that can produce a negotiated compromise between flexibility and security. In some cases - as we will see below - this balance has been achieved.

The Green Paper has acted as an important integrative document, as it brings together policy debates and initiatives, such as those relating to the employment implications of the "information society", education, training and lifelong learning. The Paper has had an influence on subsequent policy debates - for example, the European Council, at its Amsterdam summit in 1997 (EU9706133N), highlighted the importance of creating conditions that would promote a skilled and adaptable workforce, as well as flexible labour markets responsive to economic change. Equally, the Luxembourg Employment Summit took on the issue and subsequently made "adaptability" and the renewal of work organisation one of the four pillars central to the EU employment strategy (EU9711168F). Clearly, new forms of work organisation are a central component of the European social agenda.

The conference

A conference entitled Working for the future was held in Glasgow on 28-30 April 1998, organised jointly by the Commission and the UKDepartment of Trade and Industry (DTI) as one of the key events in the UK Presidency's social affairs agenda. Its central aim was to evaluate the results of the Green Paper consultation process and to look at the way forward. The conference had an audience of approximately 250 people, made up of policy-makers, social partners, academics, the EU institutions and other interested UK and EU bodies.

The conference began with Ian McCartney, Minister of State at the DTI, emphasising that for companies to be competitive, they must adopt flexible working practices with decent minimum standards for workers, in a partnership approach. This assertion is based on the recognition that the pattern of work is changing rapidly, with the growth in part-time working, shift working, "flexiworking" and multiskilling. The growth of new forms of working has been accelerated with the advance of the service sector, as today two-thirds of the EU workforce are employed in the service sector and 17% of all workers in the EU worked part time in 1996. Mr McCartney said that "I am convinced that across Europe we can increase our competitiveness in ways that will benefit both businesses and workers."

It was also asserted by the Minister that change must be achieved through consensus and thus must be designed to benefit both employers and workers. Therefore, cooperation between employers and employees and a climate of trust and partnership is a precondition for reaching a workable agreement.

The conference evaluated the consultative process over the Green Paper by exploring three elements or themes in achieving modern, flexible work organisation: "breaking down the barriers"; "partnership structures"; and "adaptability and employability".

Breaking down the barriers

In the Green Paper, the Commission recognises that traditional ways of working - such as hierarchical organisations with a high degree of specialisation and simple repetitive jobs - are likely to continue. However, in parallel, fundamental changes in work organisation are occurring with a shift towards flexible, open-ended processes that offer new ways to achieve higher levels of innovation and productivity. There is no single model but a variety, which are constantly being adapted to the circumstances of employers and employees.

The idea of "breaking down the barriers" relates to overcoming the obstacles to more flexible working and allowing the modernisation of working life - for example, the creation of "family-friendly" policies and the breakdown of demarcations through multiskilling and single-status working.

A number of examples of breaking down barriers, illustrating new forms of organisation, were given at the conference. For example, Leicester Royal Infirmary (UK), has piloted the use of business processes in a healthcare environment to improve quality of service and efficiency. Additionally, it has broken down barriers between departments to encourage multiskilling. Hospital staff are included in initiating and implementing ideas and are thus part of the change process.

Another UK organisation, Price Waterhouse, has expanded flexible working arrangements for staff and introduced flexible benefits allowing a mix of benefits to suit individual lifestyles. Also, as part of its work as a consultancy, Price Waterhouse has been giving more guidance on childcare and family-friendly policies to its clients.

Partnership structures

The issue of "partnership structures" is concerned with the ways in which management and workplace trade union representatives can work together to maximise the benefits to companies and employees. There is no general model or formula, as each partnership arrangement is company specific. However, for partnership to succeed there must be shared commitment and involvement from both sides - for example, taking into consideration employees' needs for job satisfaction and job security, and employers' concerns of competitiveness and profitability.

A number of examples illustrating partnership were presented at the conference. For example, Scottish Power has developed a model of workplace partnership where the highest achievable levels of job security have been agreed in exchange for flexibility and operational efficiency. The financial and non-financial gains such as improvements in safety and health, are shared amongst the workers. In Germany, the Bremen work and technology programme, which was founded in 1991, involves all the main social partners in decisions. It focuses on the structural development of strategically important industries in the area, and promotes and facilitates participation in innovative work organisation and technology projects. Clearly, partnerships can operate at different levels, from the company-specific to sectoral arrangements.

Adaptability and employability

The EU's 1998 Employment Guidelines invite the social partners to promote adaptability in businesses and among employees, and to improve employability through negotiating agreements to provide more training, work experience and lifelong learning, while calling on Member States to support adaptability in enterprises and to raise skill levels through national programmes. The EU agenda has set challenges that can be tackled at a range of levels and involving a number of actors - such a governments, social partners and local authorities. Again, experience illustrates that there is no universal model to achieve these objectives.

A good example which was presented at the Glasgow event is that of Halmstad University in Sweden, which in addition to its usual functions assists regional economic development. The University's Centre for Working Life develops networks and coalitions with local enterprises to promote and disseminate adaptability - for example introducing women to traditionally male areas of employment such as science and technology

Commentary

Clearly, a central message resulting from the conference was that there is no universal model to reconcile flexibility and security, and that the organisation of work takes on a multitude of forms. The conference also illustrated that there are many good examples that demonstrate partnership and modernisation. However, although the dissemination of examples of good practice at the conference was useful in demonstrating what can be achieved, it lacked a discussion of the procedures and methods required to achieve success. Allan Larsson, the director general of DGV of the Commission, made an important point on how to make real progress, when he said: "Someone said yesterday: we need to move from good practice to good policies. That really is the point of our work here: identifying good practice, and translating it into good policy." In order to progress beyond isolated examples of good practice and move into policy development, key actors such as the social partners need insights into how to succeed, so that - in Mr Larsson's words - they are able to embrace "the task of mapping a new direction for the organisation of working life".

Mr Larsson also stressed the roles and responsibilities that social partners have in creating new forms of organising working life, particularly with their enhanced role under the Amsterdam Treaty. The Green Paper places considerable emphasis on the social partners as policy-makers, while Mr Larsson argued at the conference that their inclusion in the process was important for several other reasons. Firstly, their close proximity to the realities of enterprises and workplaces will enable them to make better informed decisions than more distant political institutions. Secondly, the social partners represent the two interests that need to be balanced to facilitate the modernisation of working life. Lastly, the instruments available to the social partners - such as collective agreements, joint opinions and initiatives - are all much more flexible than the instruments of the political institutions.

This reasoning may go some way to explaining why the next step in the Green Paper process is not a binding piece of legislation, as there is no single solution. Instead, the Commission is to present a Communication on work organisation and adaptability at the end of 1998 to facilitate and complement implementation of the "adaptability" pillar of the Employment Guidelines, which will involve consulting the social partners on a framework agreement on all elements of work organisation.

Clearly then, as part of the new Social Action Programme 1998-2000 (EU9805104F) and the Employment Guidelines, new forms of work organisation constitute a central concern of the European employment strategy. However, at the conference, Mr Larsson urged the social partners to take a more committed and "proactive" approach, as he suggested they have a lot more to do. Therefore, for the ideal of a high-skill, high-trust and high-quality model to be realised, considerable action is still required in the social field. (Peter Foster, ECOTEC Research & Consulting).

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