· 3 min read · Features

Good work is not an idealistic notion that has nothing to do with success – it is about doing business better


During the financial crisis the BBC asked me if we were witnessing the end of capitalism.

I doubted it – but I did say that there was a crisis of a particular kind of capitalism. The organisation of companies and banks so that business purpose, ethics and values were relegated to the backseat in favour of profit and balance sheet growth had led to a fundamental denouement.

Since then we have lived through a financial crisis and the slowest recovery in demand after a recession since the 1830s – raising obvious questions about whether the bad capitalism that generated today has yet been seriously challenged and rethought. The significance of the crisis is very profound.

It exposed still unresolved issues of morality, transparency and trust. It’s not overdramatic to say that the values of work are in the dock. If the future is about a better or good capitalism, what role might a commitment to good work play? What does this idea mean anyway? For the last two years I have been a member of the Good Work Commission chaired by Alan Parker, CEO of Brunswick. We have been exploring the relevance of ‘good work’ to business, to employees and to wider society in the post recession era.

Essentially, the intention was to help people and organisations to understand how to provide more good work at a time when working life has become more intense, more routine and less secure. How can the principles and benefits of ‘good work’ be embraced at a time of globalisation and technological perturbation? Should people out of work just accept that ‘good work’ is permanently out of their reach?

The Commissioners included John Hannet (Usdaw) and Jim McCauslan (Balpa) together with Richard Chartres (Bishop of London), John Varley (Barclays), Adam Crozier (ITV), Peter Sands & Tracey Clarke (Standard Chartered), Andy Bond (Asda), Clare Chapman (NHS), Sir Peter Housden (Scottish Government), Kim Winser (Agent Provocateur) and Carolyn Gray (Guardian Media Group). With support from colleagues at The Work Foundation we scrutinised the latest evidence and thinking on issues such as leadership, employee engagement, ownership, reward and the employment relationship.

The Commission’s final report is published on 1 July. Three compelling challenges for employers stand out. First, worthy though efforts to improve ‘employee engagement’ might be, they are futile unless businesses can reconnect all their employees to a simple, compelling and authentic message about the purpose of the organisation.

Without this there is nothing to get ‘engaged’ with and little hope of employees being able to derive a strong sense of meaning from their work. Given the current climate, this might seem no mean feat. Yet not to attempt it is to condemn us to more of the same. Second, we need both in business and in wider society to respond decisively to the strong desire people have for fairness and transparency in business, in the distribution of rewards and in our interpersonal dealings at work. This does not mean making sure nobody is paid more than the Prime Minister, or naming and shaming local councils for spending money on staff development.

It means being more open about both the processes underpinning decisions as well as their outcomes. It means involving employees in decisions which affect their future – treating them like adults. Third, the way that many firms have reacted to the downturn - by using short-time working, engaging in authentic dialogue with staff and by cutting mature and imaginative deals with their unions to protect jobs and keep businesses going – has been uplifting and instructive. In extremis, the apparently bankrupt and outmoded world of employee relations has shown itself to be capable of innovation and decisiveness. Amid all the talk of punitive regulation to control strike action is a much more optimistic picture.

Britain has already one of the most lightly regulated labour markets in Europe, despite some of the fire and brimstone from both Lib Dem and Conservative ministers about weakening unions yet more. I hope they recognise that workplace relations, despite impending strikes from some public sector unions, are in the main very constructive and creative. Good work, the Commission concludes, is not a soft or idealistic notion that has nothing to do with business success or growth. It’s about doing business better.

As Adam Crozier says at the end of the final report: “We want this report to be helpful: to put forward some practical issues you will need to consider if you want to be an organisation that offers ‘good work’ because these are the things that are becoming more important to people in the way they view work. People ask a much wider range of questions now and we will need to have proper answers.” I agree wholeheartedly. Indeed the prospectus set out by the Good Work Commission should, in many ways, guide the priorities of business leaders and HR professionals over the next decade and beyond. We need good capitalism and good work.

Here is a serious route map.