Employee involvement during and after the pandemic

Lockdowns and other measures to mitigate the pandemic generated instant falls in economic activity across the world, with the prospect of recession on an unprecedented scale. The UK government’s job retention measures, which included a furlough scheme and aid for self-employed workers, were designed to minimise this effect. This focus reflected a recognition that the nature of the pending recession in the UK would centre on job destruction and not real wage reductions, as had been the case in the recession following the financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent austerity policy of the government. The level of demand would be a factor but the acceleration of trends already underway might also herald downsizing, particularly in middle management.

The gamut of actions taken by organisations to combat recessions goes beyond redundancies and includes wage and employment freezes, lay-offs, restructuring jobs, increasing workloads, reduced training opportunities, and changes in contracts. It has long been argued that management’s initiatives to enhance employee involvement dissipate when such actions are taken. In short, high-involvement management is incompatible with recessionary action. Sooner or later managements have to make tough decisions that conflict with employees’ needs and the ethos of involvement, so the effects of any past employee involvement wears off. Even if the initiatives remain their effect on organizational performance will wane as participation in them is muted or job insecurities and reduced employee commitment lower employees’ proactivity and willingness to take initiative.

The question then is: will these effects materialise in this recession? Are they happening already? While it is too early to say, my research in the recession of the late 2000s induced by the 2008 financial crash and the government’s austerity programme suggests that it is not inevitable.

Employee involvement

Two types of employee involvement practices exist: job and role-involvement management – designing jobs with autonomy and variety; and organizational-involvement management – the involvement of employees in decision-making and idea-generation beyond the confines of their job. High-involvement management is the intensive use of both, placing employee involvement and development at the heart of human resource strategy. My earlier research in the 1990s and earlier 2000s, based on Workplace Employment Relations Surveys (WERS) of 1998 and 2004 revealed that both dimensions of high-involvement management have beneficial effects on organisational performance.

My research on the post-2008 recession, using The WERS of 2011*, showed that this performance premium remained regardless of the extent of an organization’s use of recessionary actions. In the case of job involvement management, the effect still existed but was reduced as the use of recessionary actions reduced levels of job satisfaction, high levels of which is part of the reason for high-involvement management’s impact on performance. This is analogous to the side effect of a drug: the recessionary actions reduce the efficacy of job-level employee involvement. In contrast organizational involvement’s effect was not reduced. In addition, where organizational-involvement management was practiced, the level of dissatisfaction and anxiety associated with recessionary actions was lower. This suggests that through participating in organizational involvement activities employees have more information and a greater certainty about the future.

The extent of the use of high-involvement management was unrelated to the use of recessionary actions and there was no noticeable reduction in its use over the recession. But equally there was no increase. Moreover, only a minority of employers adopted high-involvement practices to any great degree, and likewise a minority of employees had serious opportunities for organizational involvement or jobs designed with high levels of practice. The only practice that increased in the period before and during the last recession was appraisal. This can be used as part of a high-involvement strategy, so it is designed as a tool for feedback and employee development. But its widespread adoption implied this was not the case.

While my research suggests that it is not inevitable that the recession will undermine the capacity of high-involvement management to increase productivity, we cannot, however, be sure changes in management approaches during in the current recession will not reduce employee involvement. Or conversely that employee involvement will be given the consideration in routes to addressing Britain’s productivity problems my research suggests it should.

Fostering involvement

Nonetheless, as we come out of the pandemic there will be opportunities to foster involvement and challenges that are almost crying out for it. Increased digitalisation of work processes provides the opportunity to correct the longstanding lack of user involvement in IT design. Decisions about the increasing the use of home working post the pandemic are another obvious example. People Management reported how Hazel Rees, a Director of Willis Towers Watson, found that only 45% of surveyed employers thought the design of jobs was suitable for a potentially new type of flexible workforce. Who better to be involved in this than employees? The instruments of involvement, working parties constituted on a cross-level and inclusive basis, survey feedback methods capturing the experience of homeworking, and other forms of idea-capturing can all play a role. Let’s hope such opportunities are not missed. The focus should be on identifying new ideas, facilitators, constraints and stressors, not training for imposed changes or programmes for coping with stress, with no regard for its underlying cause.

For fuller details of high-involvement management see S. Wood, High-involvement design: the time has come, London: IPA, 2019.

* The data used in the recession study are from the 2011 Britain’s 2011 Workplace Employment Relations Survey (2011 WERS) which includes a management survey in which managers were interviewed in workplaces (n= 2,170) and a survey of employees completed in 81 per cent of the workplaces where the management survey (n= 21,981)

The 2011 WERS was jointly sponsored by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS), the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES), the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) and the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR). NIESR’s contribution was made possible by a grant from the Nuffield Foundation.

The data from the 2011 WERS is available through the UK Data Service: http://www.ukdataservice.ac.uk