HR Resources Database

HR Resources Database March 2003 : 0-0

What Work Should Be

Graham S. Lowe


Canadians want quality. We want quality time with our loved-ones, quality consumer products, and quality service as customers. What about the quality of work?
Canadians want quality. We want quality time with our loved-ones, quality consumer products, and quality service as customers. Many corporations in the 1990s introduced quality improvement programs. Now governments, hospitals and schools are getting into the act, measuring citizens' satisfaction with the quality of public services.

What about the quality of work?

Canada has received high marks from the United Nations for its excellent quality of life - a point that has become something of a political mantra. Yet public debates in Canada about the quality of life give surprisingly little attention to the quality of work. This is despite the fact that most of us spend the largest share of our waking time in a job.

The quality of our jobs and work environments determines our quality of life. Giving higher priority to improving the quality of work will have numerous benefits for individual workers. That much is obvious.

What's more, the quality of work also is linked to three overriding goals for employers: productivity, competitiveness and innovation.

Here are five reasons why the quality of work matters for employers and deserves more attention from them.

1) Globalization. The global knowledge economy raises the bar for job quality. Human capital - the talents and skills of workers - is the key resource for 21st century organizations. Nurturing employees' talents is not enough. Employers also must design jobs and work environments to enable workers, individually and collectively, to take the risks and initiatives needed to be creative. This is the only way firms (and public sector organizations, too) will be agile, innovative and efficient.

2) Information technology. Learning and working converge in the digital economy. IT can only unleash greater productivity if employees are empowered to use and share the new knowledge that computers help to generate. Huge investments in new technologies have yielded only partial productivity dividends because too little attention has been given to the people who use the technology. Bureaucratic structures, top-down authority and narrow job descriptions stifle the potential of workers to use IT.

3) Learning. Canada's workforce is the best educated in the world, at least in terms of post-secondary credentials. Half of all workers have a degree, certificate or diploma. Canadians also have a strong education ethic. We are committed life-long learners. This is good news, given that governments across the industrial world identify life-long learning as the key to both economic prosperity and personal development. Yet, for their part, employers have under-invested in workplace training. And while the rhetoric of the 'learning organization' is spreading, few Canadian employers truly enable their workers to engage in continuous learning and teaching on the job.

4) Demographics. The demographic crunch is coming. The front-end of the baby-boom generation has just turned 55. In the next five to 10 years, many of these older workers will opt for retirement or take their pensions and launch second careers. Current shortages of nurses and teachers are a sign of things to come in many sectors of the economy. While the recent economic downturn reduced the urgency of 'recruitment and retention' planning in the private sector, this is only a temporary lull. In what could be the biggest pendulum swing in decades, corporations that ruthlessly downsized to cut costs in the 1990s are now talking seriously about becoming 'workplaces of choice.'

5) Stress. Work stress has significant costs for employers, employees and the health care system. The intensification of work through long hours, weekend and evening work, inflexible schedules, rising work loads and increased employer expectations of a 'fair day's work' all add up to more stress and burnout. The result is increased work-family conflict, absenteeism, and rising health benefit program costs for employers - especially for prescription drugs such as anti-depressants and long-term disability. The solution lies in creating more supportive work environments, reducing job demands to reasonable levels, and giving workers more autonomy to make decisions.

Canadians value high quality work. According to Canadian Policy Research Networks' research, while Canadians consider pay, benefits and security important features of a job, they place greater value on workplace social relations, the intrinsic nature of the work, and personal development. From the perspective of Canadian workers, the 'workplace of choice' is one where they are treated with respect, have good communications, do interesting work that gives a sense of accomplishment, have supportive co-workers, have ample opportunity to develop their skills, and can balance work and life. Workplaces that provide these qualities have lower turnover and absenteeism, and higher morale. In short, they are good for business

A high quality workplace is one that meets employees' needs and delivers results for the employer. Yet few employers are actively pursuing work quality goals. According to Statistics Canada's Workplace and Employee Survey, only 31% of employers in Canada consider increasing employees' skills, and even fewer (23%) consider employee involvement as 'very important' or 'crucial' to their business strategy.

Making the quality of work a higher priority requires a fundamental shift in management thinking. Employees need to be treated as assets rather than costs. Managers need a long-term vision of how people development will pay off.

The future success of each and every organization depends on how vigorously it sets in motion its own quality of work agenda.

About the Author(s)

Graham Lowe is also a Research Associate, Canadian Policy Research Networks. His book, The Quality of Work: A People-Centred Agenda, is published by Oxford University Press.


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