We need to tackle bad work to solve our productivity puzzle

January 17, 2020

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by Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive, RSA

In 2017, I published my Government commissioned review into modern employment. Entitled ‘Good Work’ its central idea, among 50 detailed recommendations, was that good work for all should be our national ambition. Since then, along with the UK Government’s early steps to implement the Review, set out in the Good Work Plan, there has been a welcome increase in research and the sharing of good practice around the theme of work quality. Increasing quality of work delivers intrinsic benefits for individual workers; the work we do is important to our wellbeing, our incomes and our identity. But it could also help tackle social and regional inequalities and strengthen our economy, through greater workplace productivity.

Why productivity matters
Productivity (the efficiency with which inputs, i.e. labour and equipment, are converted into outputs, i.e. goods and services) might seem dry to anyone who is not an economist. Yet historically boosting productivity has been a crucial driver of wage growth and improvements in living standards. The UK has a longstanding and serious productivity problem: our productivity lags most of our competitors and we have seen only a minimal increase in productivity in the twelve years since the global financial crisis. It is likely that that our long-term prospects rest on increasing the underlying growth path of productivity. As our economy becomes ever more creative and knowledge-based, the necessary productivity boost will not come largely, as it may have done in our heavy industrial past, from investment in capital (important as this is). It will come from investment in people.

What we know about investing in people
Intuitively, we might expect that when we treat people well at work they will be more productive. It is easy to imagine the converse; that where people are badly paid and badly treated, they are unlikely to put in their best performance, and more likely to become unwell and to leave their job.
However, there has been surprisingly little analysis of how the different aspects of a ‘good job’ feed into improved productivity in workplaces. This is the focus of a new collection published yesterday by the RSA and Carnegie UK Trust: Can Good Solve the Productivity Puzzle? The RSA and the Trust have our own programmes looking at how we can encourage better work, but we don’t pretend to have all the answers. That’s why this collection draws together new research, opinion and analysis from almost 20 key figures in the debate about good work and productivity – from business, trade unions, academia, civil society, and from across the UK. Among the contributing organisations are McKinsey, the TUC, CBI, Acas, Timewise, Scotland’s Fair Work Convention, IPPR North, Cardiff University, JRF, Be the Business, Investors in People, and the Resolution Foundation.

Key ideas
I cannot do justice to the breadth of ideas explored in their essays here, but I would like to set out some of the key themes the new research and insights shared in the collection have unearthed.
• The first big question is, of course, are good work and productivity linked in the way we might intuitively suspect? The answer it appears is ‘yes’ – but with some unknowns and qualifications.
• The next big question, is, if good work and productivity are linked, why are business managers not making more of this link? What needs to happen to share this learning and influence practices in workplaces?
• The final question, of particular interest to us at the RSA Future Work Centre, is can new technologies help or hinder improvements in good work and productivity?

The writers in Can Good Work Solve the Productivity Puzzle have shared their considerable insights and expertise and started drawing out the answers to these fundamental questions. While I would strongly encourage you to read all the essays, below is an at-a-glance summary of the ideas coming through:

Key Points

Tackling bad work to improve job quality and productivity
Key among the findings is new analysis undertaken by the Institute of Employment Research[1], which shows a correlation between good work and productivity, but one which is not uniform across all the different facets of good work. The implication is that some interventions, focusing on different aspects of good work, may deliver more substantial productivity gains than others. It also appears that the correlation is overall much stronger at the bottom end of the labour market (intriguingly at the highest end the relationship reverses, suggesting that trying to make work ‘perfect’ could distract from overall organisational performance). This reinforces a view that the focus for both good work and productivity initiatives should be on lifting more poor quality work closer, at the very least, to the average level. Thus, the economic imperative of high productivity aligns powerfully with the social justice goal of making work better for those who are currently least well served by the labour market. Simply put, we should prioritise tackling bad work.

Building bridges
What this collection starts to do is build the evidence base and a strong bridge between the two concepts of ‘good work’ and ‘productivity.’ By putting these ideas together, we can render productivity a more understandable concept, one which can support our aspirations for good work and a good society, while linking, through practice and evidence, good work to the urgent and practical task of moving our economy onto higher trajectory. It is important that we continue to strengthen that bridge so that the story of economic dynamism can go hand in hand with our aspiration for an economy in which ‘all work is fair and decent, with realistic scope for development and fulfilment’.

You can read Can Good Work Solve the Productivity Puzzle here.


[1]The Institute used the seven dimensions of good work proposed by the Carnegie UK Trust-RSA Working Group of Measuring Job Quality (2018). These are: pay and benefits; health safety, and psychosocial wellbeing, job design and nature of work; voice and representation; work-life balance; terms of employment, and social support and cohesion.