Employee input key to work redesign

You may be involving staff now but are you just scratching the surface?

In the knowledge economy, where the only resources that differentiate one company from the next are its people, companies literally sink or swim with the contributions of its employees.

The challenge facing companies and HR departments is getting employees to give as much as they can, as often as they can, at a time of nearly constant flux. Business models can change seemingly overnight, and with them organizational practices and processes.

Employees become easily discouraged and frustrated by orders from management that seem to make no sense in light of what staff are living every day on the front line.

What follows is a host of negative consequences: commitment goes down, absenteeism goes up and productivity and performance suffers.

Consultants pitch an ever-growing number of best practices, systems and models to cure these workplace ills, but often the people who know best how to solve those problems are the employees themselves.

“The vast majority of employees want to come to work,” says Anne Nicoll of William M. Mercer’s managed time loss practice. What’s more, they really want to do a good job and the key to helping them do that is allowing them to decide how they will do their job.

“Give them more ownership,” she says. “When an employee is a participant (in work redesign) there is much more willingness to make it work.”

In fact, there are a growing number of organizations involving employees in decision-making, process and work redesign.

Many HR professionals may have felt intuitively that this was a good idea for some time and have pushed their company in that direction.

But when intuition is not enough to really drive the process (and convince the CEO), there is also an emerging body of evidence that seems to prove it is a good idea.

In a review of the research into the effect of employee involvement on productivity, Jacques Bélanger, a professor of industrial relations at Unviersité Laval in Quebec City, wrote last year that while it is generally agreed involving employees in the structuring of work does improve both productivity and quality, (about 46 per cent of Canadian firms have formal employee involvement programs) it is difficult to quantify the impact.

However some researchers have attempted to do just that and have found productivity increases in the range of two to seven per cent associated with innovative work systems. (Bélanger cites a study of American and Japanese production lines that concluded that those that demonstrated innovative human resource management systems are on average seven per cent more productive than those retaining traditional practices.)

The idea, and the research is bearing this out, is that companies that involve employees in work redesign typically can expect improved organizational performance, increased productivity and higher quality. The more non-management employees are involved in corporate decision-making, the greater the benefit for the company by drawing on employee knowledge to reduce waste, solve problems more quickly, and balance workloads.

But, notes Bélanger, even while employees are feeling more and more like they are being listened to when it comes to setting workplace practices, they still want to have more say and a lot of companies remain reluctant to give it to them.

“Many employers are still worried that by making their production system too dependent upon employee involvement, the production systems would become more vulnerable and the employer’s decisions would be open to discussion,” he writes.

Organizational effectiveness consultant, Bruce Craig of the Oakville Ont.-based Participative Designs Inc, says that in the current ultra-competitive economy companies do have to revisit how work is done and successful work redesign depends fundamentally on input from employees: what he calls the “expert doers.”

They are the people who know best how the current process is working and how it should work, what the important concerns are, where the breakdowns and the problems are.

He conducted one work redesign initiative for the HR department of a large organization that had gone through an overhaul and each business unit was given its own HR department. They then started to see there was a lot of overlap and duplication of effort in training programs and managing contract disputes for example. Craig went in and involved employees to redefine roles and determine what had to be controlled at the individual unit level and what would be better off centralized.

By bringing employees into the decision-making process, companies can expect to benefit in two ways. Down the road they will see a better-run, more efficient organization. But there is also an immediate morale boost.

As soon as people are engaged in the process of work redesign, are asked about their work and allowed to air concerns and frustrations, the work environment begins to improve. “The level of energy commitment, and teamwork goes up dramatically. It’s almost visible in the room, it’s real and it’s there and it has a huge impact on morale,” he says.

Once the company decides it is going to gather employee input for work redesign, the executive team has to establish the reasons for the change; what they hope to achieve, what their goals are and what boundaries and guidelines they want to establish, what gets put on the table and what doesn’t.

The senior team also has to be completely dedicated to acting upon employee suggestions. If staff do get involved, making suggestions and proposals for improvement, and those suggestions get left on the shelf, the reverse of what was intended could result. Motivation will drop and employees will feel more discouraged than ever.

The next step is determining who is going to attend the meetings and input sessions. Here it is a case of the more the merrier, since being there and contributing in person is more valuable than communicating through a representative. Most work redesign initiatives rely on representatives from various groups, across the organization gathering to share ideas and making suggestions.

Craig usually runs sessions with anywhere from 30 up to 150. The key is to get enough people involved to reach a critical mass where word spread around the organization on its own and there is a widespread sense of involvement — 30 to 40 per cent of the organization should be attending sessions to reach this critical mass, he says.

While companies embarking on an employee-driven work redesign initiative can expect to see some benefits immediately, ultimately it often requires a culture change which of course can take time and a lot of patience.

And Bélanger cautions that quick fixes of isolated processes will do little to improve productivity. Innovative work practices on their own have limited effect and real productivity gains come only from a number of practices working in a complementary way, he writes.

Jacques Belanger’s paper, The Influence of Employee Involvement on Productivity: A Review of Research is available online at http://www.hrdc-drhc.gc.ca/arb/publications/research/2000docs/r-00-4e.pdf.

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