Report: Companies score better with bottom-up employee engagement

It's all about work. [reynermedia/Flickr]

Despite the slow economic recovery, a high number of managers and employee representatives in the EU report a good work climate, and say that the growing involvement of employees in companies’ daily decision-making is good for performance and economic growth.

Businesses with direct employee participation score better in terms of performance and well-being according to the third European Company Survey by Eurofound, the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, a tripartite EU agency.

84% of managers and 67% of employee representatives surveyed reported a “good” or “very good” work climate, despite contracting markets and a resulting labour surplus, said the report, launched at a joint EU Presidency conference in Riga on Monday (30 March).

Much of the positives lie in training, work time flexibility, and variable pay schemes opportunities, the survey found.

“The findings are very positive,” said Maxime Cerutti, Social Affairs Director at BusinessEurope. “It means that there is a lot of social dialogue going on, but also that employers and employees are adapting in the post-crisis.”

In the context of the Europe 2020 strategy, which seeks to create the conditions for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth, the survey’s findings point to an encouraging trend.

Grain of salt

But all that glitters is not gold and the findings need to be taken with a grain of salt. Managers are more positive than employee representatives about the changes in the work climate. 31% said it had improved, while only 13% felt it had deteriorated, against 24% and 26% on the employee side.

Some analysts also point out the differences in the statistics. Indeed, the survey involves 24,251 managers and only 6,860 employees. Moreover, the questions asked to managers are not the same ones posed to employees representatives.

European Trade Union Confederation Deputy General Secretary Patrick Itschert put the figures in perspective, explaining that corporate restructuring has created everything except a positive climate. According to Itschert, 23 million people still suffer from work-related illnesses in Europe.

Previous research by Eurofound has shown evidence that the already comparatively high levels of psychosocial risk increase with restructuring, especially in the public sector.

This said, Itschert concedes that the companies that are able to fight the crisis are those that have good social dialogue in place, such as in the Nordic countries. “That works where workers are confident to talk to managers, because they have the backing from their union,” insisted Itschert.

Whatever the collaborative method used, dialogue increases the prospects of finding solutions to ease stress and work-related difficulties, like adapting to new technologies, rising competition and changing markets.

Training to adapt and compete

According to the Eurofound survey, the majority of companies provide paid time off for training (71%) or on-the-job training (73%) for at least some of their employees.

“As people will retire, we want to keep that knowledge in the company,” said Gerwig Kruspel, Vice President of HR Trends and Strategy, at BASF. He explained that BASF had adopted a Employee Development Initiative, according to which 7 out 10 people get on-the-job training, while the remaining three get either coaching sessions or classroom training.

“13% of establishments do not provide any training at all. In this context, barriers to provisions of training by companies need to be addressed, paying attention to the ways in which workers learn and develop,” said researchers at Eurofound.

Where companies do not provide any training, the state has a role to play, argued Aline Hoffmann, from the European Trade Union Institute, pointing to SME struggles to train their employees, so that they can adapt to changing working methods and avoid stress.

Coming up with  ‘utopian ideas’ is permitted

When it comes to workplace innovation, the companies that seem to boost growth are those that adopt interactive and joint decision-making practices on daily tasks, directly or indirectly involving employees.

Stavroula Demetriades, Senior Programme Manager at Eurofound, mentioned the case of the Danish textile company Kvadrat. “They asked their employees to come up with utopian ideas,” she said.

When you need to compete in the textile world, you need to be innovative, she added. Company managers encourage employees to think out of the box. Kvadrat now produces high-tech textiles for the high-end of the design and furniture market.

“You don’t need to bring down wages to compete with China, but rather produce high-tech textiles,”  Itschert added to the argument.

Commenting on the Eurofound report, University of Minnesota Work and Organization Professor John Budd stressed the difficulty of reconciling different mindsets, but argued in favour of informal practices of workers and employers dialogue at company level. “Some practices outlined in the report are worth considering, but it is important also to give space to new ideas in every company,” he said, adding one size does not fit all.

Achieving ‘win-win’ outcomes is not guaranteed even when favourable practices are in place,’ says Juan Menéndez-Valdés, Eurofound’s Director. “Policymakers and the social partners have a role to play in fostering best practice, raising awareness and implementing initiatives at sectoral level.”

In a move to give new impetus to social partners’ relations, seen as instrumental in the new economic governance set up, on 5 March, the European Commission launched a new start for social dialogue.

European social dialogue refers to discussions, consultations, negotiations and joint actions involving organisations representing the two sides of industry (employers and workers).

It was launched 30 years ago in Val Duchesse and was aimed at involving the European social partners in the internal market process.

>> Read: Commission seeks to revive battered social dialogue

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