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Sir Brendan Barber: Rediscovering teams - the social nature of productivity

Monday 27 July 2015

The recent debate about how to solve the UK's 'productivity puzzle' has highlighted the role that workplace teams might play in improving efficiency through better and more creative social interactions.

Sir Brendan Barber

Sir Brendan Barber is Acas' Chair, joining in January 2014. Previously Sir Brendan was the TUC General Secretary (2003 to 2012) and sat on the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service Council (1995 to 2004). Sir Brendan was knighted in the 2013 Birthday Honours for services to employment relations.

Acas Chair Brendan Barber blog

As Keith Sisson said in his Acas policy paper 'pdf icon The UK Productivity Puzzle - is employment relations the missing piece? [255kb]', the workplace is not just where "skills, capabilities and technology come together", but where "social capital is formed".

Teams have gone a little out of fashion, but among the many interesting findings from the most recent Workplace Employment Relations Study (WERS), one trend went largely unnoticed. Managers reported an increase in the percentage of all workplaces with teams where members jointly decided how the work was to be done (up from 39 per cent in 2004 to 47 per cent in 2011). While such semi-autonomous teams remain more prevalent in the public sector (in 61 per cent of public sector workplaces in 2011) the overall increase in team working was due to its increase in the private sector.

Teams may be a crucial mediating factor in improved productivity - a survey of 6,000 workplaces in Europe, by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, found that firms who implemented semi-autonomous groups enjoyed reductions in costs (68%), reduced throughput times (87%), improved products and services (97%), and increased sales (85%).

The experience of Acas advisers, some of which is captured in our new report 'pdf icon Building Productivity in the UK [644kb]', tells us that teams are often most creative when it comes to influencing the way work is organised and jobs are designed. And good job design often reflects the degree of choice an individual or team have in what they do and how they do it.

Psychologists have long argued that giving employees discretion about how they organise their work leads to better use of technical skills and more creativity in problem-solving. If teams simply represent a scaling up of these potential gains in innovation, why aren't more organisations in the UK recognising the benefits of different forms of employee involvement?

A forthcoming Acas paper by UKWON's Peter Totterdill points out that the degree of choice employees have varies a great deal across Europe. The Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland and Sweden) have the highest levels of employee involvement, while in Europe as a whole, only 40% of workers can influence the decisions that are important for their work.

Any reluctance to involve individuals and teams in this way may be partly linked to a general misconception that, as Totterdill will argue, effective job design comes out of technology. In fact, a Dutch study cited in the paper seems to suggest that research and technology-led activity accounts for only 25% of innovation and the remaining 75% is generated by "changing managerial, organisational and work practices at enterprise level".

If the widespread call for a 'bottom-up' response to the UK productivity shortfall is to be heeded, many organisations may have to take another look at the way jobs are designed. It may be that team working, as a method for enhancing social interactions, can give them a helping hand.

Well designed work is one of Acas' seven 'levers of productivity'. Find out more about the Acas framework for more effective workplaces from Building Productivity in the UK.

Read other blogs in our productivity series

1 Comment

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  • Posted by Peter Totterdill  |  3 August 2015, 11:10AM

    Acas' focus on productivity is very welcome and helps to fill a very important gap in UK policy debates by highlighting the importance of the workplace. Sir Brendan is absolutely right to focus on self-organised teamworking as a basic building block of high performance and innovation - and the evidence for this has been around for a long time. The question is: 'why isn't everyone doing it?'

    Part of the answer, of course, is that really effective teamworking is difficult to achieve. Empowering individuals and teams means looking beyond the immediate workplace to the organisation as a whole. It means rethinking organisational structures and management practices, breaking down walls and ceilings. This requires a more systemic view of the organisation - something that we have developed for the European Commission's workplace innovation network (EUWIN) - see .

    We also need to identify more exemplary case studies of highly effective teamworking, especially in emerging sectors of the economy.