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Susan Clews: My vision for the future of work

Monday 15 April 2019

Susan Clews, Acas Chief Executive, talks about her vision for Acas as well as a little about herself.

Susan Clews Susan Clews

Acas Chief Executive Susan Clews has worked in Acas frontline operations and as Director of Strategy and Chief Operations Officer. She has dedicated her career to making working life better for everyone with a focus on ensuring that good work drives productive and healthy workplaces that contribute to a stronger economy.

What's your vision for the future of work?

Acas has a strong vision for the future of work. We want to make working life better for everyone in Britain, whatever the sector, whatever the location and whatever the kind of contract.

Making work good is a tough challenge because the world of work is complex. With changing business models, possible impacts of Brexit, the imperative to create diverse and inclusive workplaces, and the increase in automation, there is plenty to keep us focused in the years ahead.

Thankfully we are not alone in working towards this vision. The Government's Industrial Strategy has five core foundations of a productive economy. One of these is 'people' and we're ready to help deliver on the promise of "good jobs and greater earning power for all".

With unemployment down to its lowest rate in 44 years, at 3.9%, there is reason for optimism about job quantity. But I'm also interested in the quality of jobs. Acas has been working with the Carnegie Trust and the RSA to develop metrics to help assess the quality of work, something which the government has committed to measure annually. These metrics include things like 'satisfaction with pay', 'use of skills', 'employee involvement' and 'mental health'.

It's not surprising that the Government's review of mental health, carried out by Paul Farmer and Lord Stevenson, has a vision that "in ten years' time ... employees in all types of employment have good work."

As I said in a recent article for Personnel Today, I think our ultimate goal has to be to achieve both good work and productivity. This means understanding what employees want as well as businesses. In a recent poll we commissioned, the three most important issues for workers in their working lives were 'balancing work and home life' (53%); 'staying healthy and feeling well' (51%); and 'job security' (44%). The same workers saw the main priorities for their workplaces as 'getting the right people with the right skills' (53%); 'productivity' (36%); and 'technological change' (36%).

I believe the needs of workers and workplaces are compatible and indeed good work drives sustainable business. And Acas can play its part in building productive workplaces with good, secure jobs.

'Make working life better for everyone'. That's a big ambition. What's going to help and hinder you achieving it?

What will help me is the expertise of my colleagues in Acas, people who care about making a difference to working lives. We also rely heavily on other organisations with a similar agenda. Our Council gives Acas great strategic direction, and is made up of key social partners from trade unions, business and independent thinkers. We are rightfully very proud of our impartiality.

One possible threat to the work is uncertainty and we know this impacts on the economy.

Uncertainty could stem from a variety of issues - macroeconomics, the political environment and/or technological change could all be viewed as threats. People often talk about 'future proofing' their businesses, but I think this notion implies you can predict and control the uncertainty - which feels an outdated notion. With the rapid pace and nature of change, organisational agility is essential to survival.

Part of what makes the future so hard to predict is the way that new business models are challenged. For example, the gig economy is challenging our notion of a traditional employment relationship, based upon the interaction between a manager and their staff.

In a world with virtual workplaces, we are beginning to see what virtual employment relations might look like. Managing remote workers can have its problems, but social media platforms are transforming the way people communicate and exchange ideas. A new form of employee voice is emerging, and one which employers are less able to control.

Carrot or stick. What's the best way to get employers to succeed and treat people well?

An interesting question that could be equally applicable to parenting or education. Like most people, I would say that motivation and engagement are likely to prove more rewarding than sanctions and an overly authoritarian approach.

That said, it won't surprise you that some of Acas' most popular guidance and training is about handling Discipline and grievances. It's interesting, because Acas advisors tell me that an organisation with a lot of staff grievances does not necessarily mean they are a terrible employer. It could be a sign that people feel they can express their concerns. Of course, a more positive environment is where problems are nipped in the bud at an early stage. Which is probably why another favourite Acas training event helps managers to handle those difficult conversations with employees about performance or personal issues.

Our expert guidance writers make the clear distinction between what employers 'must do' to comply with the law and what they 'should do' to improve working life and business effectiveness. Our advisors find that the most enlightened employers even go beyond "should do", to what they 'can do' to make a difference.

How did you get to where you are now?

I've always been interested in the world of work - and back at university I choose to research the impact of new technology (well 1980's style tech) on women's jobs. I'm also intrigued by how our lives are shaped by where we live and, having lived in Yorkshire for the last 30 odd years, I'm passionate about building a strong northern economy.

How do you organise your time?

I spend a couple of days a week in London for meetings, and I like visiting other Acas offices to meet colleagues and hear about how we're working with customers in their area. With good technology of course I can work from any location and occasionally from home. And all credit to Hansa, who manages my diary and travel - she is the really organised person. It can be a challenge to balance work with home life, but I avoid working over the weekend so we spend lots of time together as a family then and I've learned a bit of fresh air is a great energy booster during a hectic week.

If you could sit down with Susan Clews of thirty years ago, what would you tell her?

I'd suggest that you take every opportunity that work (and life) throws at you and learn as much as you can - be brave in pushing yourself out of your comfort zone.... And as a new line manager don't think you need to have all the answers and ideas yourself - your team will often have the best ideas.

How would a good friend describe you?

Calm and patient but also stubborn (or determined if they were in a good mood)!

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