Good work? How local partners are helping improve workplaces in the UK

The average person from an OECD country spends 37 hours a week at work. But for many it’s not always the most fulfilling experience. One recent study found that paid work is ranked lower for well-being than any of the 39 activities sampled… except for being sick in bed. It is no longer just about job quantity, but also job quality. How can policy makers work with employers to improve the quality of work?

Good work!

Good work is work that offers a better working experience for employees – including fair wages and working conditions, job security, work-life balance and representation – which boosts overall job satisfaction. For employers, it is a route to enhance worker motivation, productivity, innovation, and retention.

Since 2010, job quality has generally improved across OECD countries. However, job quality reportedly declines for low-skill occupations and sectors, disadvantaged communities, women, and young workers. These inequalities were accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and work quality has also been threatened by the emergence of the “gig economy” which can be associated with job insecurity, financial fragility and few benefits. Labour market shortages also increase demands on existing employees.

Mobilising local support

Though many of the levers exist at national level, subnational governments are also taking important steps to mobilise the business community in support of good work. One example is the UK Mayoral Combined Authorities (MCAs) – Greater London, Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, the North of Tyne, and the West of England – that have recently launched Charters promoting good work. These Charters encourage employers to champion good work by setting the standards expected on key issues of fair working conditions including earnings quality, job security and career progression.

Dimensions of job quality

Source: Irvine et al. (2018)

The principal component of most Charters is the terms of employment, such as job security, certainty over hours, and career mobility. For example, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) Charter defines flexible working as a condition of fair employment and specifies that full and part-time workers must have the same working conditions.

The Charters encourage employee voice and representation in company policy, particularly through trade union membership.

Diversity and inclusion is also considered a key feature of fair employment. For example, in Liverpool, adhering employers undertake equality audits of staff and carry out targeted recruitment to enhance diversity. All components of the Charters must be addressed by employers to promote good work.

Employers can sign up to different levels of adoption, from Standard to Advanced. For example, in the Greater London Authority’s Good Work Standard under Financial Wellbeing, “Foundation” employers should provide information and guidance on financial wellbeing and debt management, whereas under the “Excellence” level, this extends to practical financial assistance such as offering a payroll saving scheme. This system allows smaller employers to engage with the Charters at some level, even if they don’t have the internal resources or formal management processes required to meet the higher criteria. Once engaged they can then be supported to work up to higher accreditation.

Scaling up our ambition

The MCAs have started gaining traction, engaging over 1,000 employers in Greater Manchester and Greater London alone, covering over 500,000 employees. These local Charters can support and inform national efforts to enhance job quality by mobilising employers around a vision that is tailored to local needs. In fact, a desire to support a specifically local initiative was cited by employers as the primary reason for engaging with the Charters: local ownership provides space for targeted action and closer stakeholder dialogue to respond to local business needs and aspirations.

Yet they can go further. A recent review recommends Charters do more to appeal to and engage smaller businesses, including by simplifying the process of accreditation. It also suggests a need for greater collaboration with central government agencies to align the approach and provide additional support for firms looking to improve their offer to employees. Nevertheless, these Charters provide an innovative example of how place-based approaches can bring us all a step closer to good work

ReWAGE is a group of experts, co-chaired by Warwick and Leeds University, which analyses the latest work and employment research to advise the government on addressing the current challenges facing the UK’s productivity and prosperity.

ReWAGE’s review of these Charters reveals examples of leading-edge practice to be shared across the UK. The review found that although the Charters share common features informed by national policy, each one responds to differing local needs, which is a result of extensive local consultation.

The MCA Charters Review was carried out on behalf of ReWAGE by Peter Dickinson – a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Employment Research, Warwick University. Peter specialises in analyses of the labour market and skills systems, especially as they relate to disadvantaged people and inclusive growth. 

Read the OECD work on local development here.

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Peter Dickinson is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Employment Research, Warwick University. Peter specialises in analyses of the labour market and skills systems, especially as they relate to disadvantaged people and inclusive growth.