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October 2019

Universal Credit and In-Work Conditionality – a productive turn?

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Photo credit: Valeria Boltneva from Pexels

By Dr Katy Jones
Senior Research Associate
Decent Work and Productivity Research Centre (Manchester Metropolitan University)

Universal Credit – the new working age benefit for people who are unemployed or on a low income – potentially involves the introduction of “in-work conditionality” (IWC), placing responsibilities on individual claimants to increase their earnings (e.g. through increasing their hours/earnings in their current place of work or by taking up additional or alternative jobs elsewhere). These expectations may be backed up by support (for example, through advice from Jobcentre Work Coaches, or access to training), but also by penalties (benefit sanctions) if individuals do not comply with mandatory work-related requirements.

According to the DWP, Universal Credit will help ‘business to grow’ and ‘improve productivity. However, detail on how this is to be achieved is lacking. The policy of IWC arguably has a number of implications for a range of productivity-related issues, including skills, well-being and the nature of work. Arguably, focusing on individual workers, and emphasising work intensity (i.e. increasing working hours), whilst neglecting to consider demand side issues, such as work quality and management practices seems unbalanced, if ‘improving productivity’ is an aim of UC. Our project (briefing note and full report), supported by PIN, considered these issues through interviews with Owner-Managers and HR Managers representing 12 businesses operating in Greater Manchester.

The employers sampled varied in terms of the nature of roles offered and the contractual status of their staff – some offered mainly full-time positions, others offered mainly part-time roles but required staff to take on additional work as required by fluctuations in demand, some mainly employed staff on zero hours contracts. Productivity was generally understood as being mostly about making efficient use of resources and getting the most out of staff. Particularly for service sector employers, productivity was about providing a quality service in an efficient and effective manner, generally underpinned by a strategy of minimising labour costs. Flexible workforces were considered key to this – both in terms of staff being available to take on more work at times of high demand, and having staff who were willing and able to work in different roles when necessary. Increasing the hours worked by staff was not considered key to efforts to improve productivity. Instead, several employers talked about the importance of improving the skills of staff, including management skills.

Regarding expectations for employees to progress within their firm, employers generally reported that this was something they would consider, but that ultimately whether or not they offered more hours/pay depended on whether there was a clear business case to do so. Capacity for existing staff to take on more hours reportedly varied, and weak consumer demand could make offering more hours difficult. Several employers described opportunities across different departments/partner organisations to take on more hours. However, this depended on the number of hours required, and may not be offered on a permanent basis. Employing staff on a part-time, flexible basis was central to existing business models:

“We wouldn’t want to have every single person on a full-time contract. We’d still need some flexibility to fluctuate with the demands of business levels” (Employer 11, hotel)

Ultimately, the businesses we spoke to explained that their ‘bottom line’ would continue to have more sway than expectations placed on staff, and there was widespread reluctance to increase wages due to perception that this would impact negatively on the profits of the business.

Employers felt that the impact of IWC would depend on a range of factors including business needs, worker responses, and the approach taken (i.e. whether a supportive/sanctions-based approach, and the nature of support). There was a concern that new expectations introduced as part of the policy may be a hindrance to workforce flexibility and it was widely felt that if staff hours increased in response, this would not necessarily be productive for their business. Employers voiced concerns about the potential for it to have an adverse impact on staff (and their business as a result), as it might negatively impact staff motivation and well-being, and lead to absenteeism and presenteeism:

“[It’s] simple, happy team, happy guests…If we have a team who’s burdened with all these headaches, then of course that’s going to impact on our quality, productivity” (Employer 5, hotel)

Employers also felt IWC could lead to increased costs for businesses, incurred through managing recruitment – not only due to increased turnover, but also if more applications were made by others subject to it. Employers complained about the high costs associated with dealing with a high volume of applications, which they felt in part resulted from the existing emphasis of Jobcentres on requiring jobseekers to focus on the quantity, rather the quality of applications and job fit:

We get people applying for jobs just so they can sign on and say that, ‘Look, I’ve applied and I’ve been for interviews,’ and then waste all our time because they don’t actually want the job… It’s a cost to our business” (Employer 6, social care provider).

A few employers raised concerns that the policy could have a negative impact on employer-employee relationships, and that tensions could arise from mismatches between their requirements and those placed on workers by the Jobcentre. Some employers felt that policymakers should focus more on employer practices, rather than solely on claimants. Supporting employers to be better businesses was felt to be more likely to have a positive impact on both individual progression opportunities and firm productivity:

It would be probably more beneficial for the government to help employers become better employers, and to make the workplace a more positive environment than it is to push employees to get more jobs” (Employer 10, soft play centre)

Our project has highlighted a number of important issues which policymakers should consider as their ‘in-work offer’ is developed. Importantly, it shows that rigid expectations placed on individuals to increase hours or pay are at odds with the realities of working life in the UK labour market. At a time of low unemployment (and low productivity), the key challenge for policymakers is not moving people into work, but ensuring that, where appropriate, UC claimants are supported into decent and productive work where their skills and capabilities will be developed and used effectively. A ‘work first, then work more’ approach, focused on placing conditions on individual workers fails to consider long-standing issues of poor work quality and management practices, and appears to be at odds with the broader policy agendas focused on improving productivity and the quality of work.

A view of cloudy London from the Shard

The time has come to sharpen the focus on productivity

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By Dr Vicki Belt
Deputy Director
Enterprise Research Centre

Raising productivity is often cited as one of the UK’s most important economic challenges. On the surface of it, improving productivity sounds like a pretty straightforward idea to grasp. It’s about economies, workplaces and people being more efficient, increasing the volume of goods created in relation to the inputs used to produce them. But in practice, things are more complicated than that. Productivity is a term that is used and understood in multiple ways, varying depending on context. A mix of ideas also exist about how to best measure productivity and about exactly what needs to be done to improve productivity levels. But what do these multiple meanings and ideas mean for policymakers tasked with finding solutions to the UK’s productivity problem? Where should the priorities be? A joint event organised by the Enterprise Research Centre (ERC) and the Productivity Insights Network (PIN) brought together a group of researchers from different disciplines looking at productivity through different lenses to explore this crucial question.

Philip McCann, Co-Director of the PIN opened the workshop, using the lens of geography to examine the UK’s productivity problem. His presentation highlighted the marked productivity imbalances that exist in the UK, both between and within regions. These disparities are especially pronounced in the UK compared to other countries. Although there have been many attempts to theorise these patterns, their complexity means that they defy simple explanation. Philip argued that this fragmentation points to the need for more place-based productivity policies that are tailored to the needs of specific areas, rather than top-down, national productivity policies.

Nigel Driffield of Warwick Business School continued the discussion on the relationship between productivity and place, drawing on insights from his work on inward investment. Inward investment is highly important to the UK economy, and studying its impact on localities can shed light on the key ingredients of productivity growth. The presence of inward investors can lead to productivity improvements in local economies, but the mechanisms by which this happens are not straightforward. Much depends on the specific local context, particularly the types of firms that invest (e.g. sectors and job types/skill levels) and the linkages that are established with local firms and supply chains. To ensure positive impacts, policymakers need to carefully consider what sort of investment they want to attract and how they can ensure it becomes properly embedded in their local economies.

In the next presentation, Stephen Roper, Director of the ERC refocused the productivity lens from the local level to look inside the workplace, exploring employer perceptions of productivity.  Drawing on the findings from new research into understandings of productivity in six sectors, he drew attention to the ‘disconnect’ that exists between policymakers and employers on productivity. In most cases, employers interviewed in this study were likely to have narrow definitions of productivity associated with efficiency. In fact, productivity itself was a term that was rarely used spontaneously, and some interviewees declared it as virtually meaningless. This raises big questions about how resonant policy messages about productivity improvement are likely to be with employers. Is it possible to create a successful national narrative on productivity improvement when businesses do not have a shared understanding of what it is and how it applies to them? Would it be better to in fact to refocus the policy dialogue more clearly on how to ‘create value’ through people?

Temitope Akinremi, Research Fellow at the ERC provided further evidence on employer understandings of productivity in her presentation looking at productivity improvement practices in the metal industry. Interviews with employers in this sector show that again productivity is often defined in simple terms, typically linked to the efficiency and profitability of production, making cost savings and ensuring minimal human intervention in the production of outputs, with only a minority measuring value added per employee or per hour. Even within this specific, relatively small sector there are a diversity of productivity-related measurement practices in place, and a lack of consensus on exactly which measures should be used. Temitope argued that there is a strong case for an agreed industry-focused measurement to help raise productivity in this sector.

Katy Jones of Manchester Metropolitan University continued this more fine-grained focus on individual understandings of productivity, drawing on her research with employers in low paid work in the service sector. Amongst these employers it was notable that employer understandings of productivity were not all focused on efficiency related measures. Instead, different dimensions come into play, recognising the central importance of employee motivation in these jobs, with customer satisfaction and employee engagement, skills and training taking on more significance in considerations of productivity.

The panel discussion that followed picked up on a range of issues, but a central concern was the implications that the complexity of productivity definitions and theories brings for policymakers and practitioners. As one delegate pointed out, as more and more data has become available on productivity, it feels like we understand less and less about it. This causes confusion about what action is needed to improve it. One delegate questioned whether we should abandon use of the term productivity completely given the lack of transparency that surrounds it.

What was agreed though is that the productivity problem is clearly not straightforward. If we are to have a chance of tackling it, we need to look beyond the headline statistics and trends. We need to avoid the temptation to over-simplify. We need to work hard to understand properly what productivity means to people in different contexts, precisely where their specific challenges lie, and recognise that a one-size-fits all approach to productivity policy will not work. We also need to encourage employers and policymakers to think beyond productivity as being all about efficiency and cost savings, but also about adding value through human creativity and innovation. In short, it is time to sharpen our focus on productivity.

View all of the workshop presentations here.