The changing face of Employment Relations: Rachel Pinto
Thursday 21 November 2013Harold Wilson famously said that 'he who rejects change is the architect of decay.' Strong words in favour of change being progressive, dynamic and forward looking. But change can also be daunting and its effects widespread. This was a clear theme emerging from the Acas Wales Conference.
Rachel is a Senior Research Officer at Acas focusing on policy research.
Framed as 'The changing face of Employment Relations' the conference set out a number of changes sweeping across the world of work. And looking round the audience of employment law specialists, employers, and operational staff, it was clear that the changes were being felt by all.
Anne Sharp, Chief Executive at Acas opened the conference, describing how the modern workplace is evolving. So what has changed?
The recession has played a huge role in shaping people's experience of work. Latest findings from the Workplace Employee Relations Study show that almost fifty per cent of workplaces report that the downturn has had an effect on their workplace. But there are also other notable changes taking hold. Anne explained that people are working for longer, with older women in particular working past retirement. But conversely young people are struggling to find work and have little exposure to the workplace. The UK Commission's Employer Perspectives Survey corroborates this, showing that only a quarter of employers take on a young person for work experience placements.
Along with changes amongst the working population, there are also changing work patterns; with a growing tendency for part-time working and zero-hour contracts. Where work is subcontracted, employees may find themselves working alongside others with different terms and conditions, and the boundaries around line management become blurred. These situations clearly bring new challenges to employment relations, as individuals seek clarity over their changing work environment. But for employers there is a strong need to adapt to a more transient and dispersed workforce.
The conference also highlighted that conflicts at work are being handled and resolved differently. Fees have been introduced for employment tribunals, placing even more emphasis on the importance of resolving conflict sooner rather than later, and later this year Acas will launch its new early conciliation service. Describing the service, where all potential employment tribunal claims will have to go to Acas first, Gareth Perry, Director of Acas Wales noted that 'early intervention is crucial before people become entrenched in their views.'
This was a view echoed by those at the conference heavily involved in workplace mediation. This process involves an impartial mediator helping the affected parties to work through their issues, and establish some common ground. The success rate for mediation is good - with seven in ten resulting in resolution - but its real strength is in the way it helps to maintain working relationships.
Interestingly, a range of views were also put forward about the broader set of changes engulfing employment law. From a union perspective wider concerns were expressed about the potential negative impact of the new cap on compensation awards at employment tribunals. But this was seen differently from a business perspective, with the cap signifying more realistic expectations of what an employee might expect when employment terminates.
The discussion turned to changes in family friendly policies, dealing with different kinds of discrimination in the workplace and the pitfalls of social media. There was a general sense from the discussions that sometimes what is happening at work reflects what is happening in society. This is perhaps particularly true of the way that social media is changing the way we behave and interact with each other. Employers may be responsible for setting clear guidelines - for example, around the use of social networking and smart phones sites at work - but everyone needs to be aware of the impact new technology is having on the way we live and work.
So what's next? At this stage it is unclear what the long-term effects of these changes will be, and how they will affect all those engaged in employment relations. Acas will be taking an active role in evaluating the impact of early conciliation and the introduction of fees for employment tribunals. But whatever happens, good line management, and the use of alternative forms of dispute resolution will continue to play an important part in making change as positive an experience as possible.