Innovating work

HR Network news

1 Jan 2013

HR Insight Issue 16

Penny Tamkin, Associate Director

Penny TamkinIt is easy to think of innovation as being something 'out there', something that is focused on new products, new IT or new services, something directed at customers or consumers. In a project for Eurofound, IES has recently been looking at innovations being made in work organisation and how these can support the productive or innovative capacity of organisations.

Work organisation innovation can cover advances in people management practices, relationships within and external to the workplace, or the organisation of work including devolution of decision making to employees. They can be critical to the adoption of technological developments because they encompass the process changes which are required to change beliefs, attitudes and structures of organisations so they can better adapt to change and challenge. In essence, work organisation innovations are deliberate changes which affect how employees undertake their job and refer to any element of people management.

When looking at why organisations innovate around work and how work innovation helps organisations adapt to challenge we have identified a number of key trends:

  • Changing work environments to foster innovation.
  • Coping with ageing workforces.
  • Innovating work to improve customer responsiveness.

 Innovation appears to thrive in flexible spaces which break down old barriers and create fluidity in where, when and how work is done. Enabling employees to work at home or whilst on the move, creating 'neighbourhoods' where workers can mingle and exchange ideas and using space in more creative ways can help develop an innovative culture.

Ageing workforces are widespread across Europe and can result in rising absence levels, problems of transferring expertise between generations and losing much-needed people and know how over time. Redesigning work environments to improve ergonomics and increase flexibility can help, alongside attention given to cascading expertise and implementing well-being initiatives to promote healthy ageing. These have been shown to help both reduce turnover and increase productivity.

Customer responsiveness requires employees who can think and react quickly without constant reference to others. It also requires employees who are able to place the customers' needs at the forefront of their thinking. Devolving responsibility including clarity around what employees can action without reference to their bosses, and encouraging more freedom in where, when and how employees do their work can help create an appropriate culture.

These are just three ways in which work organisation innovation has been used, there are many others. The results include greater engagement and job satisfaction, reduced absence and staff turnover, better internal labour markets, increased customer satisfaction, increased productivity and profitability. In each case carefully rethinking how work is done has had positive impacts on the organisation and on the workforce and in each case people management has been central to successful outcomes.

Further reading

Penny Tamkin has also written a chapter on IES's work innovation research for the IES Perspectives on the HR Year Ahead 2013 report

The full IES report for Eurofound, Work Organisation and Innovation, can be found on the Eurofound website