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Enriching the market for work satisfaction will aid productivity

By Nicholas Gruen - posted Tuesday, 26 October 2004


Next to our health and relationships with close family and friends, nothing matters more to us than the quality of our working life.

Now ask yourself this: Last time you considered a job offer, how much did you really know about it? Did you know how happy others in the organisation were with their own jobs, how "family friendly" it was - even how safe it was compared with other firms?

It's odd, isn't it? If you want to know if you'll like a movie or a book or even a washing machine, there's no shortage of independent information, particularly in these days of the Internet. But if you had to choose between working for say, McDonald's and Burger King, or KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers, you'd be hard-pressed finding much information on their performance in generating rewarding, satisfying jobs outside of their own promotional material, let alone independent "reviews" of such important issues.

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We can do much better. We don't need to hire an army of government careers advisers or workplace inspectors. After all, we're only trying to make an established and competitive market better informed. We could start by using important information that's already available. Good workplace safety usually goes with good management, high productivity and satisfied workers. So we should publish individual workplaces' workers' compensation premiums, benchmarked against industry and economy-wide averages. They provide a ready proxy for workplace safety. We could do so on a central website and we could require firms to give their employees and prospective employees this information.

We can do much better still. We could require workplaces over a certain size to conduct periodic confidential employee surveys of workplace issues. Employees would be asked the questions that matter most to others wondering whether they'd like to work in their workplaces. Is the work satisfying? Is management flexible in accommodating out of work commitments, responsive in encouraging and acting on employee feedback? Does it provide effective career paths through the workforce? Are managers well chosen and competent?

Large and medium-sized firms worth their salt do this anyway, so all we need to do is get them to agree on standardised formats and publish the results in a manner that facilitates ready comparisons. Right now employee surveys are offered to companies by a host of human resources firms. The service used to be provided by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which is in a particularly strong position to reassure employees on the integrity and confidentiality of the process.

Compared with a lot of government intervention in the labour market and elsewhere, this would be cheap and light-handed indeed. And facilitating good information flows in markets is one of the core functions of government.

Right now firms do try to keep their workers happy - they want them to stay. But once the veil of ignorance was lifted, the rewards to the firms who best met the thirst for satisfying employment and the penalties for the worst performers would intensify dramatically. The high visibility of good performers would enable them to take the pick of the job seekers.

Those who want a balance in their lives between work and family commitments could say goodbye to the endless battle with hostile corporate cultures and join workplaces of like mind. Those of a more Darwinian bent could continue the struggle for survival at the Darwinian end of town.

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And the management skills that produced the high work satisfaction ratings would likewise be on show for all to see. Who knows what miracles might happen? Managing people might well become as important within corporate Australia as financial control. In short we would have a vigorous and efficient market in job satisfaction - like we have already for less important things in our lives, such as the market for consumer goods.

And that's before we count another huge benefit. If job satisfaction came at the expense of productivity - a few tea breaks here, a slower assembly line there - then those decisions would have been made freely to purchase more job satisfaction, and so in general to the benefit of all involved in the choices made. Undoubtedly some would moderate wage demands for happier working lives.

But all the research suggests that for all but the most menial jobs (and many would argue even there) there are strong synergies between job satisfaction and productivity - and the higher the skill level, the stronger the effect. Given this, improving the market for work satisfaction will boost productivity.

It's hard to think of a better example of a "new" approach to economic reform for which the community thirsts and politicians scramble - economic efficiency and productivity improvements that also enhance human wellbeing. Prosperity with a purpose, no less.

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Article edited by Ian Miller.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald on September 29, 2004.



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About the Author

Dr Nicholas Gruen is CEO of Lateral Economics and Chairman of Peach Refund Mortgage Broker. He is working on a book entitled Reimagining Economic Reform.

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