Managerial Failure

The contradiction between us working harder every day and the apparent productivity crisis is obvious to every worker. Here we look at the root cause: management.

We are often spun yarn of an economic recovery, in patent contradiction of what we feel around us. Viscerally, we know the effects, direct and indirect, of stagnant wages and productivity, yet we are working just as hard as we ever were, if not harder. Something is clearly broken.

But the root of that failure does not lie with the worker; by the very nature of their relation, it must lie with management.

Unpaid Work

When we observe people working long hours, we think of the individual: of their resilience, martyrdom or even heroism. Why do we not turn our attention to employers and the managerial failure that has necessitated this overtime? A yearly study commissioned by the TUC shows that in 2016, 20% of UK-workers performed unpaid overtime, averaging at 7.7 hours a week. Unsurprisingly, these figures are highest in London, with 27% of workers carrying out an average of 8.2 unpaid hours a week.

These figures mean that one-fifth of the UK effectively works until February 24th for free. If a company were unable to pay its staff for two months of the year, it would immediately be considered a failure; it would not continue. If it could afford to, but refused, there would be uproar. So why do people suffer this exploitation, in many cases gladly, rather than pushing back on their company to employ the correct number of staff?

Rather than heroic acts of work ethic, this effect should be framed in terms of management power and practice. For many, overtime is often not an option, and within the clearly defined transactional framework of employment, this unpaid labour is nothing less than the theft of workers’ time and in turn, money, subsidising business.

Across the UK, this unpaid overtime equates to an average value of £6,310 a year per person. In London, this rises to £8,903, forming a staggering £33.6 billion in total for the whole of the UK. That figure is close to 2% of the UK’s annual GDP, and somewhat fittingly, only slightly more the UK’s current account deficit of £32.6bn. Quite literally, unpaid labour is keeping the country afloat. It is also worth noting that this figure would account for 29% of household financial debt. The Office of National Statistics has listed the average number of hours worked as sitting around 32 for many years, so across the UK unpaid hours amount to a 5% increase in work-hours. This represents a managerial failure, and ultimately, a systemic, national failure to run businesses effectively. Private business relies on a 5% bailout from its workers to compensate for its failings. It is relying on unpaid labour, but it is doing so ungraciously, without acknowledgement.

However, as with austerity, the strategy of asking the public to buckle down and make sacrifices to get through a rough patch is at best a selfish, short-term solution. In actuality, it is both cruel and ineffective. Starving a system and pushing it to its limits will only ever weaken it in the long term, a fact that even Bloomberg now regularly recognises, although with some bewilderment. There is clear evidence that among the OECD economies, which we can view as somewhat technologically similar, countries who have the longest working hours are often compensating for lower productivity.

The theft of workers’ time should be seen as a similar tool. The failure of management in the UK has been highlighted even by the Bank of England. While a small number of UK companies have benefited from globalisation and advancing technologies, the past decade of under-investment and under-training has meant that most have stagnated since the financial crash. Underskilled management and a failure to utilise new technology has seen much of the UK trail behind European countries such as France and Germany.

The apparent failure to create organisational structures in which workloads and remits correspond to contracted hours is a component of this failure, but it is also a reaction to it. Leaving employees to decide between completing a task, meeting a deadline, or working their correct hours, undermines their ability to succeed at work and simultaneously have control over their free time. We are seeing unpaid labour, extracted from workers’ lives, exploited to compensate for failures to establish production processes and supply chains that sell products at prices which generate enough revenue to pay staff. Worse, we are seeing this become accepted practice.

It should not be acceptable for human resources to be stretched and misused in a way that physical resources would not be. Unlike machines and materials, humans have reserve capacity of time to draw on, a block of free time that was hard fought for over centuries and which is now being undermined in order to make up for poor management. The unrecognised, yet terrifying fact is that this reserve is not otherwise redundant time and energy: it is our lives. It is time that we could spend with children, friends, family; in education, sport, music; on our health and well-being.

The root of these problems is the gap between worker responsibility and authority: modern workers have the responsibility to deliver tasks without the authority to affect working practices or decide the throughput of work. As much as this is not workers’ fault, that is not to say it is not our concern. John McDonnell’s recent pledge to empower workers within private companies would be a welcome first step to democratising the workplace and building that authority at the level of management. Engaging with capitalism at this level during a time of reformism will be vital to establishing worker representation as well as forming the starting point for democratising the economy.

Why Do We Do It?

The fact that it is common for employees to work unpaid overtime, when it is impossible to imagine companies accepting anything less than the complete value extraction of a worker’s contracted hours, shows an asymmetry in the flexibility of work. Working hours can be stretched in one direction but not the other, whilst the pay received in return remains static. But why, in comparison to a different time or different place, do we see this asymmetry so clearly?

Foundational to capitalism is the competitive imperative, which forces competition not just between companies but between workers. The asymmetry we see stems from the power imbalance of the one-to-many relationship between employer and employee that exists in lieu of collectivism, where an employer can afford to lose the labour input of one of their many workers but an employee cannot afford to lose the pay of their one employer. The genuine sense of insecurity means that most workers do not have the luxury of fully appreciating the use-value of their own time.

Competition’s current intensity can be described by the decline of unions, but the particular mode of competition we see today is explained by the computerisation of business. A reduction of manufacturing as a component of our economy and a move into the office has meant an increase in salaried jobs as opposed to waged. One distinctive characteristic of the modern management practice we see in office-based work is an increased level of autonomy for workers, which is accompanied by responsibility for delivering tasks rather than simply committing an amount of time to a labour process. Paired with a general increase in project-based work, this has reorientated the measurement of work towards task-completion and away from hours of labour, creating an incentive to continue beyond contracted hours. In particular, an increase in low-skilled office work results in an increase of working and lower-middle class jobs where the hard link between hours and pay no longer exists. The combination of financial precarity and malleable work-hours is critical, because it creates a new mechanism of labour control and a new mode of worker competition. As a result, not only are we more competitive within the workplace, but we are suddenly able to compete based on our keenness to work extra hours, not our skill or ability.

This development is not only detrimental to mental and physical health, but it is highly discriminatory. Some groups of workers, without restriction on their overtime - without caring duties, disabilities, sickness or commitments outside of work - are in effect more productive, not by virtue of skill or talent, but by virtue of living in a system which expects other groups to absorb an unfair share of those activities. Most obviously, this condition plays a significant function in gender discrimination. The Autonomy Institute reports that on average, 43% of men engage in cooking and cleaning each day, compared to 70% of women, and 67% of men engage in other household activities compared to 85% of women. This unfairly assumed division of reproductive labour impacts each group’s ability to compete in the workplace by ‘going the extra mile’, by ‘putting in’ a few more hours when the company wants it.

Limiting Our Time

Given that it is a failure of management strategies that has brought us to this point, we should not wait around for the same management to fix this crisis of work. Despite the imbalance of power we see, we must fight against the prevailing culture of a society dominated by work. The campaign to move to a 4-day week is growing ever clearer and more serious. It has been posed as a question to Corbyn by Andrew Marr, recommended by the TUC, and proven successful in many test cases. There are encouraging signs of the CWU moving Royal mail to a 35-hour week, not to mention the German metalworkers’ union moving to a 28-hour week. However, the journey to that point must start with working the hours we are paid to work and maintaining a 5-day week.

Richard Leonard, leader of the Scottish Labour Party, has recently called to remove the ability to opt out of the Working Time Directive which would effectively limit workers to 48-hours a week. Limiting working hours is an issue that carries a high risk of paternalism, as, ultimately, it is a change in culture that is required, not legislation. However, the Working Time Directive was put in place for health and safety reasons, and it is perfectly reasonable that this law should be upheld. In 2016/17, 57% of all lost work days were due to stress, anxiety or depression - 15.4 million days, with 44% of those directly attributed to workload. Conservative estimates put the direct costs to the economy of lost work days at £15bn, meaning £2.6bn can be directly apportioned to the effects of a high workload. This figure does not account for the loss of productivity from those lost work days, and it does not try to estimate what percentage of musculoskeletal issues, workplace injuries, stress from lack of support or bullying, are related to the number of hours worked.

Statistics like this illuminate the devastation wrought by the single-minded pursuit of economic metrics such as profit margins, EBITDA and GDP. A vital strategy for reshaping the world of work will be finding better means to measure it. The Green Party’s recent call for a Free Time Index is a simple but progressive idea that draws attention to the current dominance of economic reason. We have whole industries of people employed to measure economic and business activity, but we do not measure our wellness outside of work.

In an economy where income is still distributed based on time, and where workers do not directly benefit from created value, it is unreasonable that the failures of business should be compensated for by workers. Limiting our working hours becomes especially pertinent when we recognise the damaging effects overwork is having on the health of individuals and of society; it becomes irrefutable when we admit that even from an economic stance, the tactic of working harder and harder is just not working. Tools to measure free time and laws to limit working hours may go a long way in raising awareness and curbing excess, but ultimately, a change in culture is required, a new hegemony. It is within our power to work less now, by recognising the limits of our responsibility to our employers and the true cause of the state of our economy, and then going home when the day finishes to enjoy our lives.