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The quality of (working) life

June 6, 1980



No one talked much about the "quality of working life" during the depression. People were glad if they had a job at all. So today's recession-inflation-unemployment period ought to slow the recently growing drive for quality of working life. Right?

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Wrong. A key of getting out of the present economic bind is increased productivity. And, as various case studies show, increase productivity can come from imporved quality of working life -- meaning not only the environment on the job but the schedule of work and the opportunities for individual development, company participation, and contribution to society. Thus the movement toward the quality of working life -- let's call it QWL -- becomes not less but more pressing when the economy is in trouble.

In Europe the case has recently been made in an economists' report for the European Trade Union Confederation. It finds that productivity is "only partly dependent on technology"; productivity depends "to a much greater extent than is often recognized" on labor relations. Such motives for working as greed and fear, according to the report, must more and more give way to "the creative and contributive interest that workers can have in their jobs as such."

That may seem a jawbreaking phrase -- "creative and contributive interest." But it sums up the sense of having a part in a productive enterprise rather than simply showing up and doing what one is told.

One approach has been evaluated in a department of Sweden's large Skandia insurance company. It had been organized in a traditional hierarchical system with salary and status of employees based on their categories of work. It was changed to operation by a new management group including elected worker representatives. The responsibility of each worker group was broadened from one specific insurance function to a variety of functions, with members learning new skills and joining in decisions on such matters as production schedules. Feedback was encouraged, both formal and informal. Salary criteria were expanded to include the number of skills developed by an employee. In three years productivity was found to have risen by 10 percent.

In the United States the benefits of helping workers achieve such a sence of QWL are also being measured not only in worker satisfaction but in increased efficiency, productivity, and profits. So promising is the QWL approach that America's 13 major steel companies have entered into a breakthrough three-year agreement under which "participation teams" will involve workers and management at the plant level to work on improved QWL, efficiency, and cooperation. General Motors, a pioneer in the field, now have 400 QWL specialists, and 66 plants have various programs underway.

Part of the reason is that worker expectations have been changing -- with more families in which both parents work, for example -- and response to them is necessary to maintain the worker satisfaction that can enhance productivity. Innovations have included parttime jobs, shared jobs, workers participation in devising flexible hours.

Top management as well as unions are endorsing the QWL philosophy, according to Jerome Rosow, president of the Work in America Institute, a nonprofit agency seeking to better work performance, productivity, and the quality of life. Productivity improvements under QWL are being defined not only in numbers of units but in improved workmanship and customer satisfaction. With enhanced QWL, worker grievances and absenteeism go down, Mr. Rosow says. A "community of interest" is developed on the job. One of the biggest "hidden gains" is that employees find that improved productivity makes jobs more secure by making their plants competitive.

The results have been generally excellent at the multinational Eaton Corporation, which has sought to develop the resources of its workers and enhance their QWL. One complaint that was addressed involved inequities of treatment between factory and office workers. Among details was the elimination of time clocks and buzzers. At new plants a commitment has been made to a counseling approach rather than to laying down rules and imposing penalties. Central to new "climate" has been an increase in bringing the employees into the process of considering decisions. Management concludes that the new programs "strengthen the conviction that concern, respect, and trust in people rsult in a more productive, harmonious, and cohesive workplace."

Concern, respect, trust -- they can be exemplified in many different ways in many different workplaces. They are a two-way street to carry employers and employees toward solving their mutual problems whether in good times or bad.