Research Findings

What explains the incidence of high-involvement work processes?

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July 7, 2018

High-involvement models of working are associated with high levels of worker influence over the work process, such as high levels of control over how to undertake job tasks or involvement in designing work procedures. We have recently published a review of the literature to find out what is known about the conditions that foster the adoption of such high-involvement models. We draw on studies of worker participation in management since the 1950s to explore what explains the dispersion of high-involvement work processes in the private sector.

Concepts and context

The goal of ‘more and better jobs’, central to the European Union’s Lisbon Strategy (devised in 2000), reappeared in Europe 2020, raising the question of how European countries can transform existing jobs and generate more high-quality employment. High-involvement work processes offer one pathway through enhancing the influence that workers have over their work.

Several theoretical traditions recognise the scope for control as central to the quality of work, including the German action theory of work psychology and the demand-control model of work strain developed by Karasek and Theorell. The value of greater involvement in decision-making was also emphasized in the theory of sociotechnical systems, developed in the 1950s at the Tavistock Institute. These early studies had a defining influence on European institutions, particularly in Scandinavia and the Netherlands, where major programmes of work reform have been undertaken for almost half a century.

However, across Europe, the incidence of high-involvement working remains patchy. Eurofound’s analysis of the European Working Conditions Survey 2010 found more than one third of workers (38%) in Europe were in ‘low-involvement work organisations’ (low levels of task discretion and low levels of worker influence over work organization). Current trends provide no reassurance that the proportion experiencing high involvement will grow, nor that the major variations across Europe will be easily reduced (the Nordic group is well ahead of others).

 Conditions favouring high-involvement working

To understand the distribution of high-involvement working, it is important to understand the choices managers make in the evolution of production systems. Research suggests that, in manufacturing, managers tend to favour higher levels of employee involvement in capital-intensive, rather than labour-intensive, industries, since core workers are critical to making complex technologies operate efficiently and safely. Managers tend to favour greater levels of worker autonomy when uncertainty cannot be engineered out of the production process.

Managers also favour greater involvement in leading-edge factories set up to create innovation rather than in large-scale factories producing in a highly standardized way once innovation has been stabilised. Lean production is an ambiguous case, for while it involves workers in problem-solving groups, it also leads to higher levels of standardization of work processes, closing down the space for individual workers to vary their working methods and creating the risk of greater work intensity.

In services, work involving low levels of uncertainty (e.g. fast-food) and labour-intensive activities (e.g. cleaning) often prompts managers to train workers in strict routines with little scope for discretion. Employee involvement in services is more likely when managers target higher value-added segments where customers will pay a premium for higher quality and expect greater responsiveness from front-line workers. The largest degree of involvement in decision-making occurs in professional or expert services demanding the application of esoteric knowledge.

 Although large-scale surveys confirm that the average level of employee discretion is higher in small firms, jobs are often low in complexity and there are limited pathways for promotion, factors that limit workers’ scope to develop their capabilities.

Management choices in production systems are not simply driven by an economic calculus but also reflect socio-political factors. Managers in large organizations more often have relevant expertise to redesign work, and the ability to allocate funding and time, but there are conflicting incentives within management in multi-layered firms. Particular work designs tend to stabilize when management considers them both economically viable and politically safe.

The impact of unions on the incidence of worker involvement is clearly important, but not straightforward, and results vary across employment regimes. Significant and enduring differences in work autonomy between Scandinavian nations and other countries suggest that socio-political factors in work design are of critical importance.

Adoption of a high-involvement model of working should not be seen as a one-off decision that then proceeds to fruition and ongoing commitment. Line managers are critical mediators in any process of work reorganization as are workers, who have their own perceptions of whether the opportunities for control are meaningful and, if so, whether they feel competent, safe and motivated to act.

Attitudes on the worker side can be influenced by the trade-offs that apply to different types or levels of involvement: teamwork and individual autonomy can be antithetical, and it is the latter that may be the more highly valued. While the ‘employee case’ for high involvement is often based on better utilization of their skills and release of their untapped potential, there are costs as well as benefits, with greater employee involvement often associated with greater fatigue and stress.

 Conclusions

Having reviewed studies of the adoption high-involvement working, we reach the following conclusions:

  1. To understand the potential for greater worker involvement in decision-making, it is important to analyse the ways in which managers develop production systems.
  2. In manufacturing, evidence suggests incentives for high-involvement working when production is capital-intensive, when uncertainty cannot be engineered away, or when product or process innovation is encouraged. How opportunities for involvement will play out as technology continues to evolve is a key issue.
  3. In services, employee involvement grows with higher-quality market segments and where advanced knowledge becomes more critical to the service. Highly skilled services are not, however, immune to forces that undermine job quality (such as bureaucratization in public-sector services). How to roll back these forces is a key issue.
  4. The impact of lean production remains ambiguous. In some contexts, lean production may offer greater scope for employee involvement, but high levels of interdependence tend to close down personal task discretion.
  5. In small firms, the constraint on employee development is less likely to be about control and more about lack of access to work of greater complexity, which makes these environments unattractive to highly qualified workers.
  6. While economic incentives are critical, socio-political conditions also affect how production systems evolve. Managerial dynamics heavily affect opportunities for participation, but whether workers have the underpinning competencies to exercise greater control, and whether they want the attendant responsibilities are equally relevant.
  7. Finally, the socio-political research challenge is to make sense of favourable forces in high-involvement working and how they might become more prevalent. How institutional factors affect the choices of organizational actors is still very much an open question.

Read More

Peter Boxall and Jonathan Winterton (2018) ‘Which conditions foster high-involvement work processes? A synthesis of the literature and agenda for research’, Economic and Industrial Democracy.

Image: trapezemike via Pixabay (CC0)


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