Are you ready to downshift?

Downsizing is the spectre that haunts Britain. But there is a new alternative to sweeping job cuts, argues Stephen Bevan

Share
Related Topics
We are experiencing a revolution in the workplace. Delayering, downsizing, redundancies, cutbacks - all have left companies heading for corporate anorexia. The few employees left behind are over-worked and discontented, fearful for their jobs. They feel little love for employers: survivors wonder when will the reaper take them out. Just when everyone needs to pull together, when loyalty is at a premium, employees are disgruntled, angry and looking to leave.

In short, large companies are heading for big trouble unless they move fast. They are reducing their staffing to a core upon which, ironically, they are far more dependent than ever before. Yet that core has less reason than ever before to remain loyal.

Nowhere is this dilemma more true than in banking, where competition and electronic technology means that thousands of jobs are being shed and will continue to be lost for the next decade. Branches that once teemed with clerks and tellers are empty shells where a few people keep the machines running and provide a human face.

Yet just as the revolution has moved into its bloodiest phase, salvation seems to have appeared. This week, National Westminster Bank announced plans to cut the equivalent of 15,000 jobs, nearly a third of its staff. These days, that's barely news. The real surprise is that the bank proposes to make the cutbacks not by mass compulsory redundancies, but by work- sharing among employees. That means four-day weeks and part-time working for thousands of workers. Not redundancy, but less working.

It sounds like a publicity stunt, a big profit-chasing company suffering a temporary attack of conscience: it is hard for banks, busy celebrating bumper profits, to announce that they are sending thousands of loyal employees on to the dole queue. Here, it seems, is a way to appease bitter staff who have their noses pressed to the window as shareholders feast.

Perhaps. But cynics should take a second look at what NatWest is proposing. The bank's cost-saving measures could in fact be the pattern of the future, the blueprint of how big companies will cut their costs, while at the same time preserving some sense of stability, loyalty and well-being among their employees. It may well be that the brutal days of simple downsizing are numbered, and that the smart company of the future will instead opt for "downshifting", reducing the hours their employees work.

This trend is already becoming established in the United States. The Lincoln Electric Company, for example, recently promised employees with more than three years' service that they would not be laid off through lack of work. This dispensation has required some short-time working and a reallocation of work. But it is based on the belief that "relief from anxiety over job security frees people to do their best work". In California, New United Motor manufacturing (NUMMI), a Toyota-General Motors joint venture, has guaranteed job security in return for a reduction in the number of job layers and for more flexible working practices. This has resulted in increased trust between management and workforce. And "trust", as Francis Fukuyama, the American commentator, argues in his latest bestseller, is the gel that holds together organisations which may in a short space of time see rapid changes in their employees, their consumers and their share ownership.

It is clear that companies such as NatWest have clearly recognised that (leaving aside issues of ethics, public relations and a new industrial relations agenda, all of which are important) it makes sound business sense to take radical steps to make the changes necessary in their business to build up trust, motivation and confidence in their remaining employees.

Such a view of enlightened self-interest in other companies might well be welcomed by many employees. There is a growing voice in favour of a more forgiving workplace that can allow people to give their non-working lives more of a priority. Men - particularly fathers - have joined the chorus of complaint against the ever-longer working hours that seem to be the price of career advancement or of being able simply to stand still and avoid redundancy. One telling statistic is that a third of fathers of young children work more than 50 hours a week. Downshifting also offers opportunities to groups to whom the workplace has been inflexible. Women returning to employment, people with caring responsibilities for children or elderly relatives, older workers and people with disabilities might all benefit from a move away from the traditional model of full-time work, which conventional downsizing has tended to reassert. So, if NatWest blazed a trail for other companies to follow, it might receive the thanks of more than just its own staff.

But a sceptical eye should be cast upon moves to worksharing and the redistribution principle. It will be less welcome among those who actually need a full-time salary and for those who regard having a full-time job as critical to their psychological well-being and self-esteem. Reductions in working time, without a concomitant increase in feelings of job security might do little for individual confidence or a consumer-led recovery.

The biggest question mark against seeing downshifting as the nirvana, the long-awaited humanising of inevitable cost-cutting, springs from the fact it is driven by business imperatives rather than the desires of the workforce. The practice may make sense in the short run to companies such as NatWest that cannot afford to traumatise their structures with the scale of job cuts which the economics of their industry demand. But in the longer term, they may think that they have little choice other than to cut their workforce and consolidate the company around a much smaller staff. If this is the long-term outcome, and staff recognise it as such, then downshifting will soon be rumbled as a con, a device cynically used to manipulate employees to the company's advantage without offering them any long-term security. Such a result will do little to establish that rare and fast-disappearing glue - trust and loyalty - that is now needed more than ever to help companies through rocky and uncertain times ahead.

NatWest may be pioneering a bold, imaginative way forward. But the bank may still have a lot to prove to employees whom the Nineties has turned into cynics.

The writer is associate director of the Institute for Employment Studies at the University of Sussex.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Lettings and Sales Negotiator - OTE £46,000

£16000 - £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Home Care Worker - Reading and Surrounding Areas

£9 - £13 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a s...

Recruitment Genius: Key Sales Account Manager - OTE £35,000

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Have you got a proven track rec...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £40,000

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron visiting a primary school last year  

The only choice in schools is between the one you want and the ones you don’t

Jane Merrick
Zoë Ball says having her two children was the best thing ever to happen to her  

Start a family – you’ll never have to go out again

John Mullin
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn