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Study Stresses Quality of Work Life

Labor: Teams that focus only on productivity, while ignoring personal issues, can create problems, sociologist says.

March 16, 1997|From Reuters

Increasingly popular "workplace teams" can breed disharmony if they concentrate only on productivity without making quality of work life an explicit goal, says a sociologist who has studied them.

The teams frequently combine people from different parts of a company to create or market a product.

Those that overlook the dynamics of human relationships could "increase competitiveness and erode workers' solidarity and friendship," said Randy Hodson of Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio.

"There can be a lot of pressure associated with your co-workers always looking at what you do, when people are constantly [observing] each other," he said.

"Working that closely with others can be stressful," Hodson added. "It can lead to bickering and sniping and expose a lot of personal issues. It can foster a sense of competition among workers who want to show they're as good or better than others on their team."

The sociologist's observations may provide a clue as to why the results of so many workplace teams have failed to live up to managers' expectations.

Hodson examined 86 in-depth studies compiled by other academics about how employees fared under various work systems. In all, he sifted the job experiences of between 1,000 and 1,500 workers, about 70% of them in the United States and the rest largely in Great Britain.

He reviewed their knowledge of the job and job satisfaction, pride in work, and friendships and solidarity with co-workers.

Five distinct management styles emerged, he said, which he ranked in terms of worker satisfaction from best to worst as: craft, participative, bureaucratic, assembly line and direct supervision.

Those favored by workers allowed them the widest autonomy. Styles they disliked most involved the closest supervision.

Doctors, lawyers, construction workers, train engineers and firefighters operate under craft management and enjoy the greatest latitude in their work, Hodson said.

Assembly line workers--driven by the pace of machines--were far less satisfied. And those who worked under the scrutiny of bosses termed themselves worst off.

In some ways, Hodson said, the workplace team is a throwback to direct supervision, with team members replacing supervisors.

"There is nothing quite as bad as having somebody dogging you. People like a little bit of distance," he said.

Such teams may be set up in ways that "may be good for productivity, but not for quality of work life. It's like too close supervision from managers, except now it's from your peers."

Hodson acknowledges the benefits of workplace teams, such as higher levels of pride and productivity.

But managers who create them need to recognize quality of work life as an explicit goal as well as productivity, he said.

Each team, Hodson suggested, needs to have someone who will "insist that quality of work life be part of the agenda" and those goals "need to be built in, just as they have in quality circles where employees discuss product quality."

The auto industry is a model of worker participation, he said, where both quality of work life and productivity are stressed.

"The unions know it's the way to get ahead," said Hodson. "They demanded it. They've had bilateral negotiations in which these other [work life] goals are included.

"The fact that workers don't yet get along very well under the [participative management] system is probably hurting efficiency and productivity," he concluded. "But that's an impetus for companies to improve the system."

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