Stormy Industrial Seas

I’m just back from the wonderful experience of visiting St Kilda. It was incredible to see a place, to be somewhere, that feels like the edge of the World, and to learn more about the people who lived there, nearly 100 years since they were evacuated. I didn’t expect to return to quite as stormy industrial seas as we found.

Having returned after several (refreshing) days without any mobile signal, WiFi or other communication connection with the outside World, we’ve returned to multiple strikes on the trains and threats of industrial action in a wide range of other places too. 

Which set me thinking…

Transmit or receive?

One of the stories shared during our journey struck a chord with me.  This tale was about a communication issue with a colleague.  My friend, faced with another disagreement, had responded “Are you in receive or transmit mode? Ah, you’re in transmit…”.

And therein lies a key issue.

The starting point in many (arguably all) disputes is often ‘transmit’, a lot of talking. Much of it is posturing or explaining positions to both internal and external audiences.  But there’s not often a lot of listening going on.  While I’ve been predicting increasing industrial unrest for a considerable time, a few of the current disputes are a surprise. 

The Criminal Bar Association in England and Wales having begun a walkout in their dispute with the government over Legal Aid funding (the Government decided not to match independent review recommendations).  Scottish Police Officers have decided to “withdraw all goodwill” after rejecting a £565 flat-rate increase described by the Scottish Police Federation as “derisory”. To be clear, this is the first industrial action by the Police for over 100 years.  If nothing else this demonstrates how ubiquitous has been the prolonged squeeze on public sector pay.

Alongside the high external stakes, there’s also the issue of information flow and accuracy.  Good information flow is crucial to high quality, productive negotiation. Grant Shapps inflated the median pay level of striking rail workers by including the pay of train drivers (who aren’t involved in the RMT action) in the calculation. While this wouldn’t make him the first politician to compare apples with oranges, and whether misinformed or misinforming, such inaccuracy is at best unhelpful and at worst divisive and deeply corrosive as far as trust is concerned.

Increased Business costs + Less Money = Recipe for Conflict!!

It seems clear that more industrial action is likely.  The frustration generated by continuing austerity and perceived lack of gratitude for pandemic efforts by key workers seems to be driving a rising tide of militancy in the public sector. In addition, negative impacts from Brexit (increased time/cost in supply chains, etc.) coupled with rapidly rising inflation will generate higher pay demands throughout the economy. 

Meanwhile, consumer confidence is down. People are spending less, with clear consequences for business incomes. Thus, staff expectations that they’ll be rewarded for going ‘above and beyond’ during the pandemic is hitting a perfect storm of falling business income and a government looking to cut costs to pay for its pandemic expenditure. It is a recipe for conflict.

In this context, a company like PWC offering a 9% pay increase to its staff will undoubtedly increase pressure for more widespread action by employers. That, in turn, will run up against inevitable affordability questions, especially in the public sector.  I’ve been involved in public sector pay negotiations since the early 1990s.  At that time, pay restraint was already operating, enforcing sub-inflation settlements.  Similar, or more stringent, restraint (such as the Austerity policy after 2008’s financial crisis) has been in place ever since. So, after more than 3 decades of real terms pay cuts, pressure from the highest level of inflation for thirty years is being keenly felt.

A Case for External Support?

There’s always been a tendency in UK industrial relations to wait until the argument is in full flight, the sides are in their trenches and tempers are getting frayed before even thinking about getting help.  Once a dispute is in motion, help usually comes in the form of ACAS (or the Labour Relations Agency in Northern Ireland) offering conciliation.  While it’s remarkably effective, it tends to be a recovery process, usually leading to an unhappy compromise for both sides.

A little facilitation earlier in such processes could go a long way.

Better still, all sides could continually work to improve their negotiation skills so making absolute deadlock easier to avoid.  Initially this would involve a greater focus on ‘receive’, genuinely seeking to understand the pressures and needs of the other side.  With industrial action being a costly process for everyone involved, there’s nothing to be lost by taking this approach, and possibly huge amounts to be gained.

Finding our sea legs

Returning to the beginning of this article, by the end of our St Kildan voyage we’d all found our sea legs. The sea was almost as rough. The swell almost as great. But we were all able to deal with it without feeling such ill effects. The same will go for the upcoming stormy industrial seas.   Even where one side has experienced heads, they’re likely to be dealing with inexperience on the other side of the table.  That inexperience can lead to misinterpretation, wrong choices and increased conflict.  On the back of more than a decade of unprecedentedly low levels of industrial disputes, there’s a risk many will struggle because those on both sides of the argument haven’t been here before.

Before, during and since the pandemic started (apparently) to ease, Strathesk helped several organisations to review and update their approach to IR interaction.   With stormy seas ahead, taking measures to limit the seasickness is, from personal experience, an exceptionally sensible thing to do.

Get Past No in Negotiations & Disputes – how a change in perspective can help with dispute resolution

As experienced mediators and workplace relations specialists, we’re no strangers to the importance of taking a step back to gain a moment of objectivity. Strathesk Founder, Malcolm Currie, explains how change in perspective and distance can be the difference between the unwillingness to compromise and gaining the objectivity and understanding needed to move forward.
Get Past No in Negotiations & Disputes
Bass Rock from North Berwick

A recent cycling trip gave me the chance to see things from a different perspective and distance. It brought home just how important this can be in resolving disputes. Read on to find out how a trip to Fife gave me a whole new perspective on my home town. And how ‘going to the balcony’ can help you get past no in negotiations and disputes.

A Change of Perspective

East Lothian, my home for the last 25 years, is a district with a unique beauty that sweeps towards the magnificent City of Edinburgh. Its abundant gorgeous green countryside, busy hedgerows, miles of wide sandy beaches and a range of bonny wee towns strung out along the coast, give much to appreciate and enjoy.

As a keen cyclist, I regularly journey out to experience the wonderful views available to me in this pretty region. By this means, I’ve been to almost every corner, experiencing much that gets missed when travelling by car. From the seat of a bike, you can fully immerse yourself in the landscape. You experience your surroundings with a full spectrum of sensations. The flow of air and (hopefully) the warmth of the sun on your skin. Along with the scents of the fields and hedgerows.

As a former conservationist in Strathspey, these long immersive cycle rides are the closest thing I’ve found to that mind-freeing space I used to experience in the expansive Cairngorms landscape. Space to think and reflect. Space that is so important, but that busy city-based lives rarely allow. Unless we take the time to go and find it.

Exploring Pastures New

A few weeks ago, I felt the urge to strike out and travel further afield to explore pastures (and coastline!) new. And so I hoisted my bicycle onto the train. I made my way across the Firth of Forth to the “Kingdom of Fife”, alighting at Leuchars. Then I set out for a day of cycling that promised plenty of wonderful new views. As it happened, the view that made perhaps the strongest impression was the one back across the water towards East Lothian.

After a pleasant cycle round the East Neuk coast, I stopped off in the picturesque fishing village of Anstruther. From there, I looked towards a familiar place. I saw my home across the sea from an entirely new angle and distance – about 11 miles as the crow flies. From such a distance, how different it appeared!  

Get Past No in Negotiations & Disputes
Bass Rock from Anstruther

All the finer detail I was used to was blurred out. The broad view allowed me to appreciate the wider context of the coastline on which my home sits. I’d given myself the time and space to see something so familiar in a completely new light. The great hulk of the Bass Rock, solid and imposing up close, took on a different aspect from a distance.

It was a gentle reminder that aspects of conflict can loom so large when they are at the forefront of our minds. Perhaps they too can look very different when we step back. Perhaps it’s a way to get past no in negotiations and disputes.

How to Get Past No in Negotiations & Disputes

In his 1991 book Getting Past No, William Ury explains that in conflict situations, people either typically “strike back, give in, or break off the relationship”. And, as he explains, these are counterproductive responses. His recommendation when you want to get past no in negotiations and disputes? Going to the balcony:

“When you find yourself facing a difficult negotiation, you need to step back, collect your wits, and see the situation objectively. Imagine you are negotiating on a stage and then imagine yourself climbing onto a balcony overlooking the stage. The ‘balcony’ is a metaphor for a mental attitude of detachment. From the balcony you can calmly evaluate the conflict, almost as if you were a third party. You can think constructively for both sides and look for a mutually satisfactory way to resolve the problem.”


An Alternative View?

Get Past No in Negotiations & Disputes
East Lothian

The sunset picture above, taken on the beach near my home, is admittedly far more beautiful than the uglier aspects of conflict with which I’m familiar as a workplace resolution specialist. But it nevertheless helps to further illustrate this important point. Things can look strikingly different depending on our perspective. And there’s always something to be gained from looking at things from a slightly different angle and greater distance, if only for a moment. 

Like the parable of the blind men feeling different parts of an elephant’s body, each describing a completely different animal:

“…humans have a tendency to claim absolute truth based on their limited, subjective experience as they ignore other people’s limited, subjective experiences which may be equally true”.

Taken from Wikipedia

Stepping back

Indeed, it’s true that in conflict scenarios the closeness we have to our own point of view can cloud our thinking. It can keep us stuck, going round in circles, rather than moving towards resolution. But pausing, moving further away mentally and getting some distance can help us to think calmly and gain clarity.

If I were to stay close to my home, only ever looking at my surroundings from the same perspective, I’ll miss something. I’ll miss the unique viewpoint I can only get from making the effort to take that train and bike ride. Then I can look back and see things differently. In a conflict scenario “moving to the balcony” takes mental control and effort but the rewards can be immense. It can be the difference between sticking firm, unwilling to compromise, and gaining the objectivity and understanding needed to move forward.

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this subject, so please leave a comment. And if you’d like to discuss this topic more directly, please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787.

Want to get past no in negotiations and disputes? Strathesk Resolutions specialises in helping employers take a preventative approach to workplace conflict and employment-related disputes. Talk to us about how we can help your organisation create the framework for healthy workplace relations.


“I’d rather struggle and complain!”

View across Broadford Bay, Isle of Skye, Scotland
Have you ever found yourself dealing with someone who refuses to see a solution you find blindingly obvious, but refuses to take it? You’re not alone!

I remember several years ago having Sunday dinner with my family. My father was struggling to cut his roast beef, cursing loudly about how the stupid knife wouldn’t cut the damn food – I’ve left out a few expletives, but you get the idea!

My brother, having noticed our dad increasingly having this problem as he got older, had bought him an ultra-sharp steak knife, one that would slice through the toughest beef as if it wasn’t there. So, he pitched in amongst the cursing with “Why don’t you use the steak knife I bought you?”

The terse, heartfelt answer issued instantaneously and impatiently from my dad: “Because I’d rather struggle and complain!”

He had the presence to catch what he’d said and laughed heartily at how daft it sounded. But was it daft?

I’ve reflected on that story many times over the years, and it comes to mind frequently, whether I’m mediating or involved in a negotiation. The number of people who, when presented with a simple solution to their problem, would rather struggle and complain is enormous!

There’s a wonderful Scots word for this – thrawn.

We’re all thrawn at heart!

Thrawn takes stubbornness to the point of cutting off your nose to spite your face. I’ve seen people staunchly refusing to do something simply because it’s been suggested by someone else. Indeed, I suspect most of us will have witnessed that. I suspect large proportion of us will have DONE that!

This has a big impact in relation to dispute resolution. How often is the dispute based on one or both parties being thrawn? In my experience, even when it’s not the root cause of the dispute, it can be a significant factor in them having reached, and remained in, deadlock.

So, how do you get past someone being thrawn?

It’s worth reflecting that “I’d rather struggle and complain” is usually the ‘do nothing’ option. There’s no need for creativity or compromise, so it often appears the simplest approach.

Listening with kindness is a good start. It’s a difficult skill to develop, but it’s fascinating how much can be drawn from trying to understand the other person’s viewpoint. Rather than pressing suggestions on them, ask them to confirm the problem then suggest their own solutions. Indeed, in the example given, everyone knew the solution to the problem they could see. So the more interesting questions move towards understanding the problem you can’t see: what is making this person choose not to take the obvious step? But, remembering that we’re all thrawn at heart, the last thing you want to do is ask them directly! Of course, the result is a long conversation, with many questions, seeking clarification and further thought, but that’s more likely to stimulate constructive problem solving. The key to getting past this sort of deadlock is often to work out what triggered the behaviour.

What’s in a word?

It’s also worth remembering the importance of the non-verbal and non-vocal elements of communication. Said with curiosity, “Why don’t you use the steak knife ?” is just a question. Said tersely, it could be taken as patronising, or insulting. With sarcasm? Well, it could be a trigger. And that’s before you add in any eye-rolling or tutting!

Human interactions like this are all too common in the workplace. If they start to cause a problem, a good place to start is to remind yourself that we are all thrawn, think beyond the behaviour and start to listen with kindness.

Finally, what’s the relevance of the picture attached to this post? Almost none, but I took it last week within 100m of where the said incident took place, and it’s another reminder that spring is on its way…!

Are you listening?

One of the keys to successful negotiation is to listen and understand what’s REALLY being said by the ‘other side’. As a mediator and negotiator, listening is my stock in trade, but that doesn’t mean it happens easily.

For a variety of reasons, I’ve not slept well over the last couple of weeks. There’s a lot of it about, especially just now, but last week I became conscious of an effect that has wider implications than simply feeling a little weary for a few days.

Last week I attended a number of networking events. OK, nothing unusual in that – as a business, networking is an essential part of my marketing – but I noticed a key difference to my usual approach. I caught myself talking to people. Again, there shouldn’t be anything unusual about that, and its an essential part of any networking conversation. BUT someone had asked a question, I had answered it, and for some reason I found myself still talking.

I was explaining the background to the answer I’d already given, some theoretical aspects of negotiation, the rationale behind making management-staff partnership work more effectively. It was all good stuff!

But did they want to hear it? And was it even relevant to them or their business?

As I spoke, I realised I needed to listen.

Actively listen. So I switched back on, brought my discourse to a close by asking them a nice, open question about themselves while making a mental note to think more about what I’d just experienced.

So, what had happened? Reflection led me to conclude that I was tired, so I’d inadvertently taken the easy road. Listening passively is easy, it takes little effort and, in return, you get little for it. It’s also easy to talk. The difference with talking is that it can feel productive, even if it’s not. It’s often a case of “less is more”. The result was that I’d slipped towards passive listening and talking because my tired mind headed for the path of least resistance.

Active listening, on the other hand takes a bit of work.

Asking searching, relevant open questions, then listening to and processing the answers, often making connections with something they said earlier, takes concentration and application. But, much as the effort/return from passive listening is minimal, the return for active listening is significant: improved understanding and a genuinely rewarding conversation. In the context of business networking, it offers the potential to better understand what makes someone tick, what issues affect their business.

One final thought: active listening is not just a business skill, reserved for technical conversations, negotiations and mediation. It’s a skill that can enhance any conversation, any exchange, any relationship. And, no matter how much you practice, it’s always worth a wee sense check to make sure you’re actually using it!

Winning arguments with yourself?

I recently spoke with Roxanne Kerr of Helix Trauma Therapies for her regular podcast. We set out to discuss why conflict occurs. I enjoyed the conversation and I thought I’d share the result.

Initially, we compared our internal and external dialogue, and explored some similarities between internal conflict and an external conflict. We even found the value in walking the opposite way round a field than you normally do!

A hint of winter!

Initially, we compared our internal and external dialogue, and explored some similarities between internal conflict and an external conflict. We even found the value in walking the opposite way round a field than you normally do!

International Mediation Training

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been privileged to deliver mediation skills training on a number of occasions for the ITCILO, writes Strathesk Resolutions Founding Director, Malcolm Currie.

It’s been all too easy, since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, to forget some of the things that happened before it. Indeed, it’s sometimes a real boost to get a reminder. I got one recently in the form of this video that popped up in my LinkedIn feed last week.

The video was shared by a colleague, Keti Vasadze, who had attended this course:

The course in Tbilisi was the first I delivered for the International Training Centre of the International Labour Organisation, focusing on Conciliation of Collective Labour Disputes. Indeed, I wrote about the course just afterwards in a previous Strathesk Resolutions blog. These courses are particularly rewarding for me. They combine my background and experience of industrial relations as a trade union negotiator, with my more recent and growing experience as part of Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution‘s Mediation Skills Training Faculty.

It’s all in the delivery…

One of the joys of delivering these courses is the people I meet, both the participants and the ILO staff. In Georgia, the knowledge and support of co-trainers Sharon Wakeford and Ebrahim Patelia, both experienced mediators and trainers from South Africa (and featured in the video) was invaluable. This has also been a feature of each of the courses I’ve delivered since.

I’ve just completed the coaching and assessment phase from a similar course in Ukraine, the follow up to a theory course I delivered in Kiev last November. It was wonderful to see, hear and meet the participants again, albeit this time Covid-19 meant we had to deliver the course using Zoom.

Indeed, this was an eye-opening experience. A mere 6 months ago, although familiar with and regularly using Zoom, I would have doubted that it could be used to deliver such complex training by video-conference. Particularly with simultaneous translation! However, having completed the course, I can’t deny that, while perhaps not as smooth and seamless as face to face delivery, it proved to be extremely effective.

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this subject, so please leave a comment. And if you’d like to discuss this topic more directly, please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787.

Legal mediation: time to start talking!

With court business still at a low ebb, there has never been a better time to consider mediation. Find out how online mediation works, where to access it and how you can try it out

Impact of COVID-19 on civil business 

First, the bad news. Ongoing Government restrictions mean that, for the foreseeable future, we’re likely to have social distancing in one form or another. It therefore follows that “normal” human contact is, at best, going to be difficult. One result is that many legal actions have been paused and proofs/tribunals in civil cases have been put off, causing a large backlog of cases. Many have been put back by years. The civil justice system as we have known it is not functioning, clients’ interests cannot be taken forward quickly, and lawyers’ businesses are suffering. So, what’s the good news?

Well, there has never been a better time for lawyers and clients to consider legal mediation! Mediation is an approach that puts client involvement, and their best interests, first. It is quicker, and cheaper (for both clients and lawyers as there are no court fees), than going to court, carries less risk and, with direct solicitor involvement, keeps clients fully legally informed and in control. Most importantly, using an appropriate online conferencing facility (most mediators use the Zoom Pro platform), it is possible to maintain client and legal confidentiality (more on this later). The platform provides for clients and their lawyers to be kept in a waiting room, then to be admitted to a joint meeting room and, when the need arises, to be placed in breakout rooms for private, confidential conversations between parties, their lawyers and the mediator.

In Scotland, while several lawyers, who are early adopters, use mediation, they are still a minority. Many litigation lawyers haven’t yet had the opportunity to become familiar with, or take part in, legal mediation. In some senses, the Scottish legal profession has seemed reluctant to embrace it, despite it being the norm in many other jurisdictions, but current circumstances may persuade it to do so.

Legal mediation as a win-win-win option

In Ontario, Canada, mandatory mediation has been part of the court procedure for 21 years. Most litigated cases go through mediation. A mediator is appointed and arranges a mediation meeting early in the court process. Prior to that, parties must exchange a mediation statement setting out legal and factual issues, alongside supporting documents. Failure to comply leads to financial penalties being imposed and can result in cases being dismissed or defences repelled. 

Many litigation lawyers worried that mandatory mediation would threaten their financial wellbeing through reduced fees. Unexpectedly, the outcome was much more positive. Mediation, now an integral part of court procedure, means lawyers must prepare themselves, and their clients, to participate and negotiate effectively, in the same way as they need to prepare for a proof or tribunal hearing. As a result, those lawyers recover legal costs and fees in preparing for, and taking part in, the mediation. They get paid a lot earlier too, rather than having to wait until a settlement just before a court hearing or a long time afterwards. In theory, this should free their time to address the cases of additional clients. 

In Scotland, mediation is not an integral part of the court procedure, but it is still available for lawyers and their clients to use and recover costs through efficiencies of the process. In commercial mediation the norm is for both parties to bear their own mediation costs (mediators cost a lot less than court cases). In employment/workplace mediation, employers bear the cost of mediation for both parties. Likewise, in litigation where insurance is a factor, for example personal injury cases, it is the norm for insurers to meet the cost of mediation, including the costs of preparing for it and participating in it. 

Prior to mediation, it is usual for the parties to enter into an agreement to mediate, through which they commit to engage with the process with a view to reaching a mutually acceptable outcome. Within this, it is possible, indeed desirable, for both parties to identify who is meeting the preparation and participation costs to avoid dispute afterwards. It is in the interest of insurers to participate in mediation at an early stage. It prevents the parties becoming embedded in their positions, and will reduce their long-term legal costs, while failure to participate in an offered mediation could result in increased costs by way of court-imposed penalty. 

In the event of settlement following mediation in a litigated case (the vast majority of court cases do settle), or even in an unlitigated one, it will result in lawyers being paid for their hard work much sooner (a particular boon at this time) and, more importantly, their clients’ cases will be settled much earlier, leading to happier clients and capacity for further cases. Generally speaking, clients whose legal disputes are settled quickly with less cost, are more satisfied and therefore more likely to instruct the same lawyers in future cases. If they’ve been dragged through an expensive court or tribunal process for years, they might not be!

Accessing mediation

Scottish Mediation keeps a Register of Accredited Mediators for the Scottish Government – details can be found on its website at www.scottishmediation.org.uk. Other organisations that include mediators are the Law Society of Scotland, the Faculty of Advocates, RICS, CIArb, Relationship Scotland, the University of Strathclyde Mediation Clinic and Edinburgh Sheriff Court Mediation Service, supported by CAB Edinburgh.

Zoom and online mediation/solicitor training

You needn’t wait for normal service to be resumed through the courts in order to progress a client’s case. Mediation can be undertaken now, safely and confidentially, online. Everyone can be there, they can see everyone else and participate to the extent that they want. In the run-up to mediation, the mediator can have pre-mediation meetings with lawyers and their clients by video, enabling parties to become familiar with and trust the technology. By doing so, people are reassured that the actual mediation online is something that they can participate in and that it will work.

Paul Kirkwood, Law Society of Scotland accredited commercial mediator, and Malcolm Currie, a CEDR accredited workplace/employment mediator, are teaming up with Scottish Mediation and its director Graham Boyack to offer online CPD mediation training, using Zoom Pro, to all professionals including mediators and lawyers. The sessions will be fully interactive, featuring mock mediations using commercial and employment scenarios where participants will be coached and encouraged to use the Zoom Pro technology, including the use of breakout rooms. Participants can choose to participate as mediators, clients or lawyers in the role-plays, ideally trying all three for a more ’rounded’ feel of the process. This will provide a safe online learning environment for all, and hopefully go some way to demystifying the mediation process for many lawyers, to give them greater confidence to participate in legal mediation, look after the best interests of their clients and get their businesses going again. Details are on the Scottish Mediation website, but feel free to get in touch with any of us.

This article was previously published in Law Society of Scotland Journal, June 2020

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this subject, so please leave a comment. And if you’d like to discuss this topic more directly, please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787.

A Day to Remember

Forget-me-not

28 April each year is International Workers’ Memorial Day (#IWMD20 #IWMD2020)

This year International Workers’ Memorial Day has a special poignancy. Like many people, last Thursday I took part in #ClapForCarers joining friends and neighbours, each on own doorsteps, to applaud NHS staff, key workers and carers. These are people for whom the risk of going to work has risen significantly in recent weeks.

Yet they still go.

Already, 82 NHS workers have died helping to save others, and recent reports from care homes demonstrate an increased risk there as well. However, we shouldn’t forget pharmacy staff, utilities workers, delivery drivers, refuse collectors, people working in food supply and retail, and many others, putting themselves at risk keeping essential services running.

Right now, taking adequate time to assess and mitigate against work related risks has rarely been more important.

In recent years, increasing numbers of people have described taking precautions to prevent work activities from injuring people as “health & safety gone mad”.  However, that view disrespects the aim to make sure people go home as healthy as they were when they arrived at work.  In spite of those measures, Health & Safety Executive statistics for last year make stark reading:

From: HSE Health & Safety Statistics 2018/19

And that’s in the UK where we’ve had the Health & Safety at Work Act in place since 1974.

Covid-19 aside, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), across the world:

  • Each year, more than 2.3 million men and women die as a result of work-related accidents and diseases
  • Workers suffer approximately 340 million accidents each year and fall victim to some 160 million incidents of work-related illnesses
  • One worker dies every 15 seconds worldwide. 6,000 workers die every day.
  • More people die whilst at everyday work than those fighting wars.

International Workers’ Memorial Day is a reminder not to be complacent, to avoid seeing common sense anticipation of ‘accidents’ (and taking steps to stop them from happening) as an unnecessary imposition.

But, right now, IMWD is an opportunity to bring to mind everyone who is at risk, for whatever reason because of their job, and thank those who gave their lives in the past as well as those who continue to risk theirs for the rest of us.

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this subject, so please leave a comment, but if you’d like to discuss this topic more directly please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787.

Looking Beyond Lockdown

Edinburgh skyline at dusk, looking over from Musselburgh

It’s the end of our first week in lockdown, so I thought I’d share my reflections on how I, and my business, are being affected.

The most significant impact for me of the Covid-19 outbreak hit 3 weeks ago with the cancellation of the ITCILO training I was due to be delivering in Kiev this week, the culmination of a steady emptying of my diary. Gulp!

As a result, I spent last week and the week before preparing for the lock down that, by that stage, looked inevitable. I started to improve my video-conferencing skills and, thanks to training from partner organisations such as CEDR, In Place of Strife and WEA, I’ve learnt about features and approaches I should have been using for years. 

A large element of this process was reviewing which Strathesk Resolutions services could be delivered online. The answer, I’m pleased to say, is pretty much all of them. We can mediate workplace and employment disputes, facilitate negotiations and deliver our core Negotiations Skills, Collective Bargaining and Management-Staff Partnership training remotely. In other words, most services can continue as soon as people need them.

An online future?

It’s been an interesting time. Apart from anything, and probably in common with many, many people, I’ve never spent so much time in video conferences! The flow of communication is different than you can get face to face, but when that’s impossible, the technology is certainly now at a level that allows genuine, direct interaction.

Self-preservation has become an important element, so I’ve been applying more discipline to getting out and active (within the guidelines!). As importantly, I’ve focused on my mental health through mindfulness practices and eating sensibly.  I’ve also reconnected with people I’ve not been in touch with for too long, as have several of them with me, and there’s been a growing feeling of community and mutual support.

Where now?

The last couple of weeks have also presented opportunities. On business development, I’ve returned to networking, albeit online. This has allowed me to meet people I might never otherwise have met. That’s so far been primarily through #LnDCowork, and a couple of more ad hoc online gatherings, but hopefully there will be more through next week’s East Lothian Business Community and the following week’s Edinburgh Connections online networking sessions! 

Importantly, I’ve also been able to see some light at the end of the tunnel. I now have 2 training courses in the diary to deliver towards the tail end of the year, there’s a general pulling together of the local community and I am now genuinely confident that I, and Strathesk Resolutions, can get through all of this.

Governing Change at Work

There has been a lot of discussion about corporate governance in recent years, even more about the place of the workforce within that. 

With that in mind, an article in City A.M. caught my eye this week.

What I found particularly interesting in it is Andy Haldane, Chief Economist of the Bank of England, widening the debate on governance to include considerations of wider stakeholders than the shareholders.  There have been tentative steps in this direction in the years since the banking crisis of 2008, with some voices calling for a change of approach but there hasn’t been any visible progress to date. 

Back in 2016, Theresa May stated

“If I’m prime minister, we’re going to change that system – and we’re going to have not just consumers represented on company boards, but workers as well…!”

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/theresa-may-board-corporate-plan-germany-france-productivity-economics-a7132221.html

She abandoned this commitment to give workers a voice on Boards in 2018, before any details on the plans had been developed, but the basis was apparently similar to arrangements in Germany where worker representation at board level is long established.

As a union officer, I worked with several organisations that had provision for a staff representative on their board, albeit they were reluctant to implement those arrangements.  In many respects, given the amount of money organisations invest in recruiting, employing and training their staff, it’s a surprise that they don’t value them as the repository of organisational knowledge that they are.  Meanwhile, in relation to the views expressed by Andy Haldane, it would be interesting to see if that reluctance persists should there be a wider change in governance culture.

Other employers with whom I worked had gone down the employee-ownership route. This is an approach that has significant potential, but that can also be fraught with difficulties if it isn’t handled correctly.  For one of the companies with which I worked, there was serious upset because they hadn’t prepared properly – because they hadn’t invested the time and effort to build sufficient trust between management and the union representatives, the business saw the collective arrangement as cramping their commercial flexibility, while their staff saw employee ownership as a ‘union busting’ tactic. 

There has been a recent upturn in the number of companies moving towards employee-ownership, seemingly in part prompted by Capital Gains Tax relief and increasing drives to improve employee engagement, in part by increasing evidence that properly involving your staff in your business can boost growth.  There is certainly evidence that it can be an effective approach in improving business performance, but can it meet Andy Haldane’s aspirations?  Perhaps by current measures of success, but are those measures fit for the future?

There has been significant academic research into ways of measuring company performance.  One I have been exploring over recent months is the Total Stakeholder Value model developed by the Maturity Institute.  Their objective is to “help create the most responsible form of capitalism for Planet, People, Value” by promoting what they call Whole System Management measured through an adapted OMINDEX “AAA” rating system.  What does that mean?  Essentially, they’re looking at key measures such as customer service, environmental standards and treatment of staff alongside more usual economic measures to establish which approaches are more sustainable in a holistic sense.

From a Strathesk Resolutions perspective, with the direction these conversations suggest, the model of Management-Staff partnership that we help companies to develop would seem to fit well.  Staff often hold the key to knowledge that companies need – in that sense, putting in place cultural mechanisms for open dialogue could make a significant difference to business performance (“Strategic Unionism and Partnership” (2004) – Huzzard, Gregory & Scott).

Linking back to role of unions in boards in Germany, while it’s not a perfect model, it is one that shows what could be done with proper Management-Staff partnership and real staff involvement

If that’s something you’d like to explore, please get in touch!