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Matthew Taylor reflects on the RSA’s recent #GoodWorkIs social media campaign

Nothing is certain in these days of uncertainty but I’m hoping the Review of Modern Employment that I’ve been chairing will report before Parliament rises for the summer. When we do reveal our recommendations and analysis I will be hoping to build on the momentum generated by our recent campaign on good work. Her Majesty's announcement in today's Queen's Speech that "my ministers will seek to enhance rights and protections in the modern workplace" provides encouragement that we can deliver substantive change.  

The RSA’s GoodWorkIs campaign was something of a first for the Society. Going beyond providing a platform for great ideas, developing our own research and supporting the endeavours of our Fellows we used a combination of new content and social media to generate a much wider public debate, focusing on the future of working lives.

The aim was twofold; first, ahead of the publication of the Review on Modern Employment, we sought to test the depth of public commitment to better work. Second, we wanted to explore the RSA’s capacity to shape the public discourse by mobilising individuals and other organisations; if we could do it on the issue of work maybe we could do it again when we felt an issue needed a higher profile.

We got a great response, with thousands of people telling us in tweets, comments and videos what they think constitutes good work. Although the remit of the Employment Review is obviously limited to these shores, we’ve had people engage with the RSA campaign from every continent (save Antarctica, but give them time). It seems that good work is as important to Mongolia as it is to Macclesfield. 

Closer to home the influential organisations that got on board – from the Trades Union Congress to Carers UK to the Living Wage Foundation – reflects that this is an agenda with wide traction. Good work it seems is an issue that cuts across ideology or party allegiance, as the prominence given to work in just about all the general election manifestos attests.    

It has been fascinating and energising to hear what people say is most important to them. Our analysis showed the same factors coming up time and again: purpose, wellbeing, autonomy, respect, fulfilment, good colleagues. Things that many of us are lucky to take for granted but which are largely absent from the working lives of too many of our fellow citizens.

While fair and decent pay is of course also an integral part of a decent working life, the responses underline that the idea of employment as a purely economic transaction is outdated and wrong. People want more than just a pay check; they want employment that will contribute to self-worth and meaning in life. Critically this means having opportunities for progression, having your opinion listened to, and having some control over the work you undertake.   

As well as on social media, this was particularly evident in the many comments posted on my kick-off blog. It was fascinating how many times people’s account of good work was framed with reference to psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs theorem: while our basic needs from work are physiological and security driven, once those are catered for our aspirations become focused on achieving feelings of belonging, respect, accomplishment and realising one’s true potential.

Sadly we know that for too many work still doesn’t fulfil basic needs. Soon after I highlighted it as a major area of concern in my annual lecture, Cardiff University revealed new research showing a record 60% of British people in poverty live in a household where someone is in work.

A second theme was that what constitutes good work is subjective; features valued by some will be less important to others. This is indeed partly why we started the GoodWorkIs conversation: to appreciate the range of factors that matter to different people. Our recent survey work conducted with Populus underlined the point. For example, while for many the insecurity of zero hours contracts is a source of anxiety, for others the flexibility is a benefit. A significant challenge for the Employment Review is how to provide the correct legal safeguards for decent employment while not being overly prescriptive about what constitutes good work.

 

Overall, I would rate the GoodWorkIs initiative seven or eight out of ten. There is always a distant hope with social media initiatives that they will somehow ‘go viral’ taking on a life of their own. This didn’t happen. Yet we got some good mainstream media coverage and overall both the quantity and quality of people’s engagement exceeded our more realistic expectations. Taking the goals I described above in reverse order; GoodWorkIs shows that with the right material the RSA can generate a broad based public conversation, and we learnt lessons about how to do even better next time. And, in terms of the Review I believe our initiative will help legitimise an approach to work which isn’t just about addressing glaring exploitation but about developing a comprehensive and values-based strategy for a good work economy. 

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