In my experience, problem solving with trade unions and employee representatives works. It brings pragmatic and practical solutions to real workplace problems. As organisations deal with several pandemic related employee relations challenges – from returning to the workplace, agile working, the approach to vaccines, a deterioration in mental health and, in some organisations, reviews of terms and conditions – I would advocate adopting problem solving.
Problem solving works best if you adopt a structured approach. I have used “action teams” with groups of managers and union representatives to jointly solve issues such as modernising employment policies including discipline, grievance, flexible working and absence, as well as reviewing and improving meetings and establishing joint communications protocols.
An action team is normally a group of six people – three trade union/employee representatives and three managers. The group agrees a “problem statement”, agrees a timeline of activities plus short weekly meetings to enable the team to draw up a recommendation on how to move forward within a short period of time. Action teams really do need to be action focussed and cannot drag on. The facilitator, normally from ER or HR, will guide the team, challenging them as they move through the timeline.
After a maximum of 12 weeks, the group will set out their joint recommendation which often needs to be signed off by the appropriate leader, in HR or the operation.
As well as solving a problem and helping the business move forward, all parties learn and practice valuable, transferable skills. They practice listening to other views, they learn how to undertake small surveys or interviewing, they learn how to build a case for presentation and practice presentation skills.
They also demonstrate to the wider business, the power of joint problem solving, thereby reducing the resistance to this style of working.
I have used this style of working to agree a programme of policy modernisation for the year ahead. We set out the policies we wanted to change from the organisational perspective and the union perspective. We prioritised the list and set out a year plan. In two years, we had modernised more policies than had been achievable in the previous decade when a more traditional negotiation approach had been used, where both parties had a desire to win and didn’t feel their views were listened to.
Action teams are a powerful way of managing change and should be more widely used in unionised organisations to facilitate change.