The New Workplace: Why work isn't what it used to be

By Michael Robinson
BBC Radio 4

media captionStuart Mapplebeck: "I was promoted within three or four months"

People expect far less from their employers than they did a generation ago, says Ewart Keep, professor of education, training and skills at Oxford University.

"The world has changed profoundly", Prof Keep told the BBC. "If you'd been able to take a skilled manual worker from 25, 30 years ago in the Tardis and bring them to now, they would be astonished at what's happened to the kind of jobs that they used to be doing".

Professor Keep was commenting on pay levels revealed in the first part of BBC Radio 4's series The New Workplace.

To help understanding of the changing workplace, Whitbread, the large British-based hospitality and services company, opened its doors to the BBC at all levels of the company.

Once famous for Whitbread's Best Bitter, with all the industrialised, unionised processes required to manufacture beer, Whitbread has transformed itself over the past 20 years.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionBottles being examined at the Whitbread brewery in London in 1947 - the company has transformed itself over the last 20 years

Today Whitbread owns Costa Coffee, the largest chain of coffee shops in the UK, Beefeater Restaurants andthe fast-growing budget hotel chain Premier Inn.

Whitbread has 45,000 employees, yet is run by a strategic management team of just 60.

The company is now "very lean", Louise Smalley, Whitbread's Human Resources director told the BBC.

Ms Smalley has been with Whitbread for 18 years. She says new technology is a key reason Whitbread's former layers of middle management disappeared.

"Often you needed middle management to collate the data", Ms Smalley said. "Technology has enabled that to happen instantly. That's a world away from what we had historically so we don't need those middle management layers."

image captionLouise Smalley is Whitbread's director of human resources

Like most companies in its sector, Whitbread no longer recognises trade unions. Whitbread has always paid above the national minimum wage, but otherwise pay in the company is set by supply and demand.

According to Jim Slater, managing director of the Costa coffee shop chain, there is no shortage of potential workers.

'Attitude and commitment'

"Last year we opened a new store in Nottinghamshire," Mr Slater told the BBC, "and we had over 200 applicants per position in that store."

Even in hotspots such as London, Brighton or Bristol, Mr Slater says: "We always are inundated with applicants for jobs."

Mr Slater told the BBC that the functions middle managers used to perform are now carried out much closer to the workplace.

Staff in each Costa coffee shop use small tablet computers to track and plan staff hours, supplies and sales. The information is instantly available to Mr Slater and to Whitbread's senior management team.

Find out more:

Listen to The New Workplace on BBC Radio 4

On Wednesday 5 August at 3pm

Or listen again on the iPlayer

"We offer enormous amounts of training and development," Mr Slater told the BBC, "and the chance to experience a big business like Costa, and then move up the job grades and the pay bands accordingly."

Coffee shop staff may now be responsible for the functions of the former middle managers, but Mr Slater acknowledges it is at far lower pay differentials than before.

Narrow differentials for additional responsibilities apply across Whitbread's businesses.

When Stuart Mapplebeck was recruited by a new Premier Inn in Halifax, he was one of the city's small army of young "Neets" - people not in education, employment or training.

When he started, Whitbread paid him just above the national minimum wage, now £6.50 an hour.

Today, after in-house training, Mr Mapplebeck is a reception team leader. He is now also directly responsible for recruiting and supervising 10 Premier Inn staff.

For these additional responsibilities, Mr Mapplebeck is now paid £8.16 an hour - equivalent to around £17,000 a year for a 40-hour week.

'Downshifted expectations'

Whitbread today doesn't require qualifications. Instead, the company looks for people with the right attitude and a commitment to customer service.

"If you come to work for Whitbread," Mr Mapplebeck told the BBC, "there's three main things that you need to be: genuine, confident, committed.

"Money matters to everybody," Mr Mapplebeck added. "But it's definitely not the focus for me. I would rather go to work and love my job than focus just solely on the monetary aspect."

Czech-born Eva Duskova, the assistant manager of Costa Coffee Beaconsfield, echoed that view.

"I would say that I have got confidence in what I am doing," Ms Duskova told the BBC. "I love the responsibility and I know that the rest of the team in our store are listening to me when I am trying to help them. It is a really good feeling."

image copyrightReuters

At Oxford University, Prof Ewart Keep is not surprised that among the Whitbread staff the BBC met, there appeared to be little complaint about the small differentials workers are now paid for additional responsibilities.

Prof Keep says the same is true across large parts of the new British workplace - particularly in the lower-paid service sector.

"We've downshifted the expectations that a lot of people have of what they're going to get out of work," he told the BBC. "Vast rafts of workers in retail, cleaning, hospitality, social care are not unionised and it's much easier for a lot of employers particularly in the service sector to offer wages that are not far above the national minimum wage."

Following Chancellor George Osborne's budget announcement of a new National Living Wage of £7.20 for workers aged 25 or over from next April, employers will be required to pay lower-paid staff more.

Whitbread chief executive Andy Harrison says about half his 45,000 staff are over 25. Although he says Whitbread has for many years supported raising the national minimum wage, Mr Harrison says he was surprised by the extent of the chancellor's increase.

Rethink pay

"A good proportion of our employees over 25 will benefit from the new living wage," Mr Harrison told the BBC. "We will need to finance those pay increases through investment in improving quality and value."

Mr Harrison says the new living wage means Whitbread's present pay differentials will have to be rethought. It will also encourage the company to step up its already extensive programme of in-house training.

"As the cost of our people increases," Mr Harrison told the BBC, "it will provide an additional incentive to invest in training and technology, so that we can use people more effectively. Training increasing skills which increases people's productivity, their output, which delivers a better experience for our customers and more value for our shareholders".

But Whitbread is unlikely to experience much pay pressure from staff - at least if Stuart Mapplebeck is typical.

Mr Mapplebeck now aspires to run his own Premier Inn - being responsible for the entire hotel operation and managing around 30 staff.

And the pay he now hopes to get for that? £18,000 a year.

Michael Robinson's series The New Workplace starts on Saturday 1 August on BBC Radio 4 at 12:00pm.

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