Comparing Service Sector Work Organization and Skills
When it comes to cross-country comparisons of work organization in the service sector, there are few studies and many gaps. The studies that have been undertaken differ in their focus, depending upon whether they are looking at high-skilled jobs or low-skilled jobs. In the former case, rather than comparing the tasks undertaken and levels of knowledge and skill, the focus tends to be on qualification requirements and levels of autonomy and control, particularly in the public sector. At lower skill levels, there is more interest in actual skill levels and task content, along with systems of management and supervision.
The area that has attracted the least attention is higher skilled private sector service work. An EU-funded project on the impact of restructuring on work organization included qualitative studies of R&D workers in the ICT sector and IT professionals in software services (see Valenduc et al. 2007). These two IT-related jobs were among those occupational groups described as 'rather homogenous' both across and within countries (Krings etal. 2007). It was claimed that 'their occupational profile and individual identities at work can be characterised independently from national contexts or company features' (Krings etal. 2007: 169). National differences, however, were apparent in broader areas of job quality and were linked to countries' institutional settings, although the impact was not consistent across the two jobs. Norway, for example, provided R&D workers with better working conditions (work-life balance, job security) than were available in Austria, France, and Germany. In contrast, for those working in software companies, there was found to be little evidence 'of formal structures of social dialogue' in any of the countries under study (Valenduc 2007: 96).
There has been more interest in comparing the work of public sector professionals reflecting concerns about the impact of different governance and institutional regimes. Again, however, studies are limited and work organization and skills are generally not the main focus. Nevertheless, the few studies that have been undertaken point towards country-level variation in levels of autonomy and forms of accountability. Central has been the way in which jobs have been changing as a result of a variety of public sector reforms and, in particular, the uneven patterns of liberalization and marketization (see Chapter 5).
One EC-funded project, for example, examined the impact of welfare state restructuring on nurses and primary school teachers (see Goodson and Lindblad 2011) across seven European countries (Muller etal. 2007). Nurses experienced common trends in restructuring, including the shift towards a contracting model of employment and increased demands for cost efficiency, throughput, and results obtained through guidelines, standardization, evaluation, and rewards (Kosonen and Houtsonen 2007). In most countries, nurses reported increased workloads and stress, insufficient time to care for patients, and being unable to work according to their professional ethos. However, experiences are far from uniform. In England, where the use of controls was particularly pronounced, the picture is one of instability, fear of redundancy, low morale, deteriorating work-life balance, heightened stress, and concerns about 'burn-out'. In Sweden and Finland, what stands out is 'the relative autonomy the nurses enjoy' in each context (Kosonen and Houtsonen 2007: 11). Indeed, Finland presents a largely
trouble-free picture of its consultancy nurses' work. They have enough opportunities to participate in decision-making concerning their unit. Further, they are able to train and educate themselves relatively independently. They are also quite satisfied with their conditions of work, excluding perhaps salary. (Kosonen and Houtsonen 2007: 11)
Research on teachers also shows variation across countries and over time in levels of teacher autonomy. In Portugal, Spain, and Finland, teachers reported no noticeable pressures from official inspections or monitoring, while in England there was an increasingly tight regime of evaluation and accountability that limited teachers' autonomy (Muller etal. 2007). In Scandinavia, there is evidence of variation in the organization of teachers' work according to the particular country concerned. Helgoy and Homme (2007) found that teachers in Sweden tend to have a higher degree of individual classroom autonomy, whereas Norwegian teachers had more autonomy and influence at the collective level, i.e. in relation to the national policy-making process. Another study indicates that teachers in Finland experience higher levels of autonomy when compared to those working in Sweden (Houtsonen et al. 2010). Across these studies of public sector professionals, national differences are linked to the structure of public sector institutions, i.e. the health and education systems, the direction of reforms, and the ways in which the occupational group has responded. For teachers, their response is seen to be a reflection of their relative power in different countries to shape reforms and their implementation, alongside national conceptions of professionalism and status (see also Osborn 2006).
The most extensive comparative evidence on work organization at the lower end of the labour market is a study of low-wage work sponsored by the US-based Russell Sage Foundation which looked at the USA, Germany, France, Demark, Netherlands, and the UK (Gautie and Schmitt 2010). Five service sector jobs were examined and in four cases (call centre worker, hospital cleaner, hospital nursing assistant, and retail assistant), sustained national differences were found in the skill levels and organization of work. In the UK and the USA, these jobs were found to be generally lower skilled, with narrower tasks and less autonomy.
For the other countries, there is more variability across the sectors. For example, in Germany, four-fifths of retail workers have completed a two- or three-year retail apprenticeship and many are employed in jobs where they are responsible for a particular product area. In these jobs, there is a requirement for substantial product knowledge in order to undertake a broad range of activities, including product selection, ordering, and display work (Voss- Dahm 2008). These tasks in other countries are typically undertaken by supervisors or managers (see Carre etal. 2010). In contrast, German hospital cleaners experience very narrow, low-skilled jobs, while in France and Denmark hospitals were found to have introduced a broader range of job tasks with some elements of upskilling (Mehaut et al. 2010). The job of hotel cleaner, however, showed little variation within or across countries (Vanselow etal. 2010). Nevertheless, evidence from another study found that office cleaners in Norway were seeing moves towards more team working, with higher levels of worker autonomy (see Holtgrewe and Sardadvar 2012).
Both case study and survey evidence indicates that call centre jobs are likely to be more skilled, with higher levels of discretion in Germany, Denmark, and, to a lesser extent, France than in the UK, USA, and the Netherlands (Lloyd etal. 2010). Doellgast (2010) also found that German telecoms call centre agents had broader job design and experienced less monitoring than those operating in similar markets in the USA. Factors that appear to be important in pushing firms to adopt less fragmented forms of work organization include employment regulations that require companies to retain existing (often well- qualified and relative well-paid) workers, the strength and activism of trade unions and works councils, and, in some cases, recruitment difficulties (Lloyd et al. 2010; see also Doellgast et al. 2009).
While these studies of lower end jobs and, to a much lesser extent, high- skilled jobs indicate that country-based differences exist, the picture is complex and variable. National institutions matter, but so does the sector. The explanation as to why there is variation within and across countries in the way that lower skilled jobs are designed is under-developed. For those in professional and managerial jobs, there is a dearth of comparative studies. We may know something of their education and broader working conditions, but little about the way that the job of say a research scientist in the pharmaceuticals industry compares across countries in terms of skill demands and levels of discretion and autonomy. Overall, the evidence base for examining the effects of national institutions, sector dynamics, and organizational approach on skills and work organization is limited, while there has been a lack of comprehensive attempts to develop an explanation for the relationship between these different elements. The following section draws upon existing research to develop an analytical framework for the research undertaken in this book.