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ERC Story - ‘New deals’ in the workplace

European countries have different cultures of capitalism and employment. But in the face of challenges like globalisation and the financial crisis, the various models are changing – in different ways. At the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, Professor Seán Ó Riain is using an ERC Starting Grant to understand how European employers and employees are making ‘new deals’ in response to these challenges.
ERC Story - ‘New deals’ in the workplace
"I’m interested in social change and the possibilities that people have for leading a better life in the workplace – in terms of pay, relationships with colleagues, job satisfaction and even enjoyment," explains Prof. Ó Riain. "I want to look at it in a very direct and practical way. Comparisons between countries will allow us to draw conclusions from and for the different economic models."

His ERC project is using EU-wide survey data, the European Union Survey of Working Conditions (EUSWC), to analyse trends in pay, work processes, careers and working time during a period of economic boom and financial crash. The team will combine this with sectoral, regional and national data to understand how 'workplace bargains' – such as working hours or job security – emerge and spread, shaped by social and institutional contexts.

"In the 1990s and 2000s, there were debates on European economic models that grouped them into 'varieties of capitalism', such as Liberal, Nordic, Continental or Mediterranean," the professor says. "But underneath these labels we know that all those models have been changing – in Germany, for example, the workplace changed a lot between 2000 and 2008, with less security, a period of wage restraint and a focus on exports."

Flexibility takes many forms

According to Prof. Ó Riain, while Nordic capitalism, for example, may be different from UK capitalism, both are changing to more flexible working practices. Where they differ is how those changes are implemented – in the UK, managers have more power and can put pressure on employees to work longer hours, whereas in Nordic countries teams are led by fellow employees, not managers, and 'flexibility' may mean being available for phone contact after work rather than longer hours in the workplace. This can have surprising results.

"In theory 'Liberal' economies such as Ireland and the UK are more flexible, because hiring and firing is easier," he says. "But in practice – also because out-of-work benefits are lower – this raises the stakes, and resistance to change may actually be stronger. Paradoxically, it can be easier to ask people to make sacrifices in the name of a longer-term goal in the supposedly less flexible 'Continental' economies. Stronger social security, and greater equality, means the stakes are lower and there is a stronger sense of common purpose and a shared future."

In order to analyse the processes behind these kinds of workplace bargains, and their connection with the wider political and cultural landscape of each country, the project team will combine their survey-based research with a series of in-depth case studies. These will focus on six companies that represent three industries – software, retail and health– in two countries, Ireland and Denmark.

"The case studies will 'lift the bonnet' in order to see what’s 'under the hood'," says Prof. Ó Riain. The researchers will interview managers and employees, as well as their customers and suppliers, attend their meetings, analyse project histories and 'shadow' managers over the course of their working day.

EU economy made up of 'varieties of capitalism'

The professor hopes the detailed information gathered from knowledge-intensive sectors and countries with different "varieties of capitalism" will lead to new theoretical insights and practical conclusions on the ways that finance, industrial policy, employers and employees interrelate.

"You couldn’t do a project on this scale without the ERC grant funding," he says. "In particular, the longer-term, multi-year nature allows for a much more coherent project as a whole. The grant has enabled us to build a research team of two postdocs and three postgrads – as well as host conferences – and this has become one of the anchors of a research group on workplace sociology at our university."

Prof. Ó Riain believes their findings will show more systematically how different aspects of the workplace are organised across countries, and how these are based not simply on the interaction of individuals but also on their collective capabilities – such as shared understandings of "pathways to the future" and supportive institutions.

"There is a link between the workplace level and the European level," he says, "so we hope this research will give insights into current efforts to integrate the EU economy."

- Source: Prof. Seán Ó Riain
- Project coordinator: National University of Ireland, Maynooth, Ireland
- Project title: New Deals in the New Economy
- Project acronym: NEWDEALS
- NEWDEALS project website
- FP7 funding programme (ERC call): Starting Grant 2011
- EC funding: EUR 1 300 000

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