Agency at Work
/ Author: Ian DeWaard
/ Categories: Guide magazine /
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Agency at Work

When employees feel their actions are making an impact, it can lead to better solutions, a more engaged team, and a community that works together to solve problems

By Ian DeWaard, Ontario Director

As a young person, I had the privilege of working as a carpenter’s helper building houses. Until then, I’d spent time working in dark, hot factories, so I loved the shift to being outdoors.

Even in all seasons of weather, I loved learning how to build a house—erecting the floor, selecting and cutting the lumber, laying out and lifting the walls into place, and then climbing the entire structure to assemble the roof. After a few days, the fruit of our labour was tangible, visible, and those efforts would amount to something valuable for the eventual inhabitants. Nearly 30 years later, I still know where to find those structures to see that they are still standing. 

But what I most enjoyed about that work was the chance to be part of a team of problem solvers. Blueprints are instructive, but they don’t deal with every contingency, and there are always unforeseen problems. Even though I was usually the most junior member of the three- or four-person team, I was part of the problem-solving crew when the beam didn’t fit a pocket, the wrong materials had been delivered, or the gable end of one roof conflicted with the cottage side of the other.

Being part of the problem-solving crew, even as a junior member, enhanced my learning, permitted me to ask (sometimes insightful) questions, and even to contribute to finding a solution. In no other job before that had I been included in working through the problem. It was both an exciting and a maturing experience.

In a word, this idea of impacting outcomes at work is referred to as agency—and it’s an important factor for employees as they consider their satisfaction at work. I recently watched first-hand how employee agency impacted the health of a workplace. 

At a newly unionized group home, an announcement came that hours were being cut, quite heavily. The fault wasn’t the employer’s—it had been working for 10 years with the exact same provincial funding formula. The management team had spent hours and hours trying to find ways to make the cuts balanced, equitable, and safe for workers and residents. 

The employer’s effort resulted in a wholly revised work schedule for these new CLAC members, and it landed like a thud, eliciting a collectively angry response from the entire workforce. No one was happy, and blame was quickly directed toward management.

But in this case, the newly minted stewards committee decided to tackle the problem constructively. They asked for an audience with management to inquire about the rationale for the changes and to understand what thought had gone into the schedule revisions.

At that meeting, the committee members listened, and then with polite, firm resolve, suggested that they be given a chance to try their hand at the schedule. Management hesitated, worrying that opening the matter up for debate with the entire workforce might lead to an even greater level of frustration and disarray. But they relented. 

Over the course of a week, the stewards and their fellow members looked at the problem, considered options with their coworkers, and gathered feedback, input, personal preferences, and insights. They delivered back to the employer a recommended schedule, and as importantly, insight into what most staff really wanted—a neatly categorized and thematic presentation of preferences. A week later, the revised schedule was issued—a stinging loss of hours—but this time with understanding and support from staff. 

This is only one story, but it demonstrates well the point that when workers experience agency at work, it can lead to better solutions, a more engaged team, and a work community (management and labour) that experience a shared responsibility in solving a problem. For many managers, the process of creating agency for workers seems too time consuming. Informing, consulting, listening, and developing shared understanding does require time. But it’s time well spent when the result is a better decision or a better solution. 

Another word for agency is codetermination, and for members and staff of CLAC, this is the idea that we pursue real workplace partnership. The key features of being unionized—collective bargaining, grievance procedures, labour management committees—are all means to improve the agency of members, and to build a workplace partnership that appreciates the importance of codetermination. 

As the stewards committee in the story of the revised schedule demonstrates, being partners is tough work. Finding solutions to real problems requires participation, deliberation, and accepting hard truths. But a workplace that treats workers as part of the problem-solving crew is well-served. That’s a workplace that I’m excited to be a part of.

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