We start our new series by debunking the idea that all co-op staff have to be able and ready to do all types of work
Whilst working in the co-operative sector, my colleagues and I at Co-operantics have come across a number of common myths about co-opeartives. These myths can lead to misunderstanding and can prevent people from recognising the very real value of the co-operative business model.
One such myth is job rotation – all co-ops rotate jobs, don’t they?
Well, no, some do and some don’t – it’s not a necessary condition for a co-operative. Co-ops organise in many different ways, ranging from full multi-skilling (mostly found in worker coops, owned and controlled by employees) to those which have specific roles and job titles.
However, co-operatives that do organise around multi-skilling enjoy a variety of benefits – as long as it is implemented thoughtfully and as long as the costs are recognised, anticipated and accounted for.
Job rotation as practised in worker co-ops can be more usefully described as multi-skilling, meaning that all co-operative members must be ready to perform a range of tasks, so as when extra hands are required (at certain times of the week for example, or seasonally, or if someone is off sick or on holiday) they are readily available.
Apart from the obvious advantage of having those extra hands available, co-operatives that have successfully implemented multi-skilling report improved communications between departments, leading to fewer demands on the personnel department and more variety in the working environment. It also enables the co-operative to cope more effectively with high workloads, so members are fresher and enthusiastic for longer; it allows recuperation from stress and enables the co-operative to use labour and skills more efficiently to cope with the troughs and peaks of business.
If you are learning a new job, you will not be up to speed for some time, and nor will the person teaching you. This is a cost which needs to be built into budgets and projections. If it is not, the lower productivity implied by people learning on the job can quickly become a drain on the co-operative’s resources.
Another disadvantage is the resentment that can be caused when a trained and qualified worker is recruited for a specific task only to find that he or she is expected to perform tasks they are not experienced in while people who do not have their skills and experience step into their shoes in the job they were recruited for.
I am remembering a new-start co-op veggie restaurant that rotated all their members around all jobs including the kitchen, with the unfortunate result that they lost the two qualified chefs they’d recruited. A major pitfall is to assume that all jobs can be rotated and to undervalue the specialist skills that qualified and trained staff bring to the co-operative.
Suma Wholefoods, based at Elland, near Halifax, have been practising multi-skilling for over 30 years and their 150 employees perform more than one role in the co-operative. They say that this broadens their skills base and gives every member an invaluable insight into the bigger picture. It also helps to play to each member’s different strengths. Suma workers multi-skill, usually between desk and manual work, and contribute to collective management. Drivers often drive for part of the week and work in the warehouse or offices for the remainder. Desk workers are encouraged to do manual work for at least one day per week.
At Unicorn Grocery, in south Manchester, members learn a range of core tasks – working the till, packing, cleaning – and then two, or sometimes three, people are trained up in specialist roles, so there is back-up when needed.
Suma says: “to avoid the chimps tea party approach of everyone trying to grab the best job, it must be agreed democratically and organised co-operatively. You can use regular HR practice such as job analysis to identify what needs to be done, then share the jobs according to skills and desires. That way you won’t be held to ransom by people with rare skills.”
Kate Whittle is an experienced co-operative development worker and a consultant at Co-operantics, a co-operative development body