Super Team

The Productive Edge
Post COVID 19 - what is to come?






What will we remember about this era and the nature of work before, during and afterwards?



There is a Facebook post doing the rounds that goes something like this:

The coronavirus is nature’s way of sending us all to our rooms to think about what we have done.


No-one was ready for this pandemic. No local, state or national government was ready for it. Business was blindsided. Unions were caught on the hop. Individuals were simply blown out of the water.

Suddenly everything we thought we knew about work and jobs, and management and industrial relations – all of these tried and tested systems and ideas are being confronted, challenged and many are failing. Everywhere. Not just in Australia but globally.

There will be an end to the pandemic sometime in the next two years.  A vaccine and/or a treatment will be developed. Death rates will decline to the level of other diseases e.g. influenza A and B.

People sent home to work will be asked to come back. Others will never come back.

The ideas of working from home, the gig economy, casualisation, new technologies, self-reliance as a country, outsourcing overseas, secure supply chains, and the very role of government in the market will all be under question.

What then of the notion of “working as usual”?

The idea that in 12 to 18 months we’ll look back on this period and see little difference between what was here before in 2019 and what is there in 2022. Will people see things differently? Will memory fade quickly?

Will we actually think about what we have been doing in the past few decades, in the face of fundamental changes brought on by the pandemic?

The Spanish Flu of 1919-1920

Has been described as “the forgotten pandemic”. A kind of collective amnesia appears to have settled over the world in the decades following the devastation from this disease. This in spite of the death rate of between 50 and 100 million people worldwide.

More than in the trenches during the Great War. The nature and organisation of work went back to the industrial era within ten years. Markets actually rebounded and reached new heights of investment and speculation in the mid to late 1920s.

Factories and offices expanded after the end of world War One (except in Germany). The Great Depression and the subsequent commencement of World War Two overwhelmed the lessons that might have drawn from the Spanish Flu.

What then can we expect from the COVID 19 crisis?

Undoubtedly there are various scenarios that may play out.


  • · All temporary restrictions lifted e.g. Fair Work Act, police powers, Ministerial powers
  • · Social distancing eases, pubs and clubs open again
  • · Social media goes back to individual focus e.g. more selfish, more selfies
  • · Most people return to work, and in the same kind of jobs
  • · Unemployment stays up and then drops away over time
  • · The media gets back to the main game
  • · Investment picks up in the public and private sectors
  • · Global supply chains rev up over 2 years
  • · We are as we were in 2020 by 2023


  • · People learn that neighbourhoods are important
  • · Kindness and cooperation become widespread in all aspects of society
  • · We become a more inclusive and caring society
  • · Respect for the front line workers – health, education, retail, emergency services - increases
  • · Social media becomes a force for greater human connection - in a good way
  • · Some people change the way they work and where they work – for the better
  • · Management becomes more inclusive – less adversarial
  • · Industrial relations become more productive – more cooperative


  • · Conservative groups reach out to new demographics e.g. unemployed, religious right
  • · Governments do not relinquish temporary powers
  • · Political parties polarise around fundamental policy issues again, the culture wars intensify around climate change, religious freedoms, refugees, gender equality, race
  • · Unions and government are locked in a “death spiral” over organising the workforce
  • · State and Commonwealth Policing powers are extended in the “public interest”
  • · Internal State and Commonwealth security powers are increased e.g. surveillance
  • · Media is more controlled by regulation and by commercial interests e.g. the ABC is privatised
  • · Industrial relations powers made permanent e.g. Fair Work Act favours employers
  • · Parliament less involved in policy decisions e.g. Ministerial and Cabinet discretion increased


  • · Cooperative
  • · Shared value
  • · Shared commons
  • · Decent work
  • · Self-reliance
  • · Resilience
  • · Community
  • · Independence
  • · Innovation
  • · Curiosity
  • · Inclusive

There have been moments in our History where all stakeholders in our society have stepped back, taken a deep breath and deliberately designed a different Australia. From the late 19th Century and the aftermath of the droughts, strikes and social unrest in the 1890s we produced Federation, ideas of the public interest and the central role of the State in managing disputes. After the Second World War we spent a decade creating new institutions, new roles for government, progressive moves in health, education and welfare. In the 1980s we had “Australia Reconstructed” which produced a compact between government, employers and unions that stood the test of time for 30 years.

Each moment in time was driven by a wider crisis – wars starting and finishing, economic decline, failure in markets, shifts in global politics. The current COVID-19 pandemic combined with the debatable benefits of largely unregulated economic markets, global political shifts, new technologies and environmental tipping points lead many people to the conclusion that the “social contract” between us all needs to be reconsidered. “Snapback” is not an option.


More to come…..






The Future of Work and Industrial Relations in Australia


SUBTEXT: the present adversarial system of workplace relations place employers, employees and governments in an impossible situation. Until and unless there is a convergence of interests and common ground found between all the stakeholders in workplaces, national productivity and long term job security remain at risk. One thing we are certain of is that the problems of the 21st century workplace cannot be resolved by using the 20th century processes that created the problems in the first place. We need to find a better way.


Finding a starting point or entry point into the question is both easy and complex at the same time. There are obvious issues around productivity, job security and incomes. There are wider issues around new technologies, employee representation and engagement, and occupational health and safety. Still further out are issues of family-work balance, diversity management, and superannuation. There are issues around conflict resolution, social capital and the environment. Not to mention job design, new forms of work organisation and workplace leadership and the quality of management. Finally, we also have the persistent adversarial industrial relations systems and culture which is ingrained in the DNA of unions, employers and governments.


There are social and economic questions in the world that are sometimes described as “wicked”. That is, they are problems to which we cannot find agreement on the answers because we cannot agree on the questions to be addressed. Improving workplace relations in Australia is a wicked problem. Everyone is an expert. Everyone has a point of view based on their own experience. Employers and union, and governments and associations all form blocs, extend their influence through politics and networks, and maintain an uneasy balance within the existing system. The only problem is that it is a zero sum game they are playing. One side wins when the other side loses.

Rather than seeking answers, the players seek victory or death (or even worse - expedient compromise). The idea of a pendulum of power swinging backwards and forwards over the decades leads to better conflict strategies and less common solutions. There is no long term outcome other than more conflict. Employers justify their position by arguing the rights of capital, unions argue the rights of labour, government argue the need for social harmony while actually sponsoring one side or the other. Employees who want a simple life are left looking for jobs, income and a place to live. Maybe we should start there?


The international Gallup research organisation recently conducted a global survey on expectations of people around the globe for themselves and their children and the outcome was clear; the billions of people on the planet in both developed and developing countries want one thing above all others - a decent job.

What do people mean by a decent job?

They mean a formal job with regular hours and regular income. They do not mean informal work with insecure employment, uncertain hours and no predictable income. A decent job is a social as well as an economic concept. It implies self-worth and a valued status in the society and the family. It's not just about earning a wage.

It follows then that the role of national leaders, employers and everyone in the society has an obligation to create decent jobs and to fill those jobs with everyone who wants to work. Creation of decent jobs becomes the touchstone of the economy. Public and private investment in the economy must focus on large scale job creation - decent jobs for everyone. This is the path to higher GDP, improved services and ultimately a more sustainable community.


The vexed issue of income determination must form the centre piece of any revised workplace relations system in Australia. In this issue there are three components: the capacity of the economy to sustain a general level of income distribution, the capacity of an employer to pay wages, and the value of the work from the employee. These issues form the essence of the relationship between government, employers and employees. This relationship is at the heart of work in the 21st century just as it was in the previous century. The question is how to manage the system to the benefit of all?

Adversarial industrial relations ensures a zero sum game. As employers win, so employees lose. As employees lose so their relationship with the employers declines. Collective action through union and more direct means such as sabotage, high job turnover and low productivity increases. As employees win, so employers turn to government to create laws and rules to contain the employees and protect their business interests. When governments sympathetic to employees are elected, they introduce laws to favour the employees.

Income determination in the 21st century must move away from this game. We need to identify and agree on a sustainable basis for income determination that jointly optimises the interests of employees, employers and the community in general.

The original arbitration system in Australia at the turn of the 20th century offered a basic wage as the foundation for income distribution. In the 21st century a return to an agreed decent national wage as opposed to enterprise bargaining is needed. This should take into account the capacity of the economy and the need for a reasonable standard of living for all who work in order to to support general wage increases; and should not rely on some legal representation process of appearances by unions and employers in front of a government tribunal, or piecemeal bargaining at the local level.

The notion of a decent wage should be separated from the industrial relations system. We can then move to related aspects of this core principle: a decent job not only has security, income and reasonable hours; it also should been seen to be worthwhile and productive. Some countries are already moving in this direction e.g. Finland just announced a minimum monthly living income for all citizens.


Decent jobs are not a one-off idea. They fit within a whole picture of what we want in Australia over the next 100 years. Political cycles, corporate strategic planning time frames and generational limits are not the best way of looking at what we need to do to create and keep decent jobs. We need to ask ourselves what we need to do to secure jobs for our great grandchildren, not just our children.

This takes us into questions about structural change in the Australian economy, social trends, environmental goals, and national security.  We need to talk about economic growth, value creation, public and private investment, global and regional trade and diplomatic relationships, national security, sustainability, emerging technologies and infrastructure. We are obliged to take positions on these matters because they directly impact on our medium and long term ability have decent jobs. By placing decent jobs at the centre of things we can start to re-frame some of the elements of the wicked problem that we call industrial relations in Australia. It also assists in redefining the goals of governments, employers and unions.

Front-line Leadership

(As published in The Conversation in March 2014)

Australia has more than two million registered businesses, and at least equally that number of actual places of work. These range from one and two person workplaces to groups of 100 people plus. These work places are the front line in the productivity debate.

The CEO and the operations executives of these businesses may make the big decisions, but the supervisors, coordinators, team leaders and frontline managers are at the sharp end of the game. The face-to-face connection between supervisors and line operators, office workers, nurses, truck drivers, shop assistants and a thousand other occupations is where leadership meets productivity.

It is therefore interesting that in most discussions when “workplace leadership and productivity” is raised we find hundreds of contributions about professional development, mentoring, coaching, and executive courses as they relate to senior managers, engineers, CEOs, and other top line occupations. Learning, education and expensive behavioural “high performance” programs tend to dominate the conversation. Frontline managers are usually relegated to vocational training programs - perhaps a Certificate 4 in Front Line Management if they are lucky.

Management and leadership are equally important

There is nothing wrong with vocational training, by the way. It produces competencies and assessments based on national content and common “packages” that deliver the goods to students via Registered Training Organisations. The question is: why put workplace management and workplace leadership into different categories? Executives head off to universities or overseas programs to learn about workplace leadership. Supervisors usually get to go to TAFE and learn about time management.

More importantly, this simplistic view of leadership as an optional adjunct to supervision, and leadership as a core capability for senior managers, misses the point about productivity in the workplace.

We can talk about labour productivity as a factor in national economic matters, but it’s only when we drill down into actual workplaces that we see the basic truth: improved productivity in Australian workplaces is the outcome of the quality of working relationships on the job - where people actually work.

Those relationships are shaped in part by the capacity of the workplace leader or supervisor to maintain and deepen the quality of the connections between people.

In 2003 the Business Council of Australia commissioned field research conducted by myself and a colleague to actually ask people on the job what they thought were the key characteristics of good workplace leadership. Since that research was published it has been affirmed by other academics, and by managers around in the country.

What makes a good leader?

There are clear qualities of an excellent workplace leader. They are (in no apparent order and in the words of people on the job): being a player/coach, fairness, accessibility, empowering people, ethical, not getting in the way of people, no ambushes, giving recognition where due, building trust, no bullshit, helping in a crisis, being “out there” for the group, honesty, and “walking the talk”.

Now it’s likely that academic commentators will pounce on these descriptors and label them as “broad and ill-defined attributes”. It simply doesn’t matter how you categorise them. What we have as far back as 2003 (and possibly earlier if we include the 1995 Karpin Report and work undertaken by Telstra on cultural factors in workplace productivity in the mid 1990s) is a vivid picture of workplace leadership as seen by the people who show up for work every day. This is where the discussion must start about leadership and productivity in Australia.

Vocational training and a few short courses at TAFE does not cut it for front line managers. Companies and public service agencies should invest in their workplace leaders with the same intensity and commitment they usually give the more highly paid managers in their organisations. It is ironic that the more senior one becomes the more available leadership education becomes. Funding for such education seems a logical “investment” in the business, while funding for front line management education often seems to be a “cost” to the business.

Leadership on the job requires business to take the same care and attention to selection, recruitment and education as they do for the senior positions in a business. The frontline leaders are the cutting edge of any operation. They are usually the first to appreciate when things are going well, and when they are going wrong. Their intervention on the job can save a situation, or make it worse. They can lead groups to excellence, or drive them to desperation. They can keep a business alive, or bring it to its knees.

The Telstra cultural imprint studies (see the Industry and Business Skills Council - IBSA - for a summary report and recent update) in the 1990s implied that there are three kinds of frontline managers in Australian places of work: leaders, bosses and bastards. Leaders at this level are few and far between, there are many bosses (good ones and bad ones); and way too many bastards. Good bosses can become great workplace leaders if they are encouraged and educated. Unfortunately bad bosses are often left to become bastards, and once a bastard - always a bastard!

We can do better. We just need to focus on actual workplace leadership, not just on executive and professional development.

Wither goes the labour movement?


Trade unions emerged from the 19th century in Australia as organisations committed to defending working conditions and improving wages for their members. They created the Australian Labor Party as the parliamentary wing of the working class movement. "Class" was a real thing back then. The idea of socialism was very real. Class struggle was real. Such ideas were spoken about in the streets. There was no doubt "which side are you on" had meaning for everyone - workers, bosses and owners. Combined with a liberal set of values, the parliaments of Australia set about mediating this struggle with statutory rights for workers and shareholders, legal protections for people and property, and systems of conciliation and arbitration that allowed disputes to be resolved without direct action or bloodshed (in most cases).

The 20th century saw a great transition in workplaces across Australia away from rural and manufacturing employment towards services and office work, especially in the latter half of the century. From the bush towards the city. From traditional class issues towards a mix of middle class values, consumerism and populism based on mass media. By the beginning of the 21st Century trade unions found themselves holding an imaginary line against employers and conservative governments. The Labor Party moved to the Centre and then to the Right of social activism. The conservative parties moved further to the Right while continuing to contest the Centre. It was a seismic shift in who we were, and what drove us as a society. Everyone moved to the Right. Law and order, a comfortable life, certainty and predictability became all important.


As a result the trade unions became more and more irrelevant to the broad mass of people at work. They seemed to represent a bygone age. Their attempts to create "organising models" failed. People moved away from trade unions just as they did from organised religions and community groups. Only the volunteers sector thrived. People gave their time out of work to fight bush fires, feed the homeless and run football teams for kids on the weekends. The workplace was seen as separate from the rest of society, and "class" was an idea taught in History at school (maybe). In this environment trade unions struggled to make themselves heard. Some ended up fighting each other for a smaller and smaller patch of jobs in specialised areas e.g. the local maritime sector. Other unions rested on their laurels and waited, allowing some officials to become self interested and self serving. Members became secondary to political careers and personal benefits. The decline in membership accelerated during the 1990's and 2000's to the point where we now stand in the 21st Century at 12% union density in the private sector and 40% in the public sector. In 1970 the numbers were 55% and 70% respectively.

Yet trade unions still have a great deal to offer people at work. As someone once said: "they have a great product and they market it really badly". Protection of wages and conditions through collective action remains the core of union business. Without their focus on jobs and pay there would be a million people at work in Australia on lesser conditions and minimum incomes. Employers are under pressure to increase their bottom lines, and they are ruthless when it comes to cost cutting and savings. This not a moral judgement, just a statement of fact. Employers/bosses/managers - however you categorise them - report to higher ups. In a global economy this often means someone somewhere overseas in a head office with little or no connection to Australia. Trade unions can try to combat this global management through international actions, but at the core of the economy there are social values and mores that drive people away from collective action. "Selfies" on mobile phones are popular for a reason. The media bombard people with images of self worth, self esteem, celebrity status and all of it is external to the individual and the community. Fashion and on demand shopping dominate peoples' lives. The organising model for unions is a joke in their world.


Unions to survive have to offer services, comfort and style to those they are trying to attract. A few web sites, smart phone apps and You Tube videos won't do it. Engaging with "the wider community" won't do it. "Servicing" unionism won't do it. They need to offer individuals credit cards, insurance, superannuation, banking, leasing, health funds, legal advice, training, counselling; as a package to bind people to them. Making collaborative partnerships with mainstream service providers is critical. Paying experts and advisers to ensure the best outcome is critical. Sheer force of will and dedication to the cause is no longer sufficient. Backing the Australian Labor Party is no longer sufficient - in fact it is almost irrelevant to the everyday needs of people on the job - "no matter who you vote for a politician always gets elected". Government does not change society. Society changes government. Changing social movements in the 21st Century requires innovative actions, new business models and most of all a winding up of past institutions that no longer serve the diverse mass of the people. Trade unions as we have known and loved them may very well be such an institution.


The connection between people is now at the local level. It is neighbourhoods and families, communities and friends that matter. Collaboration, sharing and cooperation have to be reinvented in unions, learnt again. Members are the lifeblood, but they bleed for different reasons these days. Unions have to offer safety and mateship as well as improved wages and conditions. Officials need to be close to the workplace as in the old days. Smart university graduates have a role to play in unions, but not as some kind of elite who see their next role as a parliamentarian once they have cut their teeth in the union movement. The time has come for unions to reinvent themselves or die. A hard core will survive no doubt, but it is as a mass movement that working people achieve social goals, not as bit players in the existing system. In the words of the old parody - "the working class can kiss my arse, I've got the foreman's' job at last". Or the Secretary's job. Or the parliamentary job. It's all the same these days.


There is of course the call to arms as a last resort. There seems to have been moments in labour history when the general population had enough of the bullshit and rose up to change things. Not recently though. Bread and circuses 21st Century style dominates the population - fashion rules OK!, tightly controlled media, economic systems that tie you up and then keep you down, or make you contented with your lot, extreme sports, weekends at the beach, segway tours of Paris, weekends in the wine country, and don't forget MacDonald's, Hungry Jacks, COSCO, Aldi, Woolworths and Coles. All the food that's fit to eat, just not eating to make you fit! Sugar in the drinks, drugs in the blood and endless reality TV shows. It's just one episode after another. Now before we all give up, or walk away, let's not forget that external historical forces still have a role to play. Climate change (that inconvenient Truth), growing social and economic inequality and the reemergence of nationalism and tribalism may yet drive us back to working class basics. History tells us that in the absence of intelligent discourse, a World War or Great Depression can get our attention. Interesting times. We need to pay attention.





Here you will find various articles, reports and commnetaries that may assist you in aspects of your work. Feel free to use them with appropriate acknowledgments.