Why The Fifth Element?

We’ve known for a long time that workplace practices which empower and engage employees contribute to more productive organisations and better places to work. 

We can see these results in many types of workplace including factories, offices, hospitals and call centres. Likewise they can be found in workplaces that are part of large and small enterprises and public and private sector organisations alike.

So what are the four tangible elements that combine to create the essence of an innovative, engaging workplace? Firstly it’s the individual employee’s job and team. Secondly it’s the structure of the organisation as a whole, and thirdly about creating opportunities for reflection and improvement. Finally it’s about hearing the employee’s voice in both strategic and operational decisions. These are like the four elements that make up our world: Earth, Fire, Water and Air.

But it is when these elements combine in a web of mutually reinforcing practices that something remarkable begins to happen. This is The Fifth Element, the buzz you get in a workplace where employees at every level use and develop their knowledge, experience and creativity to the full, where employees come to work to improve the organisation as well deliver their functional tasks in the best possible way. Learn more about the elements below.

The Fifth Element

High Performance
Good Work
Sustainable Organisations

Work organisation

  • Job autonomy
  • Self managed teams
  • Integration of technology
  • Flexible working

Learning, reflection and innovation

  • Continuous improvement
  • High involvement innovation
  • Learning and development
  • Shared knowledge and experience

Structure and systems

  • Reducing organisational walls and ceilings
  • Supporting employee initiative
  • Fairness and equality
  • Trust

Workplace partnership

  • Dialogue
  • Representative participation
  • Involvement in change
  • Openess and communication
  • Integrating tacit and strategic knowledge

Workplace Innovation

The fifth Element

  • Customer focus
  • Employee engagement
  • Enabling culture
  • Reslience
  • Positive employment relations
  • Enterprising behaviour

Workplace Innovation as a Reflexive Process

Facilitators of Workplace Innovation

  • Public Policy
  • Research
  • Expertise
  • Social Partners
  • Dialogue


What convinces managers?

  • Of course managers are interested in what workplace innovation can do for profits, and there is plenty of evidence to show that it improves productivity and performance against a series of indicators.

  • But this should not just been seen in terms of short-term financial returns. Workplace innovation is strongly related to the enhanced levels of employee engagement, innovation, improvement and customer care that build long term competitiveness.

  • We must also consider the unexpected benefits for company managers. An engaged and empowered workforce avoids the need for micro-management and firefighting, releasing time for entrepreneurship, strategy, innovation and business development.

What convinces frontline workers?

  • Greater autonomy and decision-making power for employees lies at the heart of workplace innovation with positive benefits for job satisfaction, personal development, and mental and physical health. 

  • Most people want to do a good job when they go to work. Frustration and disengagement set in when inadequate work organisation, badly designed systems, rigid organisational structures and poor management practices get in the way. Workplace innovation allows employees at all levels to confront these challenges, respecting their tacit knowledge, experience and creativity.

What convinces employers’ organisations and trade unions?

  • Employers’ organisations and trade unions alike need to demonstrate their continuing relevance to actual and potential members in the knowledge economy and in an increasingly volatile business environment. Through their members social partners have deep roots in the economy; they are able to draw on practical knowledge and experience from diverse sources while maintaining an overview of the challenges and opportunities facing European workplaces. In short, social partners can become knowledgeable participants in workplace innovation, but they need to build appropriate capacity and recognition for such roles.

  • Employers’ organisations will continue to defend the prerogative of management to make decisions about the workplace and will resist regulation. Nonetheless many are recognising the need to support and resource evidence-based choices by their members, and will play an increasingly active role as knowledge brokers. 

  • For unions, the casework experience accumulated by frontline representatives and local/sectoral officials offers powerful insight into strengths, weaknesses and opportunities for workplace change. This can provide another dimension to bargaining in which “win-win” outcomes can be forged, but some unions have also built capacity to offer expert advice and consultancy to employers.

  • Workplace partnership arrangements can also move beyond industrial relations. Collaborative management–union forums, as well as works councils can become drivers for improvement and innovation through trust, shared commitment to mutually beneficial outcomes and ability to overcome barriers to sustainable change.

What convinces public policymakers?

  • Throughout Europe and at every territorial level, policymakers are concerned with the competitiveness, productivity and innovative capacity of their economies. Likewise they are concerned with skills development and utilisation, active ageing at work, and the health of the working age population. What happens inside the workplace is a major enabler of positive outcomes in each of these spheres; by dealing with causes rather than consequences, workplace innovation can achieve real convergence (rather than a trade-off) between economic and social policy objectives.

  • Workplace innovation also opens possibilities for policy innovation, not least in the ways in which intervention is designed and delivered. Policymakers can become more entrepreneurial in instigating dialogue, building relationships, and brokering knowledge and resources in ways that transcend traditional demarcations and structures. 

What convinces consultants?

  • Workplace innovation challenges some traditional forms of consultancy because it rejects the idea of “best practice” and focuses on the potential synergies that can be created when generalisable concepts and knowledge interact with tacit, contextual knowledge and experience. However workplace innovation is grounded in well-understood concepts and ethics, providing consultants with a clear evidence base and a values base.

  • Consultants are also constantly looking for differentiation, and the diversity of workplace innovation outcomes supports claims of distinctiveness


EUWIN – the European Workplace Innovation Network - exists because the benefits of workplace innovation are not sufficiently well known amongst leaders and decision makers in the workplace, nor amongst other key stakeholders. Moreover workplace innovation is not always easy to accomplish – there are no blueprints and no guarantees of instant success. Learning and knowledge sharing are vital ingredients.

Through its growing community of enterprises, trade unions, employers’ organisations, public policymakers and researchers EUWIN

  • raises awareness of workplace innovation and its benefits for enterprises, employees and society;

  • disseminates practical tools and resources to support and sustain workplace innovation;

  • shares knowledge and experience through events, networking and online.

Author: Peter Totterdill (September 2013)