Over the past year, the volume and power of employee voice surprised many American business leaders. High-profile union organizing captured headlines to a degree not seen in many people’s careers. Return to office policies opened difficult conversations about employee expectations of managers, workplaces, and work itself.
Employees expect to have a say not only on traditional working conditions, but also in how the company responds to important societal and global challenges. And the wide array of issues that employees are weighing in on is exceedingly difficult for business leaders to track in real time.
Managers and corporate directors had a mixed record of listening to employees in 2023. It certainly wasn’t all bad. UPS and the Teamsters avoided a strike with an impressively good-faith round of collective bargaining through the spring and into the summer. In a development that would have been unimaginable even five years ago, Microsoft and the AFL-CIO recently announced a partnership that includes a neutrality commitment from the company should its employees choose to form a union. Beyond union activity, employee voice in support of equity and inclusion has enabled companies to hold fast to their commitments, even in the face of Supreme Court rulings that reshuffled the deck of legal risks surrounding equity and inclusion programs.
Despite this progress, the velocity and volume of employee sentiment has overwhelmed traditional management systems and approaches. Companies can’t meet the needs of the modern workforce if they rely on old reactive or ad hoc approaches to employee input. Employees expect to have a say in the decision-making process, not just after decisions are made. We at the Aspen Institute Business & Society Program are working to equip corporate board directors to rise to the demands of this new era, with the recent publication of our Agenda for the Prepared Board and Corporate Boards in the New Era of Employee Voice.
If 2023 demonstrated the risks of relying on old approaches to employee voice, 2024 is an opportunity for corporate leaders and boards of directors to be more proactive. In that spirit, we asked a handful of leaders to predict what area of business could be unexpectedly shaped by worker voice in the year ahead?
2024 Will Be the Year That Workers Demand a Voice in How A.I. Is Used at Work
Brandon Rees, Deputy Director of Corporations and Capital Markets, AFL-CIO
The Luddites in 19th century England smashed automated weaving machines that threatened their livelihoods as textile workers. This was arguably the first time that industrial workers came together in a social movement to protest their economic conditions. Today, Artificial Intelligence (“A.I.”) promises to revolutionize the future of work much in the same way as the industrial revolution did for the Luddites.
Then as now, new technology promises to unleash broad-based economic prosperity along with the risk of mass deprivation and misery for working people. A.I. technology may be used to deskill and automate a wide variety of professions. And A.I. may lead to an intensification of work as algorithms increasingly set productivity quotas, make human resource decisions, and direct workers on how to perform their jobs.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Today, the term “Luddite” is often used to describe someone who opposes new technology. But the original Luddites were not opposed to technology, they simply wanted a voice in how new technology would be used in the workplace. They smashed weaving machines as an act of desperation in the face of persecution and the erosion of their living standards that lasted for generations.
Today, working people have a more effective way to shape technological change and the future of work. The successful 2023 strike by Hollywood writers and performers showed that working people can win a voice in how A.I. will be used by coming together in unions. And as businesses rush to adopt A.I. technology, 2024 will be the year that working people demand a voice in how A.I. is used at work.
Gen Z Employees Will Redefine How Everyone Views Your Company
Cydney Roach, Global Chair, Employee Experience, Edelman
Today, 72 percent of all employees say it is more important than ever that employers rethink what work really means to employees. This is Gen Z’s impact on the workplace. It’s critical that employers respond and create an employee value proposition that resonates in the world today.
Gen Z has remarkable “gravitational pull” on colleagues of all generations. Ninety-three percent of all employees told us that their 20-something coworkers influence how they think about topics such as work-life boundaries, self-advocacy, fair pay, and work as identity. In other words, Gen Z is helping all generations in the workplace redefine the meaning of work.
But Gen Z’s influence also extends beyond the workplace. Gen Z employees broadcast news about their company to the outside world at a rapid clip: they tell us they’re sharing news coverage about their employers on social media at least once a week. And what’s more, Gen Z and Millennial employees also bring the outside world into the workplace: they engage in conversations about important societal issues with their coworkers more frequently than other generations in the organization.
This means that the voices of Gen Z and Millennial workers are likely to be a significant force in communicating your company’s stances on social issues — or building pressure for your company to take them. Gen Z and Millennial employees believe that if a large group of employees exerts strong pressure, they can get the organization to change almost anything about itself. This is why you now see an organization’s youngest employees initiating labor petitions — not only among deskless worker populations, such as in retail and quick-serve restaurants, but in new sectors of white-collar employees.
As we enter into 2024, a year that is likely to be dominated by intense debates about international and domestic issues, it will be vital for businesses to consider how their Gen Z and Millennial workers’ voices are being heard.
Emerging Talent Will Call for Equity In the Deployment of New Technologies
Kwasi Mitchell, Chief Purpose and DEI Officer, Deloitte
In my role as Deloitte’s chief purpose and DEI officer, I spend a great deal of time thinking about how we can align our organization’s purpose with the personal and professional passion of our people to create pathways of opportunity for them to succeed. One common theme I’m hearing from students at college campuses across the US who are entering, or about to enter, the workforce is the growing concern of trust in technology and the impact that emerging technologies, such as Generative AI, may have on the workplace and career pathways.
A general sense of uneasiness has evolved about how career ambitions may be impacted, what jobs will be available, what attributes are needed for evolving roles, and how employees can reskill themselves to keep a competitive advantage. Those concerns are compounded with a rise in geo-political events and varied signals we’re seeing in the economy related to moderating growth, reduced hiring, and a more intentional shift to skills-first hiring models. What do these trends portend for the future of career pathways? I expect this heightened uncertainty to give rise to employee voice, particularly as we see increased activism from society more broadly.
In short, business leaders will need to balance the pressures of adopting emerging technologies at scale while thinking through the implications to ensure they are applied equitably and with these emerging talent considerations in mind.
Leading Change — Together
Laura Cococcia, Head of HR Strategy, Talent, & Communications, GE
Now more than ever, teams are playing a more active role in the ever-evolving world of work. Organizations are facing both the challenge and opportunity of leading through highly dynamic shifts in the workplace, and employee voice can play a profound role in leading change.
Specific to technological advancements, there is a meaningful opportunity for teams to come together to help navigate the change in the coming year and beyond. Employee perspectives and engagement continue to be essential to leading organizational change, and creating a culture that supports and benefits from employee voice will be critical.
To do this, companies can encourage an intentional culture of constructive two-way feedback that allows employees to contribute to improvements and innovation. The dialogue and resulting insights help leaders evolve engagement and communication strategies to ensure they resonate with all teams—and even prospective candidates. In this way, employee voice will play an essential role in optimizing the employee experience, and organizations committed to listening will be well-suited to set themselves apart.
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