Business and Markets

The Next Move: Raising Worker Voice

June 30, 2020  • Business & Society Program

The Next Move is a new series that explores the critical choices facing business leaders as they respond to the extraordinary impacts of COVID-19. Each month, we bring a diverse array of expert voices into dialogue with the public across blogs, webinars, social media, and digital seminars. Click here to register for a webinar on July 21 with some of the experts in this piece. 

Companies routinely declare their employees as their greatest asset. And yet, in the face of today’s health, social justice, and economic crises, many workers feel that their well-being is at risk, and their voices devalued.

After decades of underinvestment in employee welfare, how might we balance the equation to truly serve the long-term interests of the company as a whole? One path forward identifies the meaningful engagement of workers in corporate strategy, drawing strength from a diversity of voices and perspectives. As leaders wake up to the interdependency of their organization’s success and the well-being of their workers, innovative business leaders will ensure that worker voices are no longer discounted or drowned out, but seen as valuable inputs to operational redesigns and new products or processes. At this moment where preconceived notions are dissolved, a new path forward is possible.

How can businesses start out on that path? We asked three experts in worker representation and management: What’s the next move business leaders should make to meaningfully integrate worker concerns and insights into decision-making processes?

Carmen Rojas, President & CEO at Marguerite Casey Foundation

Build equitable workplaces through co-governance

Business leaders play an outsized role in our democracy and economy. At their best, they can engage in practices that put people before profit, motivated by the understanding that our collective well-being is more important than the wealth accumulation of a fraction of us.

Practices of co-governance, which create an equal or greater governing voice for workers in the workplace is a leading approach for employers seeking to create equitable workplaces. Co-governing the workplace allows for greater accountability and transparency as well as a more even distribution of the financial gains of a business.

Co-governance creates a truly accountable relationship between workers and their employers, giving working people an equal voice in shaping working conditions, policies, and procedures. The best thing that business leaders can do today to meaningfully integrate worker concerns and insights into decision-making processes is to establish means to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with workers to create truly equitable workplaces.

Jim Keane, President and Chief Executive Officer at Steelcase Inc.

Lead By Listening

It is so easy for senior leaders to get disconnected from the people they are leading—and that was already true even before COVID-19. Our schedules are packed with customer and supplier meetings when we aren’t in internal reviews of financials, operations, and strategies. The topic of “people” is covered through more meetings where we review surveys and statistics.

What happened to listening? My first leadership meeting as CEO started by asking pairs of executives to each spend an hour just listening to a group of 5-7 randomly selected employees talk about what’s getting better and what’s getting worse. The executives could only ask one question: How does that make you feel? It worked so well, the senior team continues to do these “roundtables” whenever we travel. (I learn more in the roundtable than in the meetings.)

I wondered how we could be listening every day. So we moved the senior team offices to the first floor of the building with the main aisle literally running right through the middle of it. It makes it quite natural for us to meet and interact with people we might never see, and opens up more opportunities to learn about how people feel.

As a result of the pandemic, many companies have transitioned to remote work, making those kind of interactions harder to achieve right now. But by building the habit of leading by listening now, leaders will be prepared to approach the office with a new perspective when they return.

Lenore Palladino, Senior Economist and Policy Counsel at the Roosevelt Institute

Create Direct Representation at the Highest Levels of the Company

Workers are key corporate stakeholders who are integral to corporate value-creation. Yet too often, they are treated as simply a cost to be minimized, and their collective insights on the activity of the business are ignored. In order to recognize the reality that workers are stakeholders and improve business resilience, business executives can immediately make changes in governance, compensation, and recognition of workers’ collective voice.

As a necessary next step, workers should be represented in corporate boardrooms through direct representation on corporate boards of directors. Workers need a voice, along with shareholders and executives, in the major decisions that companies make, and they have unique knowledge to bring to improving productivity. They should directly elect a portion of the corporate board and have a representative body to engage with their directors.

Worker representation on corporate boards is common in Europe and has been shown to increase capital formation. Historically the idea has not had much traction in the United States, but recent proposals by multiple Senators have elevated the idea. As the Business Roundtable has recently called for a stakeholder approach to corporate governance, corporate leaders have an opportunity to put this approach into practice by including employee representatives on their director slates.

How can companies start to put these ideas into practice in the middle of a pandemic?

Join us and hear Jim Keane and Carmen Rojas in a discussion on July 21, moderated by Ellen McGirt, senior editor of Fortune Magazine and creator of raceAhead, where we’ll explore just that question.

Register Here

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