Participants in today’s business ecosystems collaborate in ways that are significantly different than previous collaboration models. This requires a shift in mindset and a new and unique set of management practices.
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We can use the crises of the past eighteen months to reform and upgrade a capitalist system that has let too many workers down.
24th August 2021Let’s choose a “good jobs” future of work
A close relative of mine is a young man who regularly rails against capitalism.
He has a point.
After all, for all the good our U.S. economic system of free enterprise has done, it also has produced growing economic inequality, reinforced racial disparities, and led to financial insecurity for millions.
These deep flaws in our economy were exposed and exacerbated over the past year and a half.
I heard an earful from my relative as the COVID pandemic took the greatest toll on the physical and financial wellbeing of the poorest Americans and the killing of George Floyd underscored how people of color have long experienced discrimination in the workplace and beyond. Amid all the injustice, many companies raked in record profits, he noted.
Still, I push back in my conversations with my younger relative.
I believe capitalism can be reformed. I believe we can use the crises of the past eighteen months to modify and upgrade an economic system that has let too many workers down. We have an opportunity to choose a future of work that is defined by “good jobs,” where organizations and people both thrive.
Actually, it’s not merely an opportunity – it’s an imperative. For one thing, my relative isn’t alone. Young people in general are skeptical of capitalism, with roughly half having a favorable impression of socialism. What’s more, if we fail to change course, we face a future of extreme inequity and wasted human potential.
Let’s create the future of work
So, what’s the alternative?
Researchers – some of them sponsored by my organization – and forward-looking organizations have given us a clear picture of positive options.
In fact, it’s important for us to begin by recognizing we do have options. We have the power to craft the future of our organizations. “The road ahead isn’t a problem to solve; it’s an invitation to create,” says Jen Gresham, a scientist and entrepreneur who has gathered experts to imagine what “Work for Humanity” could look like. Jen adds: “Building a future of work that serves us under these challenging conditions will require nearly everyone’s contribution.” And it starts with the question, “what do we want the future of work to be?”
Thanks to Jen and many others in the field, a consensus is emerging that good jobs today, and in the years ahead, require several things. These include fair pay, opportunities for individual development, purposeful work, a sense of belonging, and a deep feeling of dignity. Jen’s current work is focused on helping small businesses create good jobs by addressing workers’ and employers’ mindsets and skillsets, and reimagining the employer/worker relationship.
MIT professor Zeynep Ton and her colleagues at the Good Jobs Institute have found that decent work meets “Basic Needs” such as physical safety and financial security as well as “Higher Needs” such as belonging, recognition, achievement, and personal growth.
Healthy, trusting relationships at work also are vital. Researchers Rob Cross and Jean Singer studied 100 men and women in 10 organizations and found that people’s connections with others underpins well-being in areas including physical health and resilience.
A voice in decisions at work is another characteristic of good jobs and great workplaces. Millennials and Gen Z employees, who were educated in interactive, participatory ways, all but expect to have a say in their organizations. And they are speaking up to demand their organizations align with their values on matters including social justice and environmental sustainability.
The good news is that good jobs aren’t just good for employees. They are good for employers as well. MIT’s Ton, researchers at consulting firm Great Place to Work, and others have found that high-trust cultures with good jobs lead to better business results. The old adage is true: happy workers make for happy customers.
Better job design, a positive voice in public policy
To be sure, there are challenges ahead. As automation continues to transform work – and eliminates some jobs – we need to reimagine and redesign work to be human-centered, so people can continue to add value and find value in what they do. This means a much more robust approach to retraining and continuing education – within organizations and through institutions such as community colleges and online academies.
It also means we need to recognize that just as we have the power to craft the future of our organizations, we have a choice to make about how technology is deployed by our organizations. Those choices are heavily influenced by public policy we all have a role in influencing. For example, if tax policy favors investments in capital rather than labor, we can change that.
Public policy also is essential for tackling thorny questions of wealth disparities, social justice, education, job creation, and decisions about the balance of investments in capital and labor. Organizations alone can’t fix such issues. But companies can play a constructive role in societal questions touching on work.
A good example is the CEO Action for Racial Equity effort. Spearheaded in large part by professional services giant PwC and its top executive Tim Ryan, the group is focused on advancing and advocating “public policies that will root out and end systemic racism.”
More generally, companies can help convene an overdue, all-stakeholders conversation about the future of jobs and the economy. Corporate leaders can use the recent crises as a catalyst for updating and improving the social contract. Along these lines, authors Thomas A. Kochan and Lee Dyer call for a renewed collective agreement in their 2020 book, Shaping the Future of Work: A Handbook for Action and a New Social Contract.
“What are the mutual expectations and obligations that workers, employers, and their communities and societies have regarding work and employment relationships?” they write.
I believe employees in particular need to have a stronger voice in the discussion. But it will take the collective effort of all the major stakeholder groups – employers, workers, consumers, investors, and public policy-makers – to create a better future; one in which multiple interests, goals, and expectations are realized.
The time is now
Even if the work ahead on work is challenging, business leaders have little choice but to roll up their sleeves. A widespread rejection of the status quo is already under way. It’s been dubbed “The Great Resignation.” People aren’t walking away from work. But significant numbers are leaving their jobs as they reflect on what’s most important to them and assess if (and how well) their values align with their work and the organizations that employ them. They are seeking increased flexibility, more dignity, better pay, opportunities to grow, and greater happiness. In short, they are seeking “good jobs.”
To my relative, it’s a sign we need to replace capitalism.
To me, it’s a call to reform it. Perhaps we should rename this time “The Great Reassessment.” Let’s build a more inclusive economy where people are eager to apply to good jobs everywhere, and where organizations of all shapes and sizes are creating them.
4th August 2021A better future from an instructive past
IRC4HR has much to offer when it comes to tapping teachings from the past century and engaging organizations in the pressing issues of today.
As we emerge from the crises of the past eighteen months, history has lessons for us — offering insights into how to use trying times to transform companies into places that are more adaptable, effective, and human-centered when it comes to creating economic and social value.
My organization has much to offer when it comes to tapping teachings from the past century and pointing to wise ways forward. Decades ago, the Innovation Resource Center for Human Resources (IRC4HR) proposed a stakeholder model of business and is currently funding research projects that promise to shape how we work and live now and into the future.
Our legacy inspires our ongoing work, pointing to a central theme: organizations have an opportunity and an obligation to address the pressing issues of the day.
Balancing Worker Safety and Business Productivity
Today, we’re starting to put the COVID-19 pandemic behind us and return to various kinds of work locations, at least in the United States. But debate about how to protect workers and balance safety needs against business productivity continue. These conversations began last spring as a number of organizations allegedly put profits ahead of the health of employees. The meatpacking industry was at the center of these concerns—with roughly 250 workers having died from COVID.
These deaths are reminiscent of the labor dispute that gave rise to IRC4HR. A coal miners’ strike in Colorado during 1913-1914 culminated in a battle between state militia and strikers, resulting in the strikers’ tent colony being burned to the ground and the death of a dozen women and children. Commonly known as the Ludlow Massacre, it led to widespread condemnation of the Rockefeller family—the primary shareholder of one of the three main companies involved in the strike.
That experience led to a change of heart for John D. Rockefeller Jr. Having been blasted for autocratic management and inhumane working conditions, the industrial titan became a lifelong advocate for more effective and harmonious employment relations.
“The soundest industrial policy is that which has constantly in mind the welfare of the employees as well as the making of profits and, which, when human considerations demand it, subordinates profits to welfare,” Rockefeller said, 100 years ago. “Industrial relations are essentially human relations.”
In 1926, Rockefeller established Industrial Relations Counselors, Inc. (IRC) — the forerunner of IRC4HR. It had a mission to advance the knowledge and practice of human relationships in the workplace.
Today, there’s a call to business leaders, much like the one heard by Rockefeller. That contemporary call is to turn tragedy and newfound appreciation for the contributions of “essential” workers like food service employees, nurses, and delivery drivers into a better “employment deal” – one in which we value all workers, and we make decisions about work more human-centered, even as we apply technology and automation to the design of work.
During the past 18 months, many companies recognized employees as people as never before. Along with the challenges of COVID and the rapid pivot to remote work arrangements, we suddenly saw into the homes and family lives of co-workers. Leaders grew more sensitive to the range of challenges their employees faced – from grief to anxiety to caregiving burdens – while more workers felt empowered to request the kinds of accommodations that previously might have been rejected or stigmatizing.
“Wellbeing” has become a corporate watchword—a welcome focus on employees’ holistic needs that promises to enhance business performance even as it offers a better life for people.
“The soundest industrial policy is that which has constantly in mind the welfare of the employees as well as the making of profits and, which, when human considerations demand it, subordinates profits to welfare. Industrial relations are essentially human relations.” –John D. Rockefeller Jr.
Forward-Thinking Research, Practical Applications
Skeptical readers might write off Rockefeller’s words above and the IRC mission as empty rhetoric. But over the past century, the organization and its members have been at the forefront of ideas that challenged conventional business wisdom.
For example, IRC’s first consulting report for the Ohio Oil Company, in 1926, reveals many themes that are still gaining traction today. These include the importance of the workforce to organizational effectiveness and competitive advantage, as well as adoption of what is now known as a “stakeholder” view of the employment relationship. That is, effective management acknowledges the interests of employees, suppliers, the community, and shareholders.
Regarding this last point, it was only in 2019 that the Business Roundtable came back around to a similar declaration as this group of leading executives formally moved away from “shareholder primacy” and made a “commitment to all stakeholders.”
Or consider the way that IRC researchers joined public discussions during the Great Depression about how to protect the dignity of all Americans during hard times and old age. IRC’s Bryce Stewart and Murray Latimer contributed to the formation of the U.S. Social Security and unemployment compensation systems. These programs helped undergird economic expansion and shared prosperity in America for much of the latter 20th century.
Those early IRC researchers paved the way for business leaders today to get off the sidelines and help solve pressing economic and social problems, including threats to public health, financial stability, and civil rights. Given the intense polarization and gridlock that have gripped United States politics in recent years, one can argue that business leaders have an even larger role to play in tackling societal challenges – and their workforces are looking to them to do that.
During the past year (and prior) there have been multiple examples of forward-thinking, socially minded companies stepping up along these lines. For instance, CHROs from Accenture, Lincoln Financial, Verizon, and Procore created a platform connecting displaced workers and available jobs at more than 280 companies from 94 countries to get people back to work amid the pandemic.
During the pandemic, leaders have grown more sensitive to the range of challenges their employees faced – from grief to anxiety to caregiving burdens – while more workers felt empowered to request the kinds of accommodations that previously might have been rejected or stigmatizing.
And, while progress has been slow, many companies made pledges to address racial justice and equity issues in their organizations and communities following last summer’s reckoning with racial injustice. Both commitments and actions are being tracked by JUST Capital in its Corporate Racial Equity Tracker.
On the topic of racial justice, IRC put a stake in the ground on this issue back in the 1950s. Following a two-year study funded by the Ford Foundation and the National Urban League, IRC’s 1959 publication “Employing the Negro in American Industry,” became a guide to management as it sought to establish nondiscriminatory employment practices in the 1960s. Although the report used a now outdated term, its message was a forward-looking one of better business results and a more harmonious society when companies actively championed equal opportunity.
A Systems View of Business Challenges and Opportunities
Today, our organization is continuing the research and advocacy legacy of IRC. Renamed IRC4HR (Innovation Resource Center for Human Resources) in 2015 to convey our focus on innovation and applied research, we sponsor a variety of studies and events designed to advance the mutually beneficial interests of organizations, workers, and society. IRC4HR grantees produce practical, actionable insights in the form of white papers, tools, and other learning materials to help organizations, leaders, and workers succeed together through the profound business and social challenges of the 21st-century workplace.
Among the topics we explore today are the impact of automation on the workplace, the digital transformation of work and organization models, the role of social networks and relationships on workforce performance and wellbeing, and the design of more inclusive workplaces.
Some recent research and events funded by IRC4HR include:
- Organizing for Business Ecosystem Leadership.
- How the Most Successful Leaders Drive Team Agility and Collaboration
- Work for Humanity
- Work for Tomorrow: Innovating for an Aging Workforce
- Inclusion by Design
A common thread among IRC4HR’s research areas today is a systems view of business challenges and opportunities. We have learned over the past 100 years that a narrow view of complex, interrelated problems doesn’t lead to sustainable solutions. The events of the past eighteen months have reinforced those lessons.
We no longer can afford to see ourselves and our organizations as discrete entities, operating in a vacuum. We must recognize that we’re all connected. We must recognize that, as Rockefeller put it, human welfare cannot take a back seat to profits.
As we move through today’s challenges, let’s build a future where human relationships are at the center of work, and work works for all.
25th May 2017IRC4HR Joins the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy (IDE)
Innovation Resource Center for Human Resources (IRC4HR) is proud to announce its corporate membership in the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy (IDE), a visionary, internationally recognized group of thought leaders and researchers examining the impact of digital technologies on business, the economy, and society. (more…)
29th December 2015Welcome to the new Innovation Resource Center for Human Resources
From Industrial Relations to Human Resources and Beyond: Introducing Innovation Resource Center for Human Resources (IRC4HR™)
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