Extending the Good Jobs Movement

Over the past two years, we’ve transformed how we work at a break-neck pace and made progress toward a “Good Jobs” future, where work meets both basic and high-level human needs. How do we keep up this momentum?

We’ve gone fast. Now let’s go far.

Over the past two years, we’ve transformed how we work at a break-neck pace. Companies that balked at remote work for years suddenly made it the default policy. Executives who bragged about being laser-focused on shareholder returns suddenly pivoted to tout their commitment to multiple stakeholders. Employees who toughed it out at toxic workplaces resigned in droves and demanded flexibility, better pay, and more purposeful, inclusive cultures.

This is all positive progress toward a “Good Jobs” future, where work meets high-level human needs, such as meaningfulness and belonging, and provides for basic needs, like compensation and safety.

But there’s no guarantee that the Good Jobs movement will continue to advance. The lightning-fast changes in the workplace were sparked by crises including a pandemic, a racial reckoning, and climate disasters. As COVID recedes and the news cycle shifts to other matters, as it always does, the momentum toward good jobs could dissipate.

We might even backslide. Many executives are eager to return to the office and a version of the “old normal.” And the share of U.S. employees engaged at work dipped in 2021, to just 34 percent.

How do we ensure that the Good Jobs movement keeps rolling forward? I believe it boils down to the adage, “if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Applying this to the workplace means extending the movement to more people, organizations, and institutions, as well as coordinating the key players. It involves helping people see their interests converging around a vision of work that is more interconnected, dynamic, and human.

It amounts to a mindset change—and perhaps a change of heart as well. Workers, leaders, and investors must begin optimizing for the good of the entire system, rather than for their own self-interest.

For years, the major stakeholders in American business have pursued their self-interest, largely blind to the needs of the wider economic, social, and environmental systems in which they operate.

Investors sought “alpha” – excess returns – often ignoring the “externalities,” such as wages so low they require workers to rely on government aid programs, and environmental damage that contributes to our climate crisis.

Executives aimed to please those investors, seeking to push up stock prices in ways that guaranteed massive payouts for themselves, while skimping on investments in employees – in the form of decent pay or training opportunities – and hurting the long-term health of the organization. Leaders often paid lip service to diversity, inclusion, and belonging.

Workers, too, have had a narrow mindset. Many have viewed their skills as fixed and have been resistant to change. Organized labor has often myopically focused on squeezing higher pay and benefits from employers, failing to help prepare organizations – and workers – for success in fast-changing economic conditions.

The past two years have exposed the faults of siloed, egocentric mindsets. What’s needed now is ecosystem thinking. A growing body of research is demonstrating the wisdom of viewing work and organizations in this manner. Consider the words of Roland Deiser, of the Center for the Future of Organization at Drucker School of Management:

“The tendency to put our ego-system before the eco-system – which comes with a limited ability to see ourselves as part of a web of connectivity that we continuously co-constitute – is one of the most important barriers that we need to overcome if we want to succeed…”

What does this ecosystem thinking mean for executives? It means taking to heart lessons from the pandemic and other recent challenges. It’s recognizing their reliance on supply chains and front-line staffers who risked the most during COVID to deliver products and services. It’s acknowledging how dehumanizing and unfulfilling work has been for many employees — points driven home by “the great resignation.”.

There are similar implications for investors. They are called to reward companies that demonstrate a commitment to good jobs, social responsibility, and environmental stewardship. This isn’t as hard as it seems. High-road businesses have already demonstrated outsized stock performance — a trend that continued during the pandemic.

Financial services firm Two Sigma Investments is among the pioneers taking a wider view. It launched Two Sigma Impact, a unit focused on broader social impact. “We believe Two Sigma Impact can contribute meaningfully toward a society in which quality jobs underpin better outcomes across many different dimensions, including stronger communities, broader equality and inclusivity, better health, and greater prosperity,” says Warren Valdmanis, Partner at Two Sigma Impact.

Employees, too, have work to do. They need to acknowledge the fast-changing nature of a digital, global economy, and embrace new learning opportunities. And as unions rethink their roles in the 21st-century US economy, they can engage more creatively with management to pursue shared, interdependent interests.

The stakes are high that key stakeholders keep the Good Jobs movement going. If organizations, investors, and employees fail to move beyond zero-sum thinking, everyone will lose. Historically high levels of inequality will increase, breeding social discontent and distrust. We’ll continue hurting our planet, which will ultimately reduce the long-term viability of business, not to mention human and other forms of life.

But a different future is possible. The rapid progress of the past two years doesn’t have to be a mere fleeting moment.

We can make work work for all.

After going fast, we can go far.

Jodi Starkman is Executive Director of the Innovation Resource Center for Human Resources.

Photo by Raimond Klavins on Unsplash