Today’s leaders have both challenges and opportunities in navigating this new world of work in which workers have unanticipated opportunities to voice their values and one’s workforce includes both employees and contractors.
Worker Voice and Choice: The Democratization and Uberfication of Work
Unions fought for better wages, safer working conditions and a 40-hour work week. And while union membership has steadily declined since 1955, employee social activism has steadily risen. New generations of employees are increasingly asking executives to listen and lead out on social issues and a growing number of workers are choosing to migrate away from traditional employment toward the gig economy.
Two macro-level trends are impacting organizations from within: the democratization and the “Uberfication” of the work. Almost a century ago leaders were responding to the rise of employee voice through unionization efforts. In our time, workers often speak for themselves on company message boards and social media. And while the beginning of the 20th century ushered in the modern corporation, today’s organizations are increasingly flat relying on a vast array of contract or contingent workers, hence the term Uberfication. Indeed, on-demand or ‘gig’ economy companies, such as Uber, TaskRabbit and Instacart, allow for virtually anyone to start working and earning money quickly. Taken together, today’s leaders have both challenges and opportunities in navigating this new world of work in which workers have unanticipated opportunities to voice their values and one’s workforce includes both employees and contractors.
In this installment of Linking Therory + Practice, Brad Winn interviews Dr. Lindsey Cameron on the democratization of work, employee voice and choice and gig worker impacts.
Clarifying Voice and Choice
Winn: The relationship between employer and employee used to be more straightforward. Companies existed to return a profit for their shareholders and owners, and workers were paid wages in exchange for their services. But companies today are more intimately engaged with employees’ lives, societal and environmental concerns, and political beliefs than ever before. Increasingly, employees are exercising the rights they feel as “citizens” of their companies to have a say on who they do business with, which issues to take a stand on, and what stands to take. Why have you become so passionate about research on worker voice and choice?
Cameron: I’m fascinated by the continual dance between autonomy and control in organizations. Organizations strive to control workers. There are rules, norms and scripts, because the institution wants to perpetuate its own existence by guiding workers to take actions and exert discretionary effort that is alignment with the organization’s overall goals. Yet, at the same times, workers who are human beings have an innate desire for autonomy—some researchers say the drive for autonomy is mammalian. So there is a fundamental tension in balancing how to address fundamental human needs for autonomy and having employees align with the goals of the organization. This plays into your question about worker voice and choice. When individuals and organizations want different things, whose voices are heard and who has decision rights?
For example, if you are a parent you know how important it is to give voice to your children, to listen and to learn from them. Maybe you’ll let them decide what outfit to wear or their snack. But some decisions rest in the authority of the parent. This same tension plays out in an organizational setting where employees may voice concerns about social, environmental or racial issues that may only be peripherally-related to a worker’s job but important, overall, for the company to address. So as companies encourage employee voice, they also need to clarify how decisions are made and transparency around the parameters of employee choice. In other words, voice does not always equate to choice. For instance, employees may be encouraged to voice their opinions on a Wiki page, but parameters on those conversations may include being respectful, protecting the privacy of co-workers or other sensitive information, or ensuring the amount of time spent communicating on the page is reasonable. Companies need to be clear about how decisions are made and open about the fact that, ultimately, they don’t make certain final decisions via town hall. This helps reduce the tension between voice and choice.
Winn: Are there certain business sectors or industries that are significantly engaged in trying to balance this tension between voice and choice?
Cameron: Almost all businesses are dealing with this tension, but the technology industry has obviously been leaning in and their learning, both hits and misses, has been highly visible. We’re seeing tech taking the lead in part, because they have a younger management and workforce that is concerned about social issues and are not afraid to speak their mind. But we’re also seeing some of the biggest mistakes and mishaps in high-growth tech companies as they try new approaches quickly and then iterate from there. For example, Google used to host regular, all-organization town hall meetings, which they did away with for a time and they are now grappling with how to handle dissent and “whistleblowers.”
Winn: Leaders will often say to employees, “We want your feedback. We value your input. We need your diverse experiences, backgrounds and perspectives.” Yet at the same time, leaders will say, “We need to move forward in an orderly manner and make decisions in the midst of differing opinions and stakeholders.” How do we move forward balancing organizational values with individual values?
Cameron: It is extremely important for management to be clear on their intent. To say we want your voice, your input and your diverse perspective doesn’t actually mean much without a clear way to analyze, draw conclusions and implement that feedback. Otherwise, you run the risk of alienating your workers by not having the talk match the walk. In requesting employee input, specify the medium and be clear about how long you will be open to receiving feedback. Ask specific, actionable questions. The worst course of action is to ask for input on decisions that have already been made. In addition to being very targeted in what you’re asking, be clear that all suggestions may not be implemented. Provide feedback on the feedback. Be transparent about how information is going to be used and how the feedback will shape decision-making. You might report statistics on how employees felt and describe any changes that came about based on information collected. It’s important to show you’ve listened even if not much changes.
The Gig Economy
Winn: We know employee sentiment is shaped not only by what goes on within an organization, but also by labor trends outside of the company including the collective interests of contingent workforces. You have conducted a great deal of research on gig workers and how their aims are impacting the way we think about work. Why is there so much attention given to gig workers?
Cameron: Gig work or short-term work outside of a formal employment contract has always existed—just think of farmers, day laborers or even the occasional babysitter. Musicians and actors work gigs. Though the word “gig work” is applicable to large sectors of the workforce across skill and pay levels (e.g., IT programmers, domestic care workers, Amazon delivery drivers), today when we think of gig work we are often referring to the on-demand economy, in which work is brokered by a digital platform. Often called “Uberfication,” the “on-demand” economy has received an inordinate amount of media attention in part because it has disrupted so many long-standing industries, such as the taxi and hotel industry. In addition, these companies are literally at our fingertips on our smartphones and customers are engaged as well. Taken together, this heightened visibility has partly driven the conversation around rethinking labor laws, spurring debates about labor laws and employee classification, such as Prop-22 in California, that go beyond work on platforms. Many of the labor law issues have not been seriously revisited since the New Deal, which speaks to the widespread influence of this type of work.
Winn: Given that, what do you find most interesting in your research on the gig workers that might be relevant to employee interests generally?
Cameron: Some areas that are becoming interesting to both researchers and managers include questions around how we help workers stay motivated and engaged—especially when they’re coming to a workplace that doesn’t have walls nor managers that are physically nearby. This mode of work has implications and relevance for the increasing number of remote workers. I’ve noticed that workers are looking for things they can “touch” in their work environment, organically designing their work activities in ways that heighten their engagement. For example, if you’re an Uber driver, a touchpoint may be your customer and you may try to create the best customer experience possible. If you’re an Instacart shopper, your touchpoints may be your favorite checker or specific aisles in the grocery store and you may turn shopping into a game of Supermarket Sweep, as you try to grab items in the most efficient way and check out with the speediest checkers. With these touch points, workers are able to create mental models and games to help them arrange work in a way that’s inherently satisfying and pleasing. The lesson here is that regardless of the employment context, workers have both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. In a more traditional organization, leaders might look for technological solutions, including dashboards, counters or badges, that “gamify” the work thus increasing worker engagement.
Winn: What are the key takeaways that executives should remember with regard to the worker’s voice and the rise of the gig economy?
Voice and Choice. There is a difference between voice and choice. As individuals feel more empowered as worker-citizens, it is important for companies to be clear about the difference between voice and choice. Leaders can continue to find new and creative ways for workers to voice their opinions and then listen and learn; however, leaders also need to be clear that although the voices expressed are important, town hall discussions are not the way that most decisions are made for the company.
The Gig Economy. In part because it’s disrupted so many traditional industries and the interactions with customers, the gig economy has received much media attention and brought attention to long-standing labor issues. Regardless of the employment context, workers are looking for features in their environment to “touch” or engage with to make work more engaging. Leaders might look for technological solutions, including dashboards, counters or badges, that “gamify” the work thus increasing worker engagement.
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