Future of Work

Here's how employers can make sure technology improves jobs

A woman works with technology in an office.

Unions often resist the adoption of new workplace technology, but their approach is changing. Image: This Is Engineering for Unsplash

Shalin Jyotishi
Senior Policy Analyst, Education and Labor, New America
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  • Employers who force technological change on employees without consultation are likely to create an unhappy workforce.
  • The best workplace technologies free up employees for creative tasks, and improve productivity.
  • There are two ways employers can achieve this sweet spot: collaboration with labor unions and co-design.

From the “Great Resignation” to “Quiet Quitting”, the tight job market has strengthened worker power and created a lively public debate about job quality. Now, workers want a voice when their employers adopt new workplace technologies. Employers who force technology on employees without considering unintended consequences are likely to create an unhappy workforce. Workers will embrace new technologies if they are consulted on how technology could make their jobs easier.

At its worst, workplace technology that enables algorithmic management, automated scheduling, or employee surveillance has made jobs more stressful and dangerous in warehouses, call centres and trucking. Worker advocates have responded by calling such tools an attack on worker privacy, autonomy, and civil liberties. A recent survey showed that half of US tech workers would quit if their employers used monitoring tools. This is bad news given that another survey showed that 60-70% of large employers want to implement monitoring technologies over the next three years.

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At its best, workplace technology frees up employees for creative tasks, improves productivity, enables flexible work, and saves companies money. There are two emerging strategies worth watching that can make workplace technologies beneficial for employers and employees. These are collaborations with labor unions, and the public interest technology technique known as co-design.

1. Collaboration with labour unions

Unions often resist the adoption of new technologies, but their approach is changing. As I have reported previously for the Forum, Tim Noonan, director at the International Trade Union Confederation, the world’s largest coalition of worker unions, says that: "Unions sometimes are mischaracterized as technology Luddites. This is far from the truth... Technology can make jobs better, and unions are ready to pursue co-creation of technology augmentation plans with employers, workers, and even technology vendors. We are seeing this activity grow as the prevalence and power of workplace technologies increases.”

New resources from the University of California-Berkeley’s Labor Center aim to help union leaders incorporate workplace tech discussions into collective bargaining agreements, contracts that traditionally safeguard working conditions around safety, scheduling stability, and compensation.

At its best, workplace technology frees up employees for creative tasks and improves productivity
At its best, workplace technology frees up employees for creative tasks and improves productivity Image: World Economic Forum

2. Public interest technology techniques known as co-design

Most workers can imagine management requiring the use of new technology without giving much employees the opportunity to have input on how, when, and why such a tool is being used. Co-design or collaborative design helps ensure that technology is created and used responsibly.

What makes co-design distinct is that it requires the technology user, the worker, and the technology adopter, the employer, to collaborate throughout the entire technology adoption process. Co-design gives workers agency in identifying which problems need a technology-based solution, how technology can address the problem, and how technology is implemented, including input on training and pilot periods.

In advanced manufacturing, companies like Stanley Black & Decker have used co-design where workplace technologies often result in automation of routine task, task elimination, and a re-design of jobs. This form of automation, identified through collaborative practices, results in “good” automation, in that it frees workers for higher-level tasks and improves corporate productivity. This is in contrast to what MIT professors Daron Acemoglu and Boston University’s Pascual Restrepo call “so-so” automation, which disrupts employment without generating a boost in productivity – as is the case with self-checkout kiosks or automated telephone customer service.

After the release of its Good Jobs Framework at Davos this May, the World Economic Forum launched a new project to help employers use techniques like co-design to improve working conditions and solve business needs.

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Preventing legal problems in the future

Collaborative practices need significant investments of time and resources. Some employers may be willing to accept the bad press and quit rates, but smart employers will see there are long-term benefits to involving workers when adopting workplace technologies.

As an added incentive, policymakers are also eyeing regulations around workplace technologies. A new law in New York requires employers to disclose monitoring to workers. In May, the federal government published new recommendations on hiring practices to prevent discrimination caused by AI-based hiring tools.

The good news is technology doesn’t change workplaces; people do. Joint decision-making about workplace technologies is a “win-win” for employers and employees.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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