Technology has the ability to expand our work possibilities, but also to harm worker privacy, autonomy, and civil liberties
Even before the pandemic, a Gartner study revealed that 50% of surveyed large employers were using nontraditional monitoring techniques. These techniques accelerated in the pandemic era, as businesses sought to track worker engagement remotely.
Algorithmic management in warehouses and call centres has made work more stressful, gruelling, and dangerous. Such technologies have eroded worker privacy, autonomy, and civil liberties.
A human-centred approach
However, simple and advanced technologies also nearly singlehandedly carried the world through the height of the pandemic. They maintained and expanded work opportunities, and ushered in a new normal for work-life balance, which was enabled by flexible work arrangements for workers of all socioeconomic statuses.
It's clear that workplace technology can improve worker well-being – or make it worse. Now more than ever, in order to compete globally and contribute to a fairer future of work, business leaders such as chief executives, information, technology, and human resources officers - in addition to general counsel - must work to ensure that the workplace technologies they adopt are implemented in a human-centred way benefitting both employer and employee.
By including workers in the process to identify and implement workplace technologies, employers can increase trust in new technologies, and increase employee retention and engagement in addition to productivity improvements and cost reductions.
Workplace technologies more effective when co-designed
There are several strategies employers could use to give workers more agency when adopting workplace technologies: First, employers and labour unions ought to co-create a technology implementation strategy.
Some employers may not consider labour unions to be partners in exploring and adopting new technologies. But Tim Noonan, Director at the International Trade Union Confederation, and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global AI Action Alliance, offers a different take: "Unions sometimes are mischaracterized as technology luddites. This is far from the truth."
Noonan goes on to say, “Technology can make jobs better, and unions are ready to pursue co-creation of technology augmentation plans with employers, workers, and even technology vendors. Where the change is negotiated, the outcomes are much better for workers and employers. We are seeing this activity grow as the prevalence and power of workplace technologies increases."
Including vendors and educators
Technology vendors also have a role to play in ensuring that the technologies they develop advance the welfare of people, not only profits. Basecamp's Founder and Chief Technology Officer David Heinemeier Hansson has gone so far as to suggest government bans on extreme forms of worker surveillance.
Employers can also train or hire public interest technologists who have the appropriate education and training employers need to maximize the benefits of all technology they use while minimizing risks such as avoiding biases, privacy woes, public relations missteps or violating policy regulations. Using tools like co-design and participatory technology assessments, public interest technologists have successfully implemented complex human-centered technologies across government, civil society, and industry.
To be sure, human-centered technology use at work alone will not solve all of our job quality woes. Improvements to employment law and labor policy at the local, state, federal, and international levels, improved relationships between employees and employers, affordable and quality life-long learning, and a more human- and wellness-centered understanding of work in the modern age are all crucial ingredients to build the best possible future of work.
Workplace technology must serve everyone
But as work-augmenting technologies continue to mature and as more employers adopt these technologies, we must ensure that these technologies serve the public good and benefit both employers and workers equitably.
To that end, the World Economic Forum's Centre for the 4th Industrial Revolution is pleased to launch a new research and storytelling effort to equip business leaders with a compendium of case studies and tools to improve worker conditions such as safety, scheduling predictability and control, efficiency, and satisfaction, while achieving critical business goals and engaging with a global public-private community of best practice.
Author: Shalin Jyotishi (Senior Policy Analyst, Center for Education and Labor, New America) in www.weforum.org