Automation is not coming for our jobs anytime soon, but it is coming for our tasks.
Automation that eliminates tasks rather than entire jobs, also called work “augmentation,” may keep workers from unemployment, but it either improves or deteriorate working conditions. There is no more appropriate time to ensure workplace technology improves job quality than now.
Despite worries about a recession, the labor market is still strong and employers struggle to fill vacancies. Job quality has entered the public lexicon. Major business organizations including the World Economic Forum and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as well as the U.S. government have launched efforts to boost job quality including by improving pay, benefits, and working conditions.
All at a time when worker power is on the rise. An August 2022 Gallup poll revealed that U.S. approval of labor unions is at the highest point since 1965 with workers forming unions at unexpected places including Starbucks, Amazon, and even non-profits.
But until recently, the question of whether and how workplace technology affects job quality has been largely overlooked and that matters. Algorithmic management and employee surveillance have made work more stressful and dangerous in blue-collar and white-collar jobs alike. On the other hand, technology carried the global workforce safely from home through the pandemic which ushered in a new world of flexible, hybrid work environments. Historically, automation technology has been shown to boost productivity, reduce costs, create jobs, and, in some cases, boost pay.
So the question is how workplace technology can be a win-win for workers and employers by improving job quality as well as business metrics. A tool used by public interest technologists, a category of professionals charged with addressing unintended consequences from technologies, called collaborative design or “co-design” is one way to strike the right balance between worker voice and managerial autonomy.
How co-design can help ensure workplace tech is a “win-win”
The co-design method brings together decision-makers and end-users for a joint technology selection and adoption process. Co-design may sound like Silicon Valley-styled design thinking or even just a standard way of incorporating feedback, but co-design puts the end-users and the decision-makers on much more equal footing than those processes.
Co-design is both a mindset and a process. While managers may have access to firm-level data, professional expertise, and a birds-eye view of the organization, co-design acknowledges that end-users (i.e. workers) are the experts of their own experience, so decisions are made jointly.
As opposed to using one-off surveys, focus groups, town halls, or workshop sessions, co-design requires multiple touchpoints between management and workers throughout the entire adoption process. Co-design guides bosses, workers, and even technology vendors through design exercises like those used by architects, software engineers, and media professionals.
These exercises include storytelling, visual storyboarding, affinity diagrams, empathy maps, journey mapping, post-it voting, space-saturate-group, point-of-view problem statement analysis, and so on.
Co-design may require a greater investment of time and money into the technology adoption process, but the effort is worth it. Studies from Partnership on AI and MIT professors Daron Acemoglu and Katherine Kellogg have shown that when workers are given a say in how technologies are developed and deployed–they are more likely to use the technology and use it well.
“The general idea of including worker voice when implementing new technologies is great, but there are a number of second order problems that come up when trying to do that in practice, Jenna E. Myers, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto, told me. Myers completed her doctoral dissertation at MIT’s Sloan School of Management on the topic of worker voice and representation when adopting new technologies. “One key challenge is balancing feedback from different subgroups of workers and managers. Typically, sharing power is the key problem here. When you have power imbalances, it’s important to weigh feedback more heavily towards groups that have been marginalized or disadvantaged. It’s also important to include voices at multiple stages including after the technology has been implemented.”
A core advantage of co-design is that it organizes the process of collaborating with workers into a process that balances power between end-users and decision-makers and adds multiple points between the employer, workers, and technology vendors.
Policymakers are also eyeing regulation around work automation and augmenting technologies. Employers who take a collaborative approach to technology adoption are less likely to run afoul of existing or forthcoming labor protection laws including those dealing with discrimination.
Put simply, co-design reframes technology adoption from bosses adopting technology for their workforce to bosses adopting technology with their workforce. Both stakeholders are the clients that technology vendors see as customers.
To be sure, employers may already use many of the components of co-design when they adopt work-augmenting technologies. Business leaders can take this quiz to evaluate whether or not their existing collaborative process is co-design. However, for those who aren’t prioritizing a collaborative approach, there are definable benefits to meaningfully giving workers a voice, agency, and influence when adopting work automating or augmenting technologies.
As more businesses adopt new technologies to remain competitive in the global workforce, co-design can help ensure that technology is beneficial to both workers and employers.
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