Responsible Investment in Tech: how can we ensure productivity-boosting tech enhances job quality?

April 20, 2021

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by Douglas White, Head of Advocacy

Workplace technologies have the potential to both improve the contribution that work makes to wellbeing and to threaten it.  At the Carnegie UK Trust, through our Fulfilling Work and Digital Futures themes of policy and development, we put have put  energies over the past five years towards securing the former and tackling the latter.

The labour market context in recent years has seen increased employer use of precarious contracts, the emergence of technology-enabled ‘gig’ work, comparatively low levels of organised worker voice and, since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, growing unemployment. The concurrent speed and scale of digital transformation – which has been furthered by the pandemic and which is only likely to increase – has led to deterministic views about work and tech taking hold in some quarters, sometimes framed as a fear that ‘the robots will take all our jobs’. At the other end of the spectrum, some predict that technology will be used in the context of work to automate mundane tasks, radically improving productivity and freeing up humans to be more social and creative. Amidst this polarised debate, the hugely significant impact that technology is having on how people do their jobs today, in different sectors, in different roles and across different aspects of ‘good work’ perhaps receives less attention than it should. How is technology impacting on issues such as mental health at work, use of skills, opportunity for progression, sense of purpose, peer and line manager relationships, employee voice and work-life balance? Who makes choices about how technology is deployed in workplaces? How are these decisions reached and how is worker wellbeing considered as part of this process? How are the needs and perspectives of those without digital skills or digital access, taken into account? These questions have often been particularly to the fore during the past 12 months, but they precede and will outlast the pandemic. Technology is not ‘something that happens to us’, at one remove from human endeavour. It is people who design AI, write software and analyse data. Most importantly, it is people who decide how technology is deployed within any given business or sector.

There are many people who influence decisions about work and tech, with governments, trade unions, employers, individual workers and civil society all playing a role. But within workplaces, it is business leaders who introduce technologies. Their decisions are driven by a myriad of factors including profitability, business culture, ethics, regulatory requirements, investment need, shareholder priorities and public perception. What are the actions that are required to support, enable and encourage more businesses to introduce technology in a way that balances impacts on business performance with impacts on worker wellbeing? There is a strong business as well as moral case for balancing these imperatives. Josh Hardie, former Deputy General Secretary at the Confederation for British Industry, writing for the Carnegie UK Trust’s research Can Good Work Solve the Productivity Puzzle, argues that good work is critical to successful tech adoption: ‘technology adoption lives or dies by the extent to which a business engages its people.’ He points to the need for workers to understand and ‘buy in’ into the new tech, to be fully trained and upskilled to assist its deployment, and to have a voice in how new processes can be done better, utilising both their own talent and new technologies. In field research commissioned by the Trust in the same collection, the RSA concluded ‘both managers and workers are broadly optimistic about new technologies but desire a more worker-centred approach to adoption,’ quoting an employer who said: ‘We’re going to need to find practical answers to the questions of how you involve workers in these conversations about the changing workplace.’

Our new project aims to play a part in this endeavour through the creation of new employer guidance. Working with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and the Institute for the Future of Work (IFOW) the guidance – developed with input from business leaders and experts – will outline practical steps employers can take at each step of the technology introduction process to do so in a way that protects and promotes job quality. We’re looking forward to exploring these issues and will continue to share our progress and emerging propositions as the work progresses.