In the Future of Work Companies Must Treat Employees As Well As Their Customers

In the Future of Work Companies Must Treat Employees As Well As Their Customers

Labor Day originated in the late 1800s during one of the darkest chapters of the Industrial Revolution to honor the sacrifices and achievements of American workers. While we take pride in the technological advances since then, when it comes to how today’s workforce is being treated, we have not evolved as far as we think.  

“At the height of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, the average American worked 12-hour days and seven-day weeks in order to eke out a basic living,” according to the History Channel. “People of all ages, particularly the very poor and recent immigrants, often faced extremely unsafe working conditions, with insufficient access to fresh air, sanitary facilities and breaks.”  

Today, in the midst of a global pandemic, that description is all too familiar to teachers, factory workers, healthcare workers – essential workers. Minimum wage still doesn’t equal a living wage according to MIT data, and new barriers, including outdated education requirements, unjust regulations regarding background checks and the stigma of flexible work, keep workers from accessing job opportunities.   

So this Labor Day, at a time when our lives have been upended by the coronavirus, we have an obligation and opportunity to re-dedicate our commitment to the American worker by removing barriers to work.  

As someone who has studied workforce trends and helped companies and workers adapt to changes in the labor market, I know the opportunity in front of us – to make material, lasting progress – is both unique and achievable, if companies take initiative. The workforce already has.  

Whether we’re digital natives or digital immigrants, technology has improved the way we live our lives – how we shop, how we learn, how we communicate. As a result, consumers no longer tolerate bad experiences. When products don’t meet our expectations, we will be vocal and look for alternatives.

Many companies fail to recognize that this consumer behavior is becoming employee behavior. Today’s workers are bringing their consumer expectations to the workplace. At Kelly, we are studying exactly how that is impacting the future of work: 

  1. We expect businesses to have purpose. About three in four consumers believe brands can increase profits while improving their communities, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer. Workers demand the same from their employers, yet U.S. employees say their work is half as meaningful as it could be.

  2. Consumers utilize brands for self-expression, and the brands that embrace individuality, diversity and inclusion are winning. We expect the same of the workplace – that what makes us who we are is welcomed and supported. Today’s workers expect companies to embrace flexible hours, remote work options and job sharing to allow them to balance their “Multiple Me’s.” 

  3. Consumers pursue brands to balance wellness, mental health and happiness; and wellbeing programs at work are important to a third of millennials, according to Deloitte. An estimated 200 million workdays are lost to depression each year at a cost of $17-44 billion, while $4 are returned to the economy for every $1 spent on mental health. It’s time to spend more. 

  4. Algorithms allow for consumer experiences to be personalized, yet companies struggle to understand what motivates their own workers. If Netflix can recommend the perfect show to me, why can’t my employer recommend a development or upskilling path? 

  5. We need breaks from our complex lives, whether that means frequent digital detoxes or opportunities to learn something new. Employers must create environments where workers can reset, reflect and recharge. A study by Brigham Young University, for example, found that work teams experience a 20% increase in productivity after playing video games for just 45 minutes.
  6. Consumers seek out concierge services and “cheerleader brands” to make their lives easier, whether that’s helping us find elder care, “paw-ternity” leave services, or solutions to improve our health. Workers seek this support, too. Some companies have recognized this, offering adoption assistance and extensive family leave programs, for example. But we can do more.

While many have spoken bluntly about the importance of “essential workers” during this pandemic, few have talked about what is essential to those workers. Not until companies treat their internal and external workers as well as they treat their customers, not until companies tackle unjust barriers to work, not until companies deploy programs to create a truly diverse, equitable and inclusive culture, will we have made true progress and learned the importance of Labor Day.


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