By Eve Harris, Associate, Jericho Chambers.
Working alongside MPs, business leaders and the HR community, 24 individuals (aged 15–21) took part in the WikiWorkLab work collaboration programme, created by Jericho Chambers and the CIPD, in July and August 2016. Participating in discussions, book clubs and research trips they shared their views on how we can shape a better future of work.
WikiWorkLab on the role of business today
Informed by a healthy dose of Gen Z cynicism, reactions to the role of business today were neither unanimous nor predictable. A reaction to one of the first discussions pointed to the question: ‘What if capitalism as usual is the best way forward?’
In general, much of the feedback was pragmatic in flavour, acknowledging the need for good business, alongside the need to make ends meet, and pay off student debt. Judging by the feedback collected, the theme of trust in business struck a chord as something we can strive to improve. A brief exercise, led by Cleo Sheehan (Forward Institute), where participants were asked to rate sectors according to who they trusted most, placed MNCs as the least trustworthy ‘group’ in society, lagging behind politicians and the army.
In terms of the future, reactions were varied, and well-considered. Participant Ben Lander wrote: ‘[t]he Future of Work begins on a basis of trust and works upwards,’ adding that it ‘cannot and will not be solely profit-driven.’
Christian Riley meanwhile, highlighted a general ‘lack of [public] trust, and a major disconnect from the establishment,’ applying this to the way large corporations recruit graduates. ‘There is a high level of conformity in terms of people following others blindly into employment. For example many graduates want to move into financial services for large corporations even if it is not the best fit for them.’
WikiWorkLab on change
Daniel Barraclough pointed to the need to recognise complexity. ‘Industries, organisations and the establishment are all interlinked and generating change within the workplace will require a huge amount of perseverance and motivation from many people at the top and at the bottom.’ Inspired by James Alexander’s talk on entrepreneurship, he expressed hope for bringing about change for the better. ‘Change and disruption in the workplace is possible, no matter how deeply rooted you think an industry’s backward culture is. As seen by James Alexander’s Zopa, which was successful despite many people telling him it would not work.’
For some of the participants change is something inevitable. Thomas Yardley listed among his realisations the fact that ‘[a]ttitudes towards business have soured, it is clear that something needs to change to allow capitalistic society to endure’. His idea of change revolved around putting society at the forefront of business strategy. ‘In order to go about changing the state of society and the extent of disillusion today, we need to go about changing business culture towards outcomes that are more beneficial to the whole of society. It is clear from economics that our decisions to allocate resources are vitally important and thus we must allocate them efficiently to maximise welfare.’
Theo Gwyther was encouraged by that many businesses are working to usher in positive change: ‘[T]here are really cool, empowered and like-minded people successfully getting businesses to change,’ adding that ‘it seems as if there is a huge transition waiting to happen.’ That sense of positivity was shared by Arun Kakar, who noted the collective optimism of those speaking about the transformation of business: ‘I’ve learnt that corporate change can happen, what needs to change and how it is done from the inside.’
Change in the practical sense
A source of insights into how change can be brought about from the inside was Deborah Doane’s session on campaigning, where groups had to play the role of activists and the role of CEO, and ‘experience’ the dilemmas of both sides. Rezwana Mannan spoke of the important impact this had made: ‘I was being put in an actual situation where I played the role of a chief executive of a large company. I had to figure out the best option to take by going through all the options, preparing for any question the campaigners may have asked.’
Another WikiWorkLab participant, Meran Annalingam, shared that from the campaigning workshop ‘I’ve now realised how difficult is to bring about change to a set of institutions, whether you’re a protester or a CEO of a company. Often campaigns are ineffective and you need insider routes. Being a CEO when you have been so used to how things get done, changing it really isn’t easy like we think it is.’
Change from the top or change from the bottom?
Given the variety of research trips and speaking sessions, participants were prompted to think about the possibility of change, how it can play out at different levels; systemic and human, and how to bring it about. Mannan reflected that change ‘is not just about the ideology of the employees — the workplace must change as well, the employees must trust their employers and the employers must show that they are trustworthy, and that they take the wellbeing of their employees seriously (like Google). Only then can the world of work begin to reform.’
Lucy Daniels followed up on this theme in her response: ‘[F]or change to come about it is not just about the actions of bodies. Most importantly it is actually about the mentality of those in charge. Unless there is a change in mentality from the top on having real concern for the bottom, nothing will change and the institution shall carry on as business as usual.’
A talk from Loughlin Hickey on the ideas behind Blueprint for Better Business generated a number of reactions from WikiWorkLab participants on the theme of humanity in the workplace. James Hicks was compelled ‘to meditate on the profound importance of engaging the whole human person in the workplace (and more generally the social spaces that we occupy).’
Prompted by the same talk, Annalingam reflected on the way ‘business has been divorced from society. How from a simple assumption by economists that we are self-interested, business models have all been based on profit maximisation and cost minimising. If we had a different assumption of humans and bring in other values, we could have…a different society, one in which business is part of society.’
More abstract ideas about ‘human’ work models were also highlighted in feedback about key learnings. Riley wrote about cognitive load and business’s imperative to serve employees on a personal, psychological level: ‘Companies should consider this because it would mean productivity would be increased in terms of maximising profit and wellbeing.’
What is Gen Z’s role in bringing about change?
Discussions were sparked around the challenges posed to current systems of education by the changing ways companies operate. Highlighting some conclusions drawn from a conversation about education and employability, Riley highlighted the need for ‘a major focus on wanting to teach students better communication skills.’ As people currently in education, and informed by a research trip to School 21 and numerous discussions on future directions of business, the cohort’s insights into how education could change were particularly valuable. Yardley concluded that ‘perhaps we need to integrate a more goal-based education system into the current system and look to vocational training alongside academic study alone to improve our outlook on the world of work. It is here that we can teach about sustainable capitalism and impart the ideas discussed on our leaders of the future for desirable outcomes going forward.’
Finally, feedback from the ‘WikiWorkLabbers’, as they came to be known, highlighted a realisation that their voice is important. Daniels said: ‘my generation has more power than what is taken for granted. The focus on education, us being the ones most reformed through education and technology, means that when we arrive in our future of work we will be the ones with the ability to change it, if only we are able to stick to our original ideas and not moulded by the system we work for.’