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Solidarity at work

1 June 2021

Solidarity at work

If solidarity at work conjures up only images from 80s strikes or the very trade union’s name, you should read this article. I will argue that „solidarity” as a concept is more relevant now than ever and it should be important for every organizational member.

Basecamp bans political and social disputes on its internal communication channels. 1/3 employees opposing this policy quit their jobs (link). Google employees organize a walkout to protest the indecisive actions taken by the management in relation to reported cases of sexual assaults (link). Amazon, temporarily, wins the unionization battle as the trade union activists fail to convince the required number of employees in retail giant’s warehouse in Alabama. What is the link between these three occurrences? I believe that it is the common fight for a more solidary – inclusive and diverse – organization. One in which the majority of employees can strengthen identities, manifest beliefs and pursue interests.

The events at Basecamp, Google and Amazon show that even the tech giants, perceiving themselves as highly meritocratic entities – blind to differences and nondiscriminatory, are struggling with becoming a solidary organization. However, if they do succeed, there is more to gain than the moral high ground. Becoming a solidary organization simply pays off.

Deloitte’s „Building Inclusive Organizations” report shows that diverse and inclusive organizations are:

  • more resilient to unfavorable market conditions,
  • more likely to at least maintain their revenue levels over time,
  • more likely to recruit employees, even for the most challenging positions,
  • experiencing over average levels of intrapreneurship.

Looking from Polish perspective, one can argue that what happens in America is highly irrelevant to local economy and prevalent social structures. After all Poland is not suffering from the consequences of continuous racial injustice and has a long and rather strong tradition of unionization. Even if it is true, it doesn’t mean that Polish organizations don’t have their particular solidary challenges. I believe that there are at least three of them: international solidarity, intergenerational solidarity and solidarity with the most vulnerable. The issue of international solidarity gains prominence with the growing influx of workers from Eastern Europe. Currently, there are approx. 1,2 mln of them. This creates, so far unresolved, challenges in teaming and communications in organizations, which ceased to be uniformly Polish. Intragenerational solidarity is a direct consequence of the two trends – prolonging careers into late 60s and introduction of generation Z to the workplace. At no time in history local organizations have been more age diverse. This creates particular challenges. Firstly, the need to redesign tasks and roles to accommodate the different cognitive and physical hinderances. Secondly, opening up organization to new behaviors and convictions such as workplace activism and rising role of organizational purpose. The challenge concerning solidarity with the most vulnerable was brought to the spotlight with the recent shocking testimonials of employees of some local, ethical fashion brands – Elementy, NAGO and Risk Made in Warsaw. These brands, being very considerate about product quality and subcontractor’s standards, showed surprising lack of empathy towards their own employees and the wellbeing. Especially towards the most vulnerable employees working in the client service departments, who tend to be easily replaceable and have the lowest wages.

It is not possible to confront the aforementioned challenges with various kinds of diversity and inclusion sessions for all employees. The research shows that such interventions rarely bring substantial change. Furthermore, they have high potential of creating a backlash towards any inclusion practices. Thus, what is actually needed is a systemic change – one that alters the ways of working. The kind of change notoriously difficult for large and seasoned enterprises.

However, in particular circumstances, this is perfectly realizable. If year 2020 taught us anything, is that organizations are more adaptable and their structures more malleable than one would expect. Remote work, for years accessible mostly for freelancers and IT developers, became a standard solution for more than 10% of the whole working population in Poland. What, by chance, made some organizations more considerate and inclusive for the needs of people responsible for housekeeping and raising children – mostly middle-aged women. Working at the corporate headquarters, they had little chance to squeeze in shopping, food preparation or laundry. Yet lockdown showed that remote work that, while at home, it is possible to orchestrate both – professional work and household chores – without detriment to one or another. In this context, it should be of no surprise that women are much more supportive than men to extending the remote work policies to the post pandemic times.

It is worth noting that the quest for becoming a more solidary organization doesn’t equal a complete overhaul of corporate policies. Oftentimes a minuscule change will suffice. Equal speaking time at meetings being one of this kind of improvements. As the extensive research shows, people of high status and high communication skills tend to dominate group conversations. This leaves people, who are not used to fight for their right to speak, silent throughout most sessions. Again, this problem is much more pronounced for women. Implementing a time allocation for all members present at the meeting can help. It not only helps “speechless” people voice their opinions, but also increases group members’ satisfaction and improves the quality of solutions proposed.

Designing this kind of change at organizations doesn’t require a skillset different from the one used by product, service or experience designers on a daily basis. What is crucial, is the willingness to emphasize with minority groups that are in a dire need for solidarity from other members of the organization. Understanding their perceptions and experiences can be enhanced with well-known research techniques e.g. in-depth interviews or design tools such as empathy maps or employee journeys. Needless to say, understanding is just the first step in designing a more solidary organization. However, it the necessary first step for every intervention. Unlike designing for users and consumer, designing organizational change can be tricky as organization come in very different shapes and sizes. Best practices that work as well in one workplace as in another are very rare. Yet tackling this kind of specific challenges by prototyping and testing interventions is a proven approach familiar to all designers. Organizations, if they are to become more solidary, need interventions designed by them now more than ever.

author

Bartłomiej Brach

Bartłomiej Brach

An organizational anthropologist. Researcher of employees and workplaces to help polish entrepreneurs create great organizations.As I scientist,  mostly interested in the subject of work meaningfulness. He have co-introduced storytelling as am organizational identity research method to Poland. Also serve as a chairperson at Polish Debating Foundation.

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