Workers Find a New Voice through Technology
How do employees express their ideas and opinions at work? The question of what scholars call worker voice has become an increasingly important one in recent years.
Jenna E. Myers, who is in the final year of the PhD program at the MIT Sloan School of Management and will be joining the faculty of the University of Toronto’s Centre for Human Resources and Industrial Relations this summer, recently studied worker voice in the context of technology change in a small manufacturing firm—and reached some surprising conclusions. Myers spoke about her findings with Martha Mangelsdorf, Director of Strategic Communications for the Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative and the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research.
The following interview has been edited and condensed.
Mangelsdorf: You've recently been studying technology adoption, and how it affects workers’ ability to have influence over their work, at a machining firm somewhere in New England. Tell us about that project.
Myers: There's obviously been a lot of interest in advanced technologies in the workplace—one example being the recent report from the MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future. And one of the findings in that report is that the diffusion of advanced technologies like AI and collaborative robotics has been relatively slow in manufacturing so far. The more immediate and impactful advances are going to be gradual improvements in digital and cloud-based technologies. They can seem pretty subtle and not as sexy as, for instance, robotics, but they can have big impacts on how work is done.
I wanted to look at an example of one of these digital technologies to see how it changed frontline work, but more importantly, how workers were, or were not able, to have their suggestions and concerns heard regarding the technology. So I looked at the case of a digital production monitoring system in manufacturing and did a deep dive into its use and development inside one small manufacturing firm.
This technology’s main function is to monitor the production process in real time, but a key factor differentiating this monitoring system from older ones is that workers can add context to the data. With this system, each machine that production workers use has a tablet connected to it, and workers can enter information about why a machine was down or the number of scrap parts that were produced. This adds to the information that is automatically collected by the system and makes it more accurate, but it also involves workers having to do new tasks that they don't really see any benefit from.
Another key point about this technology is that it has both flexible settings and the ability for new capabilities to be continually added to it. The technology vendor can push out updates that allow the technology to do something that's totally new and that the organizations using it might not even have expected.
Tell us a little bit about what you found in this research.
Myers: The firm I studied was what some call a “high-road” firm. It had very competitive wages and a profit-sharing program for all employees. It had an onsite gym and garden. It also had a pretty good culture for workers to share their input about production problems. But despite these really strong mechanisms and internal norms for voice, workers still weren't very successful in achieving the changes that they wanted to see that were related to the new technology. It wasn't until the vendor started doing visits to the shop floor and talking directly with the workers that some of their key concerns were addressed.
One example was related to the data access aspects of the new technology. The technology involved a touchscreen tablet at each manufacturing machine that displayed real-time data about production. But when the technology vendor came to talk to the workers, several workers told them that it would be helpful to see historical data as well as real-time data. So the vendor then built that capability into the tablet interface.
This was an example of an issue that just hadn't come up before because the pace of the shop was really fast, and managers didn't take the time to talk to workers in detail about their ideas. But even issues that workers had brought up before to the managers were addressed once the vendor talked to the workers, because the vendor knew the possibilities and limitations of the technology—while the managers really didn't.
So, initially, as the company was implementing the new technology, workers were taking their concerns to managers?
Myers: Right. And then managers were speaking with the vendor every couple of weeks; this was an ongoing subscription-based relationship between the managers and the vendor. On some occasions, managers relayed workers’ concerns to the vendor during these meetings, but on other occasions, they didn’t. So the managers initially acted as gatekeepers here.
What caused the vendor to change its patterns to talk to the workers?
Myers: The vendor itself was growing and changing because it was only about five years old at the time this firm implemented its technology. The vendor hired a particular product development manager that had had prior experience in user-centered design that involved really talking to frontline workers in another context. And so this manager started instituting some of those practices at the vendor.
This technology was interesting because it was used by both managers and workers at the manufacturing firm; managers logged into a web app that reported the data, and workers used the tablets at the machine. For a number of reasons, it was easier for the vendor to get input from managers than from workers, even after the vendor changed its practices. So even under a user-centered development approach, it's by no means obvious that workers are going to be included in that. For example, it takes resources and time from the vendor to go to the shop floor and talk to workers. And because of the nature of manufacturing, which really puts a premium on workers not stepping away from the production line, it was difficult to get workers to join a video call.
How did things change once this vendor started talking with the workers?
Myers: Once the vendor started talking with the workers, there was about a twofold improvement in the number of worker issues that were addressed with technology changes. And the issues that were addressed once the workers started talking to the vendor were ones that were relatively complex and required a lot of development time and resources from the vendor.
That’s a big change. Was this surprising to you, or was this something you had expected to see?
Myers: The nature of this research is that I'm following these processes as they happen. So I wasn't aware that the vendor's practices were going to change. In retrospect, it seems relatively obvious that providing workers with access to the vendor would be helpful. But I was surprised to see how helpful it was, in terms of some really big issues being addressed, and that the vendor was so willing to engage in those conversations and spend so much time addressing workers' issues.
I later did some data collection at the vendor itself and probed more deeply into why the vendor did this. For them, it really was a story of recognizing their own dependence on workers. They realized that they saw very little customer turnover if the workers accepted, valued, and used this technology. They recognized that worker acceptance was important for them. And they thought it could be a competitive advantage for them to build an aspect into this technology that was actually a tool that workers could use to help them do their jobs better.
So if the employees on the shop floor are constantly complaining about your technology, it's more likely that at some point in the future, the company might switch vendors.
Myers: Yes. And even if employees don't actively complain, they might just not enter data consistently or accurately into the platform. Then the technology is just not going to be as useful to managers. The nature of this technology was that it did require and benefit from worker engagement and use. So that was something that the vendors certainly thought would occur more if the workers saw this as something that was useful to them and not just to managers.
It is quite interesting that the vendor took the time to come and visit this plant and talk to the workers. How much do you think that was related to the fact that the vendor company was still essentially a startup? If the vendor’s technology becomes widely adopted, it’s hard to imagine that the vendor is going to be visiting all its customers that way.
Myers: Right. Some of the issues the vendor resolved for workers were certainly low-hanging fruit and, potentially, the number of times that the vendor came to the shop floor was due to the stage of the technology. That’s likely why I saw such a distinct change once the vendors started talking with the workers. But one of the characteristics of the technology is that the vendor wants to continue to add new features, including some predictive capabilities, so that, for instance, it can predict when a machine's tool needs to be changed. So worker input is going to continue to be relevant to the vendor as they continue to modify the technology.
And I've seen the vendor continue to seek worker input. Their process involves talking to just a handful of companies for each feature that they want to change. So they don't see themselves as needing to go and talk to everyone by any means.
So, realistically, if this vendor becomes a really large vendor of this particular system, most customer companies won't get visited, but the vendor will continue to be seeking input from workers. It's just going to be a small sample.
Myers: Exactly. There are some companies where managers don't want the vendor to come in and talk to the workers for whatever reason. And so, in this scenario, worker voice from one firm can potentially benefit workers at another who that don't get to exercise that voice directly.
What are some of the implications of your research?
Myers: For workers or worker representatives, a key implication is that even if you're at a “high-road” firm with a progressive culture and well-intentioned managers, it's still important for worker voice to be heard directly by technology vendors because they have more resources and a more creative approach to tweaking the technology to meet workers' and managers' needs. And so unions in particular might need to expand their thinking about how to work with vendors.
For managers, a key implication is to ask about a vendor's practices for technology development before selecting a vendor. If the vendor is going to push to talk to workers, this can provide some great new ideas for making the technology more effective and more acceptable to workers. But it also means that the vendor might focus more on workers' issues to the detriment of managers' issues. That happened a little bit in my setting.
Was there any indication either in this research or prior research about worker involvement with technology that would indicate that there were productivity benefits to the workers' input into the technology?
Myers: That's not something that I was able to address in my research. But in prior research that is certainly a key implication. Research has found that when there are employee involvement practices used within firms—anything from technology super users to self-managed teams to peer trainers—that that does confer some productivity and profitability benefits when a technology is implemented, as well as worker satisfaction benefits. So I’d expect to see similar outcomes here.
Is there anything else you’d like to add about this research?
Myers: I would just say that a key point is that the worker voice mechanism I uncovered is one that's partially external to the firm—it’s the workers talking to an external vendor. Prior research has really focused on worker input and voice as being negotiated through agreements between managers and workers, but the introduction of the vendor brings this third party in that can change those dynamics.
This article is part of our “Work in Progress” interview series, which highlights recent and in-progress work by researchers associated with the Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative at MIT Sloan or the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research. Read the "Work in Progress" series.