How we developed our definition of “worker voice”
The coronavirus pandemic has sparked a realignment of the U.S. economy. Between the scramble for child care and the need to manage remote schooling, women’s labor force participation rate is the lowest since 1988. Americans across sectors and at all points in their careers are quitting in droves, from retail and restaurant workers to remote office workers. Low-wage workers are organizing, formally or informally, to demand better conditions and pay.
In this realignment, we’re seeing a shift in the balance of power, a recognition that our pre-pandemic economy “looked good on paper” — measured by growth, productivity, and profits — but wasn’t working for the vast majority of U.S. workers.
Worker voice, representation, and power (or perhaps more accurately, “leverage”) are having a moment.
But before all that, in late February 2020, the National Fund network gathered in Miami Beach for our annual meeting. Worker voice was on the agenda, because it had surfaced from the network during our 2019 strategic planning process. We wanted to co-create with our network of practitioners and innovators a shared understanding of what worker voice means and what it looks like in practice.
Two weeks later, the world shut down. Essential workers were hailed as heroes, and the pandemic exposed great inequities in our economy and the challenges and barriers faced by too many working people in America. Worker voice became more relevant and important than ever.
How We Got There
To build our shared understanding of worker voice, we started with one from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston that was circulating within the field. It has three core pillars: representation, empowerment, and engagement. We shared this with our collaborative directors at that meeting in Miami and engaged them in discussion around four questions:
- What does worker voice mean to you?
- What does it look like when worker voice is well executed?
- What does it look like when worker voice is poorly executed or inauthentic?
- What strategies have you used to incorporate worker voice?
We compiled the feedback and identified themes and mapped them to the Federal Reserve definition. We took the themes that didn’t map neatly and used them to expand the definition.
We gathered other definitions of worker voice and shared them internally among National Fund staff. We continued to refine our working definition and gathered feedback from across the organization to reach a final definition that encompasses representation, empowerment, agency, and value.
We can’t overstate how much the world has changed since we began working on this definition — or even since we finalized it. The economic realignment and its effects are ongoing, and we don’t know where they will lead. But we know that incorporating worker voice is a good start to creating inclusive, equitable workplaces. We also know that worker voice shifts power dynamics and creates an environment for sharing power; increases engagement and retention; and generates more ideas, new perspectives, and better solutions.
We will revisit and revise this definition when necessary as we continue to learn from our network of workforce practitioners, training providers, and employers and their employees as they advance worker voice strategies in their communities.