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Putting people first – International Workers Day 2024

A world without workers may not be lightyears away with the rapid evolution of technology and artificial intelligence supercharging globalisation. Commentators differ on how they see the digital revolution playing out – ‘it could be utopia, or it could be hell.’ Despite the reality of this being perhaps beyond our lifetime, the digitalisation and automation of many roles over the past few decades have caused a surplus of labour that economies and organisations have struggled to manage.

Naturally, this has led those needing jobs to have little option but to accept low wages, decision-makers in organisations opting for redundancy to cut costs, big corporations in certain industries choosing robots over people and little to no bargaining power for employees and job seekers.

Writing our own history

History, some say, is cyclical – in that it is impossible for things to actually repeat themselves but after a period of such time, usually over a few generations, we forget or are simply unaware of what caused things and the reasons behind the outcomes.

The 1st of May recognises International Workers Day (IWD), a day to commemorate the past labour struggles against a host of workers’ rights violations, including extensive workdays and weeks, poor­­—sometimes atrocious—working conditions and child labour. As we look to the occasion to reflect on the struggles that took place all over the world in the 19th century, we must celebrate and appreciate the contributions of the working class to society as a whole and remind ourselves of the workers and union leaders who sacrificed their lives to improve working conditions.

For years demonstrations, protests and campaigns eventually resulted in an improvement of workers’ rights, working conditions and many other things that put the person first and the organisation second. So, after a magnificent amount of resilience, grit and investment in people and in society, why are we beginning to slip dangerously back into a world where some are not putting people first?

Is globalisation the only blame?

Communities are built by the people, for the people. They serve society’s best interests and encourage a culture of looking after one another. The quicker the rate of globalisation, the quicker the rate of disbanded communities and the quicker the rate at which people begin to disacknowledge one another and start to consider their own best interests, rather than the best interests of a well-functioning society. This starts with the people but is ultimately driven by large corporations and the culture of some organisations; you are beginning to see people-related business scandals nearly weekly in the news.

What is the antidote to the negative impacts of globalisation? Firstly, it is up to all of us to consciously make the decisions that help to support local communities and support one another – empathy, compassion and trust, for example. Whilst taking action locally, it is also vital that we think globally in terms of how actions are in line with our values and our wider social responsibility for the generations that come after us. How can we encourage our workplaces to align with the wider social responsibilities of climate change, gender, racial and class equality and inclusivity?

Learning and Development

Whilst it is important to consider external measures to support people, internal interventions in the workplace are just as significant. During times of change, adversity and hardship, organisations tend to look at the most efficient way of cutting costs and usually that starts with a halt in the learning, development and training of staff and in some cases even redundancy. For example, the turbulent state of the economy over the last decade has recently plunged the UK into recession and consequently, yet understandably, some organisations turn to survive, rather than thrive mode.

IWD reminds us that people are at the heart of organisations, yet they are the first to take a hit when the times get tough. Investing in people during change and adversity can provide several rewards for organisations:

  1. Adaptability – Developing personal and organisational skills fosters adaptability, allowing individuals and companies to pivot quickly in response to changing circumstances, seize new opportunities and mitigate risks.
  2. Employee Morale and Engagement – During a change, job security concerns can impact employee morale and engagement. Investing in personal development initiatives such as training, mentoring and career advancement opportunities demonstrates a commitment to employees’ growth and well-being, boosting morale and fostering a sense of loyalty even during challenging times.
  3. Innovation and Problem-Solving – Turbulent times can necessitate creative solutions to navigate challenges and identify new revenue streams. Investing in personal and organisational development fosters innovation by encouraging employees to think critically, solve problems creatively and explore unconventional ideas, driving business growth even in adverse economic conditions.

Investing in personal and organisational development during times of change and uncertainty is not just about surviving the current economic challenges but also about positioning yourself for long-term success and resilience in the face of future uncertainties.

Roffey Park’s Workshop, ‘Improving Culture: Safety & belonging‘ is an example of a learning and development immersive experience that leaders can take to understand how worker safety and belonging during uncertainty will help to improve organisational culture in the long term. This is just one workshop of many that address real topics and provides practical tools applicable in various contexts.

An organisation is its people

So, as we reflect on IWD 2024, we must not think that the job has been done regarding the prioritisation of people and workers’ wellbeing. We must reinforce the notion that people remain at the heart of organisations and that we are in danger of losing this with the intense rise of globalisation and a lack of compassion amongst managers and leaders when it comes to survival mode. We should take inspiration from the workers during the 19th century who lived and worked through abhorrent conditions, sometimes risking their lives just to survive and support their families. It would be dangerous to disassociate today’s world with that of the Industrial Revolution as although we face different kinds of problems, workers’ rights and well-being are still at the centre.

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