THIS PAST YEAR HAS ILLUMINATED the fragility and failures of work in new ways. The coronavirus pandemic resulted in layoffs and furloughs for millions around the world. Some have lost their jobs in struggling or shifting industries and don’t have the skills to explore other fields. Many essential workers—from health aides to grocery clerks—have been forced to make grim trade-offs between personal health and financial security. Unpredictable and stressful schedules, discriminatory and unfair organizational practices and procedures, and an inability to keep up with technological change are adding to a strain that workers feel both in the United States and across the globe. 

Kennedy School faculty members are taking on these daunting challenges. Iris Bohnet, the Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government and academic dean of HKS, is leading a number of the efforts. “Work has dramatically changed in the past 30 years, and workplaces really haven’t kept up,” she says. “So we need to have public policy address educational needs, new technological developments, and demand for equity, diversity, and inclusion.”

Many of Bohnet’s colleagues across the School are engaged in activities to improve work for more people now and in the future. “Our work tackles policy challenges that arise from the changing nature of the labor market and the social fabric,” says David Deming, director of HKS’s Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy, which focuses on domestic social policy issues, including work and economic security in the United States. These problems are not just domestic, however. With shifting labor markets in countries around the world, economies unsettled by the pandemic, wage and skill gaps, the consequences of new technology, and persistent gender and racial inequity, now is the time to future-proof the way we work. “The pandemic has given us an opening to act,” Bohnet says. “Work is being reinvented as we speak, and we want our work to be part of that discussion.”


Revolutionizing work practices


To make work better and fairer, employers will have to take a hard look at their organizational practices—not just how well they pay their workers or how good their benefits are but subtler patterns of behavior.

Iris Bohnet has devoted much of her career as a behavioral economist to investigating how to debias organizations. In addition to serving as academic dean, Bohnet is the faculty codirector of the Women and Public Policy Program (WAPPP) and is heading up the School’s new Gender Action Lab, which will conduct research on debiasing the workplace and share the resulting evidence and insights with employers and policymakers, giving them practical tools to create more-equitable organizations.

“Many of our systems, our organizational practices, and our procedures have unintended consequences, because they were built for a different workforce,” Bohnet says. “About half a century ago, almost 100 percent of doctors and lawyers were white men. A couple of years ago, that fraction had been cut almost in half, and it keeps shrinking. But our talent-management procedures have not kept up.” 

Bohnet, whose book What Works: Gender Equality by Design provides research-based solutions for debiasing workplaces, says that many current HR practices and procedures can worsen inequality. For example, few companies use blind application-review processes, even though research suggests that when names are removed from résumés, hiring managers are more likely to choose the best candidates rather than people they think “look the part.”

Bohnet’s recent research also brought to light a worrying trend in performance-management processes. Many companies ask workers to share self-evaluations with their managers before the latter conduct reviews. Bohnet and her colleagues found that differences in self-confidence related to gender, race, and cultural factors can affect employees’ self-evaluations and influence managers’ reviews in turn. “Asking people to self-evaluate and then share those self-evaluations, as we can tell from the data that we now have, can lead to a vicious circle,” says Bohnet. 

futuristic illustration

Many of our systems, our organizational practices, and our procedures have unintended consequences, because they were built for a different workforce. ...Our talent-management procedures have not kept up.

Iris Bohnet

Another Kennedy School scholar who believes that companies need to change their organizational cultures and practices is Julie Battilana, the faculty chair of the School’s Social Innovation and Change Initiative. Battilana, who is also the Alan L. Gleitsman Professor of Social Innovation at the Kennedy School and holds a faculty appointment at Harvard Business School, says that we should democratize and decommodify work while making it greener. She laid out her case last May in an op-ed that was published in more than 40 newspapers in almost as many countries. She wrote the piece with two coauthors—Isabelle Ferreras, of Catholic University of Louvain, in Belgium, and Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program; and Dominique Méda, of Paris Dauphine University, in France—and more than 6,000 people from across the globe, most of them academics, cosigned it. The website captures the authors’ efforts, which have led to a published book.

Battilana says that the coronavirus pandemic spurred on this treatise about the need to rethink work. “Working humans are so much more than ‘resources,’” she and her coauthors argue. “This is one of the central lessons of the current crisis.” They end their manifesto with a clear call to action: “Democratize firms; decommodify work; stop treating human beings as resources so that we can focus together on sustaining life on this planet.”

Giving people the skills to succeed

David Deming, who is a professor at both the Kennedy School and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, believes we should focus on better education and training to give people the skills for decent jobs and an opportunity to get ahead. He leads the Project on Workforce, an interdisciplinary collaboration between the Wiener Center, Harvard Business School’s Managing the Future of Work Project, and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

“The systems that connect educational institutions and the labor market were built for a different era, when technology wasn’t available to customize supports for people and to link them directly using artificial intelligence,” Deming explains. In addition, a fragile economy struggling to recover from the pandemic means that more people are out of work. “At the beginning of the pandemic, most employment loss was temporary,” says Deming. “As it drags on, businesses shutter and more layoffs become permanent. We’re trying to help people get reskilled for a different job than the one they had before.”

The Project on Workforce responds to these problems in several ways. For example, it has created a website called Skillbase, which features curated resources that provide skills to help people transition to their next job. “Through Skillbase,” Deming says, “we are exploring how job seekers can learn conversational English, digital literacy, and other foundational skills. Our research examines whether working with job centers across a bunch of states to make free, high-quality training opportunities available to these folks can make a difference.”

Deming is also interested in examining how soft skills can be better developed. Although STEM skills get a lot more public attention, soft skills are often in short supply and high demand. Deming says, “When you talk to employers, they say, ‘We need people who are dependable, good problem solvers, adaptable, good at working in a team.’ We call these soft skills, and we don’t really know how to measure them or how to develop them.” Deming has also started an initiative called Skills Lab, which measures teamwork and other capabilities. “We’re very excited about the immediate application of this work,” he says, “especially for high-skilled jobs that do not require a college degree, in high-growth fields like health care, information technology, and advanced manufacturing.”

Supporting shift workers 

While skill training is crucial in helping people get better jobs, it is just as important to investigate which working conditions contribute to employees’ quality of life. Daniel Schneider, a professor of public policy who recently joined the Kennedy School, focuses on hourly workers in the United States. He is a coprincipal investigator of the Shift Project, housed at the Wiener Center, which collects and analyzes data on how shift work affects economic security, health, and well-being.

Schneider is interested in the challenges that American workers in the service sector—food services, grocery stores, fulfillment centers, and other areas—face. One problem, of course, is low wages, but Schneider is just as interested in nonwage factors that negatively affect shift workers. “Hourly workers also contend with unstable and unpredictable work schedules—with hours that vary from week to week and day to day, often with little advance notice and less worker control,” he says. “These unstable and unpredictable schedules put households at risk for economic insecurity and hardship, harm workers’ mental health, and pose profound challenges for parents and their kids.”

Schneider and his colleagues at the Shift Project look at everything from paid sick leave to home-life issues to access to unemployment benefits. Most recently, they have examined how COVID-19 has worsened conditions for shift workers—many of whom are considered essential employees. In a study published in October, Schneider and his coauthor, Kristen Harknett, an associate professor at the University of California, San Francisco, found that only a quarter of service-sector workers who were laid off or furloughed at the height of the spring lockdown received unemployment benefits in a timely manner and that delays in those payments led to significant hunger, greater housing insecurity, and deferred medical care.

Keeping up with technology

Examining the factors that lead to employee well-being goes hand in hand with responding to changes in technology that can either help or harm workers. Professor of the Practice of Government and Technology Latanya Sweeney, who joined the Kennedy School this past year, thinks a lot about this issue. A computer scientist by training, she is affiliated with the Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and explores how technology can help job seekers—and how it can leave them behind. 

Sweeney, who formerly served as chief technology officer at the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, also holds an appointment in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences and directs the Harvard Public Interest Technology Lab, which examines how bias can be removed from our technology to create a more even playing field. Among other projects, the lab studies algorithms used in hiring and employee evaluations to determine whether they are biased. 

“As a computer scientist, I think this is a particularly amazing moment to be at the Kennedy School,” Sweeney says. She notes that as technology becomes more sophisticated and innovative, it will change many industries, especially manufacturing. “When it comes to the future of work, I’ve been focusing on helping to bring American manufacturing back,” she says. “Artificial intelligence and machine learning are about to change the face of manufacturing. So the question is: How can we harness the nature of this inevitable change to revolutionize American manufacturing?” 

Sweeney thinks the answer may lie, in part, in sharing technology and tools openly. She uses artificial intelligence as an example: If you have an idea for an AI project, a wealth of free technology is available online to help you. “The cost of entry is very low,” she says. “So our vision is to bring the same kind of benefit and opportunity to manufacturers to create a ‘knowledge and tools commons’ to increase resiliency and international competitiveness.”

illustration of faces on laptops

I specialize in unforeseen consequences of technology. …My work was among the first to show discrimination by algorithm. We work with that lens—all the way down to the sensors and all the way up through the policy and economics.

Latanya Sweeney

A major challenge, according to Sweeney, lies in how policies can be shaped to ensure that industries remain competitive, intellectual property is protected, confidentiality and privacy are respected, and equity is promoted. “I specialize in unforeseen consequences of technology,” she says. “The reemergence of manufacturing not only has all those kinds of consequences, but it also demands a diverse and inclusive workforce.” Sweeney believes that addressing unconscious bias in hiring algorithms and other forms of workplace technology can help. “My work was among the first to show discrimination by algorithm,” she notes. “We work with that lens—all the way down to the sensors and all the way up through the policy and economics.” 

The policy challenges that come with automation are also very much on the mind of Ljubica Nedelkoska, a research fellow at the Growth Lab, part of the School’s Center for International Development (CID). She studies the impact of automation on the labor market and the effect of plant closures and mass layoffs on people’s long-term earnings and employment success. Nedelkoska says that when it comes to work, “technology has the power to help and harm, and the impacts are likely to be very unequally distributed.” 

One way it has helped is by enabling many employees to work during the pandemic using low-cost personal computers, high-speed internet, high-quality conferencing software, and cloud computing. “Technology is one of the reasons we are able to speed up the delivery of a secure COVID-19 vaccine,” Nedelkoska says. “However, the pandemic is also increasing incentives for automation in some sectors: transportation, services, production. Consumers would like to see these sectors up and running, even if it comes at the cost of replacing people with robots.” 

The risk, according to Nedelkoska, is that technology will contribute to social and economic inequality. She says strong policy responses will be needed to address these problems effectively, including government subsidies that encourage employers not to lay off their workers during lockdowns. Training and education also play a role in helping workers at risk of losing their jobs to automation, and Nedelkoska sees community colleges as a steppingstone to long-term employability and job security for vulnerable workers.

Preparing policymakers in Morocco

Researchers at CID’s Evidence for Policy Design (EPoD) are also focused on improving training and giving workers skills that can aid economic mobility. EPoD and the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) are developing a hub for evidence-based labor market innovation in Morocco called the Morocco Employment Lab. Rema Hanna, the Jeffrey Cheah Professor of South-East Asia Studies at the Kennedy School, leads the project with her colleague Bruno Crépon, the scientific director of J-PAL Middle East and North Africa.

The lab aims to promote a culture of evidence-based policymaking in Morocco through policy-research engagements and capacity building, giving policymakers the tools and knowledge to better address labor market challenges. “In many countries, getting the right data to inform policy was tough due to a lack of data,” Hanna says. “With these data, with new data sources, it is often the opposite—so much information comes at you. How do you make sure you have the right information needed to make tough policy trade-offs? The Morocco Employment Lab aims to help by both generating new research and evaluations to specifically address the needs of policy and equipping policymakers with the tools to understand how data and numbers can be used in their everyday policy decision making.”

One of Morocco’s main labor force challenges is a skills mismatch, whereby highly educated workers have some of the highest unemployment rates, because they don’t specialize in areas with a large labor force demand, and the labor market isn’t producing enough jobs in high-skill sectors. Using the Smart Policy Design and Implementation (SPDI) framework that EPoD developed, the Morocco Employment Lab is working with policymakers in the country to diagnose underlying drivers of the challenge and then design, implement, and evaluate solutions to reduce the skills mismatch. “EPoD focuses on finding the right question to evaluate,” says Hanna. “This comes from using economic theory and deep qualitative work to assess the policy problems being faced and to understand what is driving these problems.”

One issue Hanna and her colleagues want to address is the labor force gender gap, which is a serious problem in the region. In Morocco, only 21 percent of women are in the workforce. In contrast, male labor force participation was above 70 percent in 2019. COVID-19 is only worsening this disparity as more women find themselves at home without childcare and many are losing their jobs during lockdowns. By working closely with policymakers and civil servants, the researchers at the Morocco Employment Lab aim to support vulnerable workers—especially young people, women, and those affected by COVID-19—by helping to design labor market policies backed by research.

Advancing women’s career aspirations

Women have proved to be a particularly vulnerable demographic during the public health crisis. A research team at WAPPP is studying how the childcare crisis created by the pandemic is affecting men’s and women’s workforce participation in the United States. “The sudden and sustained backflow of childcare and educational labor into the home is constraining women’s labor market participation more than men’s,” says Hannah Riley Bowles, WAPPP’s codirector and the Roy E. Larsen Senior Lecturer in Public Policy and Management. Bowles is researching how organizational practices and policies may help or hinder caregivers’ capacity to remain fully employed in the midst and aftermath of the pandemic. 

illustration of futuristic scene

The sudden and sustained backflow of childcare and educational labor into the home is constraining women’s labor market participation more than men’s.

Hannah Riley Bowles

Bowles is also engaged in research and programming aimed at building women’s capacity to pursue their career aspirations through negotiation training to raise pay, manage work-family conflicts, and pursue expanded work roles and developmental opportunities. “Our research suggests that negotiation is a critical problem-solving tool for pursuing nonconventional career paths,” she explains, “for instance, in order to balance work and family or to attain roles or opportunities for which one may not be perceived as traditionally qualified.” In a related project, Bowles is working with a team of scholars and leaders in practice to support the academic and career aspirations of female and minority students in technology and engineering through negotiation training and other forms of leadership development. 

Getting mayors on board

Policymakers and public leaders at all levels of government can be powerful allies in helping vulnerable demographics in the workforce. Focusing on the United States, Stephen Goldsmith—a former mayor of Indianapolis and a former deputy mayor of New York—is looking at how mayors can help workers in their cities succeed. 

Goldsmith, the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy and director of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation’s Data-Smart City Solutions, is currently involved in a project that enables cities to identify opportunities for developing their workforce. “We have 10 mayors and senior leaders involved with the United Negro College Fund (UNCF),” he explains. The project is designed to look at better opportunities, particularly for young men and women of color, recognizing and building on their skills in order to produce more opportunity. “The pilot project in Atlanta involves a collaborative featuring the mayor’s office, and managed by the UNCF, that uses real-time regional data to identify local upskilling opportunities and then fill in the gaps between the better jobs and the skills of workers,” Goldsmith says. He is enthusiastic about how the project can be an asset to mayors and other local leaders across the United States.

In addition to his work with the UNCF, Goldsmith has been advising mayors on issues related to transportation. He sees a connection between the future of work and mobility. Just prior to the pandemic, Goldsmith coauthored a pair of papers about how innovations in this area can help the urban working poor. “The current transportation patterns in our country’s large cities are not very friendly to struggling workers,” he says. “They have long commute times for jobs that cannot pay well. If you’re in a big city and you have to spend an hour commuting for a low-wage job, that’s a lot of your potential earning stuck in the subway or the bus.” In Goldsmith’s view, city leaders can play a role in improving mobility patterns and helping their workforce at the same time.

Ultimately, there is a lot to do to improve the way we work, from getting job seekers the right training, to understanding the unforeseen consequences of technology, to examining the conditions that help or harm vulnerable workers, to putting the onus on employers to make their practices more inclusive. But fortunately, faculty members and other experts across the Kennedy School are focused on just these issues. 

As Bohnet says, “We believe that the Kennedy School in fact is the perfect hub for our work.” 

Illustrations by Geoffroy de Crécy

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