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Employer Maximus: “Win the Crowd”

Updated: Apr 28, 2021

As enterprises continue to adapt and manage the ongoing Covid crisis, it’s important to remember that companies don’t operate in a social vacuum. While each organization is a kind of government unto itself, with its own rules and culture, none is immune to the whims and moods of the wider world.

After all, these days armies of homeshored employees watch a daily deluge of chaotic news on their screens, featuring waves of protests. Workers also continue to be bombarded with tales of accelerating automation at a time of pandemic, some real, some imagined.

Covid’s knock-on effects are reverberating through societies. Evidence of an increasingly animated and assertive public are popping-up all over the place. Here in the United States and across the pond in the UK, tattered social contracts are making things even more interesting.

Your company won’t be sealed-off from shifting attitudes and behaviors. Any organization that employs large numbers of people (from BPOs to ITOs and beyond) might take note of what’s happening out there… and what it all might mean….

The Latest Rebellion: Liverpool

Last week news broke that a group of wealthy soccer club owners wanted to launch a “Super League” of Europe. Neither fans, players, nor coaches were consulted before the announcement.

Well, said the fans, not so fast.

Within hours, supporters of the Liverpool Football Club called an emergency Zoom meeting. Furious about the owners’ plot, they strategized how to strike back by targeting JP Morgan Chase, the bank that was poised to bankroll the new league and had reportedly already held talks with media companies on rights deals.

In the words of The Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy, “Plans for the elitist, money-grabbing league were unveiled Sunday night, triggering universal condemnation and galvanizing fans against the twelve owners who proposed the tone-deaf breakaway.”

For Aleksander Ceferin, president of UEFA, soccer’s governing body in Europe, the anger of the fans was palpable. He called the owners “snakes” and “liars” and characterized the plan as the equivalent of “spitting in football fans’ faces.”

In what looked like a hostage video, Liverpool Football Club owner John Henry quickly issued an apology:

The project put forward was never going to stand without the support of the fans. No one ever thought differently in England. Over these forty-eight hours you were very clear that it would not stand. We heard you. I heard you…. I’m sorry, and I alone am responsible for the unnecessary negativity brought forward over the past couple of days. It’s something I won’t forget. And shows the power the fans have today and will rightly continue to have.

“This was,” said Dan Shaughnessy, John Henry’s, “Bay of Pigs moment.”

Still, former Liverpool captain Graeme Souness told Sky Sport he didn’t think Henry’s apology would ever be enough:

Certainly with Liverpool, and I can talk with some authority there, I think it’s impossible for those guys to turn up at Anfield ever again. Will they run the club from the other side of the Atlantic?....This is a monumental time in our game, if you ask anyone in the street they will talk about money spoiling our game, and this was taking it to another level completely. The secrecy and deceit shown by these people goes beyond the pale. In their blind greed and arrogance these owners have lost sight of the real power in the world of football. The real power lies with the supporters and fans of the clubs – the people!....

Another Liverpool supporter added that, “What the owners of the six (English clubs) have done is to break the precious bond of trust, that unspoken contract between the supporters and the custodians. There’s no way back for some. This is a watershed moment, an opportunity to reclaim the game.”

Not So Different from GameStop

Clearly, John Henry was clueless when it came to Liverpool fans. Which, in a sense, wasn’t so different from the insurrection that took place back in January when a swarm of financial market gamblers started buying up GameStop stock in bunches, undermining the financial position of hedge fund Melvin Capital, the object of their ire. At the time, I wrote about how Melvin Capital never saw them coming.

But when it comes to stocks and increasingly pugnacious individual investors, it’s not just GameStop. The Bitcoin phenomenon is one of the most fascinating episodes in financial market history. Whether one is a believer in Bitcoin or not, what’s happening with blockchain technology has seized the imagination of an army of laser-eyed evangelists who seem determined to take matters into their own hands and, through their holdings in Bitcoin, save themselves from what they perceive as a failing financial system.

Still, Bitcoin isn’t the only game in town inside America’s blinkered casino. According to an article in The New York Times, millions of small investors, homeshored across America during the pandemic, have become a gathering force in the stock market. The Federal Reserve reports that American households bought roughly $211 billion in individual stocks last year. Retail trading has increased to its highest level since 2014.

More and more individual Americans seem determined to throw caution to the wind and scramble up the market’s wall of worry. According to Amelia Garnett, an executive at Goldman Sachs’s Global Markets Division, “Retail trading now accounts for almost as much volume as mutual funds and hedge funds combined. So, the retail impact is really meaningful right now.”

Another source noted the power of individual investors as a force that can’t be ignored: “I think that they are, today, far more influential on, and command far more following in terms of stock buying or selling power than the mighty Goldman Sachs does.”

The Battle of Bessemer

Back down on Main Street America, it’s worth asking, might the failed uprising at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama actually portend more efforts to organize going forward?

Despite the failure of the Bessemer unionization push just this month, a broader push to improve worker rights and bargaining power seems inevitable. Indeed, a piece in The Irish Times suggests that the union failure in Bessemer, “should be recognised as the end of a ferociously challenged beginning, rather than the end of union and worker campaigns across the global tech sector.”

Because it’s not just warehouse workers. And it’s not just Amazon. One of the more vexing issues employers and employees face is that of surveillance and the use of AI; from warehouses to delivery vehicles and home offices, cameras are everywhere. IT workers are being watched just like drivers are. According to Gartner, at least half of large companies (ie, those over $750 million in annual revenue) use workforce analytics to keep tabs on homeshored employees.

One particular case in the BPO industry garnered attention earlier this month. And even as the situation was clarified further, the speed with which it became an issue in the first place suggests a more assertive workforce is in the offing. Meantime, union body TUC in England is now calling for laws to reign in AI, insisting on the importance of fair rules. Because AI at work, it insists, “could lead to widespread discrimination and unfair treatment,” and workers could even be subject to being, “hired and fired by algorithm.”

For all the potential of the work-at-home model, for all the dreams of Gig CX, it’s likely that increasingly assertive employees (full-time and contractors alike) will have more to say about their individual rights. A set of collective demands around everything from privacy to pay seems set to gain traction.

In other words, while Amazon seems to have won Round One of the Battle of Bessemer, workers at companies across the United States seem prepared to keep pushing their cause.

Even the corporate media itself is feeling the pressure. In another recent piece, The New York Times reminds us that, “media companies have had a surge in such efforts. Workers at publications like Buzzfeed News, Vice, The New Yorker, Slate, and Vox Media have all formed unions in recent years.” That includes more than 650 software engineers, designers, data analysts, and product managers at The New York Times itself.

Why it Matters

A recent Microsoft survey found that more than 40% of workers globally were considering leaving their jobs this year. And the anonymous social network Blind, which is popular with tech workers, also recently found that 49% of its users planned to get a new job.

Any organization that cares about retaining its employees needs to be paying attention.

After all, “Employees have a totally unprecedented ability to negotiate in the next 18 to 48 months,” said author Johnathan Nightingale. “If dissatisfied with the current state of my employment, I have so many more options than I used to have.”

But it’s hard not to suspect that something deeper is going on too.

In the words of The New York Times:

Individual YOLO (‘you only live once’) decisions can be chalked up to many factors…. But many seem related to a deeper, generational disillusionment, and a feeling that the economy is changing in ways that reward the crazy and punish the cautious…. They had watched their independent-minded peers getting rich by joining startups or gambling on cryptocurrencies. Meanwhile, their bosses were drowning them in mundane work, or trying to automate their jobs, and were generally failing to support them.

An Unstable Future?

For those paying attention, a battle for control of “the narrative” seems to be gaining intensity in American media. The Little Guy seems tired of being silenced.

This week, social and political commentator Jimmy Dore made his case that the CEO of YouTube has admitted to suppressing independent voices on a channel born to offer individuals a platform for their opinions. American censorship, says Dore, is becoming increasingly oppressive.

Putting aside Dore’s personal political beliefs, his anger is just another sign that populism isn’t going away anytime soon.

Signs of rebellion seem to be everywhere.

Which makes one wonder how stable everything from workplaces to society in general will look in the years ahead.

Right on time, this month also saw the release of a new intelligence report, “Global Trends 2040: A More Contested World.” According to the U.S. National Intelligence Council, the pandemic has proven to be, “the most significant, singular global disruption since World War Two.”

The 144-page report sees a future of turmoil caused by an array of forces, from financial crises and pandemics to a changing climate, aging populations, and technologies that divide more than they unite, testing societies worldwide. And politics are, “likely to grow more volatile and contentious, and no region, ideology, or governance system seems immune or to have the answers.’”

And then came the report’s punchline:

Large segments of the global population are becoming wary of institutions and governments that they see as unwilling or unable to address their needs. People are gravitating to familiar and like-minded groups for community and security, including ethnic, religious, and cultural identities as well as groupings around interests and causes….

At the state level, the relationships between societies and their governments in every region are likely to face persistent strains and tensions because of a growing mismatch between what publics need and expect and what governments can and will deliver.

Ultimately, evidence of a shifting societal mindset is everywhere…. The George Floyd protests…. A rush on the U.S. capitol building…. Underestimated financial market gamblers calling themselves “Degenerates” on the subreddit WallStreetBets…. An army of passionate Bitcoin believers…. Irate Liverpool fans…. Frustrated Amazon warehouse employees…. Wary keyboard warriors stuck at home all across America…. Online voices like those of a nightclub comedian from Chicago named Jimmy Dore….

A thread of determined, sometimes defiant, opposition runs through them all.

Are we entering into more contentious times?

Has a slow churning revolution already arrived, and we just don’t know it yet?

Maybe. Maybe not. We should always seek to avoid premature certainty, especially at a time of technological innovation such as the one we’re living through. As David Deutsch reminds us in his book, The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World:

People in 1900 did not consider the internet or nuclear power unlikely: they did not conceive of them at all…. No good explanation can predict the outcome, or the probability of an outcome, of a phenomenon whose course is going to be significantly affected by the creation of new knowledge…. Trying to know the unknowable leads inexorably to error and self-deception. Among other things, it creates a bias towards pessimism.

I’ve made the point before, but in The Game of Life – perhaps especially at a time of exponential technological change – once a process starts, it’s often impossible to know exactly where things might lead.

But one thing does seem certain. Every company is a little government unto itself. And in the 2020s, managing increasingly assertive employees with skill and wisdom is going to be more important than ever.

To become an Employer Maximus, you’ll need to win the crowd.

And then you’ll need to truly lead it.

Image: from the movie, “Gladiator.”

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