Get access to Protocol
Jess Keeney is senior vice president of development at UKG.
We're in a period of immense social change, defined by the ongoing pandemic and a collective reckoning with systemic inequality. To meet this moment and address the public outcry for accountability and social responsibility, tech companies, often seen as the influencers of progressive corporate culture, are taking different approaches.
Many have issued solidarity statements and updated their commitments to diversity and inclusion. However, tech companies have an important opportunity to move beyond company policies and commitment statements, and advance social change through technology products themselves. The future of work will require tech to be at the forefront of social change, not playing catch-up.
Workplace tech can shape how employees engage with diversity and social issues
Human resources departments are often seen as the arbiters of company policy, which includes the actionable commitment to diversity, equity and belonging of employees. Less visible, however, is the workplace software that shapes the way employees engage with one another throughout the organization — and these tools have ramifications well beyond the virtual office.
Before focusing on how a company presents itself externally, it's important that business leaders evaluate the inclusivity of internal HR and communications platforms. Some key adjustments might include adding preferred pronoun options and allowing employees to self-identify their race and ethnicity, rather than selecting from a predetermined list. These changes might seem small, but they are essential in reflecting organizational values in an actionable way and creating a space where employees can bring their true selves to work.
Employee sentiment and survey software also enable organizations to engage employees around diversity and inclusion issues, accessibility concerns or social justice discussions in a safe space. Last year, we saw backlash from employee groups who cited experiences that directly contradicted their company's external-facing commitments. Survey software that leverages natural language processing and artificial intelligence to decipher employee sentiment ultimately informs the company policies that will meet employees' needs (and wants), especially while working from home.
Software should anticipate social change, not respond to it
Beyond HR and workplace software, there are opportunities to progress social change in software development across industries. Products ranging from social media to CRM must reflect social and cultural shifts, while working to reduce bias in their own platforms.
As more industries leverage artificial intelligence and machine learning, many users are concerned about human bias being built into products. The most foundational step for removing bias in tech starts with having diverse development teams whose different perspectives, experiences and backgrounds make it more likely to identify bias in the software, before it is widely deployed. Imagine a development team of all men; it might not occur to them that a certain platform feature could be used to potentially harass or stalk women, because that may not be something they've experienced. Diverse teams can identify the necessary improvements early on.
Beyond establishing corporate policies and norms, tech companies have the power to build tools that can actually make an impact on diversity and inclusion across industries. A development team that is diverse will better understand all user needs and behaviors, from communication preferences to cultural holidays, and build tech that proactively meets these needs.
Building accessibility into software is now a must-have
As companies grapple with calls for increased diversity and inclusion, they must consider disability inclusion and strive to build tech that is both equitable and accessible. Signed over 30 years ago, the Americans with Disabilities Act did not prepare workers for the digital age. Instead of waiting for policy changes at the state and local level, development teams have the opportunity to build the tech that will influence more productive, efficient and inclusive user experiences.
A UKG survey found that despite the shift to remote work, only 51% of managers are prioritizing making internal tools, documents and software more accessible, while only 46% are focused on software accommodations for employees who are deaf or hard of hearing, or blind or have low vision.
As more employees rely on virtual software to work remotely during the pandemic and in hybrid workplaces, accessibility is even more crucial. These accommodations should be a priority for all managers — and a part of ongoing management training — and should be built into software products. We've seen tech companies pave the way for flexible remote work policies both before and presumably after COVID-19. It's essential that they also advance technologies and policies with accessibility at the forefront.
Social change requires action, not just discussion
The events of 2020 inspired important widespread conversation about social change and the role companies can play in it. Throughout 2021, that discussion must evolve into action, spearheaded by tech companies and the software they develop.
Employees and employers across industries will look to tech leaders to set the stage for actionable change as we build the "next normal" this year and beyond. With so much influence over the way we live, work and relate to one another, it's time for these companies to proactively enhance their platforms in a way that will meaningfully affect the diversity, equity and belonging of our society.