This is part of our Coronavirus Update series in which Harvard specialists in epidemiology, infectious disease, economics, politics, and other disciplines offer insights into what the latest developments in the COVID-19 outbreak may bring.
With COVID-19 ravaging economies, Harvard Professor Julie Battilana, and colleagues around the globe, issued an urgent plea: We need to transform the way we work.
Battilana, who studies how organizations can implement positive change, knew that we can do better when it comes to work. She and her collaborators called for improvements in three dimensions: by democratizing companies, decommodifying work, and creating sustainable policies that benefit the environment.
Battilana; Isabelle Ferreras, Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, and Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program; and Dominique Méda, Paris Dauphine University, France, penned an op-ed that was cosigned by more than 5,000 researchers from universities around the globe — including nearly 40 associated with Harvard University. It was published this past weekend in more than 40 newspapers in 36 countries and generated a website and hashtag: #democratizingwork.
Raising women’s voices in conversations about work was an important aim. Battilana, Ferreras, and Méda joined forces with five more female scholars: Julia Cagé, Paris Institute of Political Studies, France; Liza Herzog, University of Groningen, the Netherlands; Pavlina Tcherneva, Bard College; Hélène Landemore, Yale University; and Sara Lafuente Hernandez, University of Brussels, Belgium. This core group — which represented fields including sociology, philosophy, management, economics, and political science — mobilized their networks to get thousands of others to cosign, starting with women in academia.
Battilana is the Alan L. Gleitsman Professor of Social Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) and the Joseph C. Wilson Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School — as well as the founder and faculty chair of the Kennedy School’s Social Innovation + Change Initiative.
We spoke with Battilana about the op-ed and the mission to transform work.
HKS: What prompted you to write an op-ed about democratizing work?
Battilana: What prompted us to write this op-ed is the crisis, which is not only a health crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted profound cracks and vulnerabilities in our social fabric, in our economy, and in our politics.
We are confronted with massive social inequalities: in wealth, in access to health care and a healthy home, between who gets to work from home and who are the essential workers, risking their safety for others. These inequalities existed long before the coronavirus, but they are magnified and amplified today.
The pandemic has also temporarily brought the economy to a halt and has demonstrated how the environment responds when we pollute less. But as we prepare to restart the economy, we must learn from this crisis and prioritize protecting the environment. Otherwise, we will continue to destroy the planet.
Altogether, the crisis magnifies the need to change. The societal and economic status quo before the coronavirus was untenable. As we rebuild post-COVID-19, we must invest in more resilient, equitable, healthy, just, and green societies. Doing so requires new ways of working and organizing that will set us on a path to a more democratic and sustainable future. The purpose of this op-ed is to highlight options to build this kind of future, but these options are not the only ones that should be considered — far from it. I view the op-ed as a call to collectively engage in a debate so that we can redesign our system together.
HKS: When you circulated the op-ed in the academic community, you received an overwhelming response from scholars who wanted to co-sign. Why do you think the manifesto resonated so intensely?
Battilana: I study the politics of change. And a crucial finding from my research is that agitation — merely saying that things don’t work — is not enough. We saw this with Occupy Wall Street, which very effectively agitated against the status quo, but didn’t move much beyond agitation. To really effect change, we must also innovate and orchestrate the change.
Back in 2008, the world, including the academic community, brought attention to problems within the system. And yet, we still await fundamental reforms. This time, I think academics, like many other citizens, want to make sure we are doing everything to ensure that sustainable change comes from this crisis. I think that this is why so many scholars signed the op-ed. They want to move beyond agitation and participate in both innovation and orchestration.
We have seen that change is possible from how we have massively reorganized society to respond to the pandemic. And we are not starting from scratch: over the past decades, countries across the globe have developed ways of working and organizing that are more democratic and sustainable. The academic community can contribute to efforts to redesign our system by sharing what we have learned from our research and by collaborating with civil society organizations, governments and businesses who are involved in the broader movement for change.
In the op-ed, we proposed innovations — alternative social and economic models we can adopt to face the future. The solutions that we discussed are not the only ones, but our hope is that the op-ed will contribute to a real debate about solutions in different contexts. It would be foolish to think that what works in one context can work across all.