How Work Can Support Civic Participation

It’s increasingly common for workers to want their employer to have a clear and well defined purpose that they can hitch their hat to.  It’s part of a growing trend for work to be something that very much fits in with the wider values we live by in life.  Might these values mesh with a sense of civic participation, and what might work do to facilitate this?

That was the question posed by a recent study by the University of Illinois.  The study found that when a workplace is egalitarian with a strong sense of transparency and agency, this can act as a springboard for more democratic attitudes among employees.  However, the reverse can often be the case, with authoritarian workplaces reducing civic participation.

“This research gives us a pretty clear indication that, in terms of contributions to larger society, participation in civic life outside of the workplace is heavily influenced by employees’ experience inside the workplace,” the authors say. “In other words, what happens in the workplace doesn’t just stay in the workplace. Work matters not just within its own bubble, but also for democratic institutions and structures.”

Political breeding ground

The research saw some 14,000 workers from 27 European countries analyzed over a two year period to see how their workplace influenced their level of political engagement.  The researchers believe there is a strong connection between workplaces that provide autonomy and involvement in decision making with employees who engage in civil society.

“Even though the issue has been previously studied in the political science literature, it’s not very well-known within workplace circles,” the authors explain. “Past research has also been quite U.S.-centric. Obviously, we shouldn’t use the U.S. as the only barometer, especially with anti-democratic fervor sweeping through Europe right now. But we found these results in arguably the broadest and most robust analysis of diverse countries to date. And it wasn’t driven by a small number of countries in Europe, which suggests this opportunity for workplaces to help shape democracies exists irrespective of the geopolitical constraints.”

The paper also highlights how this impact spreads across various types of democratic participation.  For instance, in addition to boosting voting, it also appears to boost various other forms of engagement, whether it’s contributing to campaigns, protesting or boycotting products.

“It runs the gamut. And as you look across most of those dimensions, they seem to be affected by something as simple as being allowed to control your work times, or how much say a worker has in their daily routines. Seemingly small elements of a job – deciding what time workers start and finish work; the ability to have a say in how work is organized – contribute to this rich growth of democracy,” the authors explain.

Encouraging involvement

As the implications for this apparent finding are quite wide, the authors suggest that public policy interventions might be warranted to try and encourage empowerment in the workplace, in the aim of subsequently improving civic engagement rates in society.

For instance, they argue that HR managers might have a responsibility the wider impact their workplace culture can have, and work harder to ensure that things like autonomy are provided.  Suffice to say, highlighting the value of autonomy and transparency from a productivity and engagement perspective may be more fruitful than relying on the altruistic side of managers, but nonetheless, the authors believe it’s important that managers know the impact their work environment has on how people behave, even outside of work.

“That’s the negative side of the spillover effect: poor workplace decisions on the part of executives and other higher-ups might prohibit the growth of democracy within economies,” they conclude. “And it doesn’t take much of a leap to make a pretty strong case that we need as many channels that allow us into greater democracy as we can possibly find. We rarely think of the workplace as being an easy path toward increased democratic participation. But I think it can be a great avenue available to people – if the higher-ups structure the workplace in a way that allows for that participation.”