Our work: A guide to ethical strategy

Updated: Mar 17

We're often asked about our process to create actionable recommendations from philosophical beginnings. Here's a brief overview.


Imagine you want to have a better ‘work-life balance’. At the moment you might be contracted to work from 9-6pm Monday-Friday, but you often start work earlier, end a little later, find yourself catching up on emails late at night and finishing off projects on a Saturday morning.


You’ve found you don’t have enough time for yourself, to exercise or to chill out and to sleep. You find you’re prioritising the demands of your colleagues and clients over the needs of your family and closest friends. You believe that this has to change.


The idea of ‘work-life balance’ is becoming more and more ingrained into cultural ideas about what it means to live a good life. However, in some industries and geographies, it is not particularly widespread behaviour.


I’m going to label the quest to attain a ‘work-life balance’ an ‘ethical statement’.


From an idea into action


Some believe adopting a better work-life balance will improve their lives, but they don’t really have an idea about where to start. Others may be afraid of the consequences of what could happen if they start to experiment with boundaries or new ways of living.


This leads to stasis. Unless you commit to changing behaviour that is already ingrained in you and your community, then you will not be able to change anything.


If you want to achieve your goal you will have to craft a plan. This will detail exactly what you mean by a ‘work-life balance’ and the steps you’ll take to achieve it.


A work-life balance could be defined according to a measurement of time - i.e. you will only work for 45 hours a week. Or it could be defined by the number of events you attend with your family a month, or it could be defined by the quality of your sleep. The specific idea that you have of a work-life balance are measurable activities to which you can hold yourself accountable.


For the purposes of this exercise, I’ll state that ‘work-life balance’ means:


“A person will spend between 160 and 175 hours each month working for their wages”


I’m going to label a definition of ‘work-life balance’ as a ‘normative ethical theory’.


If you want to attain this goal, you’ll have to first figure out how many hours you are currently spending each month working. I will label this an ‘audit.’ You’ll have to think of a method for doing this, perhaps you’ll be diligent about documenting when you are working and when you are not. You’ll have to make sure you also count time where you are glancing at emails outside of typical work hours and other behaviours which eat into your time. This step is necessary because you’ll find out just how far away you are from your new goal. Without understanding just how far you have to go, it’s likely you may feel overwhelmed by all the new changes and you’ll be incapable of continuing with your new plan.


A good ethicist will also be constantly checking whether the ethical theory is actually representative of the ethical statement, and will be making adjustments accordingly.

Let’s state that you are currently working 200 hours per month. This means you need to reduce your hours by 25-40 hours, which is 12.5 - 20%. This is quite a considerable target.


Once you have the information from this audit you’ll be able to update your normative ethical theory to include your target. We are moving from a theory of what it means to live a ‘good life’ into an ethical strategy that can be operationalised.


“Over a six-month period, I will reduce the hours I spend working by 15%”


This is a statement that can be operationalised and that you can hold yourself accountable to.


Now you can begin to put new behaviours into your plan. Perhaps you’ll ensure you don’t look at your device at certain times of the day. Or you’ll look to remove unnecessary meetings from your diary. You’ll have a conversation with your colleagues about what you can achieve in certain periods of time and what you cannot. These actions are the operations you are putting in place to achieve your goal. And you’ll go back and measure your progress to see what is working and what is not working.


You’ll find these operations can be uncomfortable. You’ll be setting boundaries and changing the way others work with you. But you have to remember you are doing this for an important reason, which is that you are working towards living a good life.


Ethics as a method


I’ve used the above example to show the various steps of implementing ethics in your technology. You’ll first start with an ethical statement, you’ll flesh it out to turn it into an ethical theory. Through an audit, you’ll create an ethical strategy which will then lead to various operational changes that will mean you can measure whether you are attaining your goal or not. Of course, the initial ethical statement might be about committing to ‘justice’ or ‘human wellbeing’ - this requires a lot more fleshing out at the theory stage.


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A good ethicist will also be constantly checking whether the ethical theory is actually representative of the ethical statement, and will be making adjustments accordingly. Sometimes ideas for operationalisation will not be as effective as anticipated and evaluations will have to take place. Generally, they should be working with the whole technology team - features will be put into various sprints and will be part of technology development.


In this way, ethical development turns into something akin to technological development, but it will critically use skills, theories and methods found in the humanities and social sciences, as opposed to just in STEM subjects.


The two can work in parallel - it’s just about investing the time to get there and ensuring the professionals in charge of ethical delivery have the right skills and support of the rest of the organisation.


What can you commit to in the next six months?


Find out how to get budget and buy-in for tech ethics with our free online guide - available here.


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