Work, workers and workplaces

Roxane Gervais on flexibility and leadership.

It's 2040. You are still working in Psychology, but it has changed. How?

The 21st century’s persistent focus on flexible work practices has challenged the perception that work has to be static to be valuable. Back in 2020 – in the midst of a global pandemic – we psychologists were starting to appreciate the growing flexibility of what work is, what it represents, who carries it out, when, where and how. During this time the worth of skilled, competent and experienced workers was more fully recognised, especially when they could transition easily to a new role to better support society and the economy. These rapid ‘career’ changes saw individuals reflecting on where they were career-wise, and the benefits of adjusting to a different role, especially as it was opportune to do so. The aftermath of the virus allowed occupational psychologists to support organisations and workers through redeploying or reskilling workers to shift direction and refocus their career.

The rapid, seemingly never-ending development of technology since the 19th century has meant that workers are free (mainly) of dangerous and debilitating work practices, such as the repetitive and monotonous tasks which existed previously. Coronavirus was a timely reminder that some of the least rewarded professions should also be the most vital and valued, and that all staff need the equipment to do their job safely – in both physical and mental terms.

Close to full employment has now been achieved in the West, with AI supporting the workability of older workers, thereby ensuring that organisations remain productive, efficient and effective. Many countries have also had to address the shrinkage of their populations with declining fertility rates; while this has benefits for overall sustainability in terms of resources, the impact on the workplace has not been as favourable. Competition for skilled and competent workers has meant that organisations do not always get the specific workers they need.

A competitive work environment provides workers with stronger bargaining positions, including where they choose to locate. In this fourth industrial revolution, as with the previous three, the majority of workers congregate to the central larger cities, rather than to smaller and less urbanised regions. The skew in where large or global companies have offices is to the detriment of those skilled workers, who may not wish to work in large cities. Fortunately, technology has helped those who wish to remain as independent workers, the entrepreneurs and the self-employed, to pursue business ventures, regardless of their location.

The shift to an almost full service-based economy has driven an increased rate of remote working practices, regardless of their nature. This has not been without unintended consequences. As humans, the need to connect – not with AI, but with each other – is a core component of being human and wanting to experience humanity. ‘Work’, in itself, provides a purpose for an individual. But this purpose reduces in value if it cannot be shared and undertaken with others. A more flexible working style has not reduced the need for a connectivity that comes from having supportive colleagues to interact with on a daily basis. Occupational psychologists continue to promote the necessity of face-to-face communication, and the undeniable benefits that collaborating with colleagues on projects and tasks bring to the workplace.

The fluidity of work in 2040 has resulted in a workforce that continues to be comfortable in terms of how and where it works, with the industrial and digital revolutions influencing this globalised and fluid approach to work. This way of working suits especially the ‘Z’ and ‘alpha’ generations who, having been raised in fully digital homes, expected this way of working on joining the workforce. Online meetings are now standard, supported by shared platforms to support co-working. A global workforce does not require a physical presence in any single office. These methods have boosted commitments to provide more ecological ways of working.

However, even with the many benefits that flexible working has contributed to workplace systems, the work-life interface continues to influence how individuals choose to work. Some customs take longer to change than others, and the burden of domestic tasks remains – falling, more frequently, on women. This is notwithstanding that more women than ever before are in the workforce, due to the political support in providing appropriate and inexpensive child and elder care options (put in place to ensure more productive and competitive economies). The blurring between work and life continues to be a pervasive element of the work environment.

Interestingly, the onus remains on workers to determine how best to work to ensure that they can maintain their overall well-being, inclusive of their mental health. Most organisations offer flexible working patterns, but it is left to the worker to manage its effectiveness. Part-time, ‘gig’ and other forms of precarious work persist in the service-based economy, as a notional ‘choice’ for individuals. Some workplaces have introduced more efficient ways of working in order to shorten the work week, but the perception that ‘visibility = productivity and performance’ remains. For those organisations that have transitioned to a permanent four-day week, psychologists have been key in assessing the impact upon performance, productivity and well-being of workers… including the sustainability of such effects.

What lies at the heart of the differences between those organisations that continue to explore, and then adopt, different work patterns? Effective and progressive leadership. In 2040 this is a strong determinant in facilitating a supportive workplace culture, which in turn realises a productive organisation. Occupational psychologists continue to be instrumental in developing leaders and recommending how best to provide workers and organisations with the resources they need to enhance their functionality in a continuously changing landscape.

So what has changed in the world of work in the past 20 years? Not much. The technology has supported greater connectivity, while enhancing functionality; but IT, systems, procedures, processes and physical structures are all just adjuncts to the workers, and to those who lead them. The world will continue to change, it is inevitable, and the dynamism needed for addressing these changes in workplaces requires transformational leaders who inspire, empower and influence their workforce, thereby allowing creativity, innovation and very motivated workers.

- Dr Roxane L. Gervais is a Chartered Psychologist, and Honorary Treasurer of the British Psychological Society.

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Illustration: Nick Taylor

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