‘How can we ensure people have a career that shapes them in a positive way?’

Ans DeVos is Professor of Antwerp Management School at the University of Antwerp. Ingrid Covington asks the questions.

You’re a holder of the ‘SD Worx Chair Next Generation Work: Creating Sustainable Careers’. Does that give us a clue what you’ll be presenting on at the Congress?
Absolutely. My core fields of interest, in my research and in my work in general, is everything related to the sustainability of careers. How can we ensure that across the lifespan, people have a career that shapes them in a positive way? One that is giving them more energy than it takes, that gives chances to increase their employability and embrace new career opportunities, rather than taking them all away and becoming obsolete? But it’s also referring to sustainability from a more inclusive perspective: how can we ensure that this holds for all workers and not only the high potential or the talents that everybody is looking for in the labour markets?

That’s interesting. I can imagine through Covid you’re not short of case studies and different environments to study. But how did you become interested in this area?
I’m a psychologist, but I worked from the start of my career in a business school environment, and also my major focus when studying psychology was social psychology. So I’ve always been interested in this crossing between an individual perspective and the context, and applying that to work.

My interest from the beginning has been how we can find better ways to align an individual’s perspective with an organisational and a broader labour market perspective. I see so many people starting with a career at a very young age without much planning at that moment. That’s normal at a young age when people make real choices, but then end up feeling stuck in a career that they feel is not really what they would have opted for, if they could turn back time. Yet they feel they’re not equipped to address this within their organisation, with their manager or HR or whatever… or they don’t dare to. They prefer to hold on to what they already have.

From an individual perspective, I see that struggling… but at the same time, I also see organisations struggling. They may say ‘we want to have more dynamic careers, we feel we are lagging behind in terms of innovative career policies, where we can ensure that there is mobility, that people learn new things throughout their career. But at the same time, a lot of our HR systems hold on to stability and the status quo, and prefer that people keep on doing what they’re doing now.’ That has led me to explore further how can we make careers more sustainable from this individual but also from more of a contextual perspective.

Is that particularly timely now?
It has been timely for a long time before Covid… 
the debates about the ageing workforce, digitisation etc. I see many workers feeling not that concerned about the length of their career, but rather how long they will stay employable in their current job if they look at the automation or the degree of digitisation taking place in their field of work. And there’s burnout, people feeling they can no longer continue at the high pressure they feel in their work. Those tendencies were there already.

But it’s also a human tendency to think ‘OK, we’ll manage, we’ll postpone real drastic action, keep on working with the recipes we already have’. Covid has seen all that come to the surface, with a very rapid pace challenging us, as organisations and as individuals. It comes back to that question: how can we make sure that the work we do every day is sustainable, is doable? I hope Covid will really help organisations and individuals break through some of the mental models: ‘this is how we have always done it, and this is how we should proceed’. It might really be a time for change in that sense.

Have you seen any evidence that’s happening?
Yes if I look at the research we have been doing since the start of Covid, among employers in Belgium, but I see it also in more international research. The challenges regarding tele-working, hybrid working, I think they’re on high on the agenda. Combining that with a shortage of professionals in certain fields in the labour market is also forcing employers to embrace these new ideas, and make it not an exception but a basic part of their HR policy to have that flexibility. That will be, I think, a prerequisite to keep talent.

What is worrying me is that I’m not seeing that momentum used to look at employability and the sustainability of careers. I’ve seen so many people doing different tasks over the past months, and being very flexible. But now that work is starting to get normal again. And the focus on HR is, I think, not enough on how can we also use these learning opportunities as a way to look at the employability of people. What new avenues can we follow to let people develop in fields they have discovered over the past months, that is something they like to do or to explore more? How can we continue using this flexibility in our career policies, rather than just going back to normal?

There are opportunities for our field to facilitate those discussions, that way of thinking which might not come naturally to some organisations. The theme of the Congress is interventions that integrate science and practice. Can you give an example of how your own work does that?
I’ve been involved in policy interventions from the beginning of Covid, in an advisory committee of experts advising the Flemish government on the relaunch of the labour markets, and also in particular, the Flemish minister of employment on that topic. I’m also taking up a role now as chair of a partnership for lifelong learning with all the social and educational partners here in Flanders. That’s a valuable way to bring those ideas to a higher level of policymaking – the insights I’ve obtained from my studies among both individuals and organisations is a new angle I can bring in that debate. Often the individual concerns of people in organisations are a little bit overlooked.

Do you have any unusual evidence-based advice for people applying your work to their personal and professional lives?
Use this pandemic experience as a learning opportunity to look for yourself on this learning curve. This situation has challenged me to learn new competencies, but also to stretch myself in ways that I did not anticipate that I would have to do it, that I could do it or even that maybe I would like doing it. As psychologists in our practice, having those kinds of questions being asked not only to ourselves, but also the people we interact with, or the companies we work with… we can take that with us into the coming years.

I think you’re right, it’s a great opportunity to reflect on our own practices, and the catalyst for us to refresh, reflect, learn and adapt.

I know you’re also going to be chairing a symposium with perspectives of careers from different time frames and different perspectives. What would you like to see more of?
Of course, in our research we always have to narrow down and focus on a particular target group or a concept or problem we would like to address. But the career is something holistic. We could learn much more by integrating or relating back insights from research on the school to work transition, but also how can we use those insights to also look at mid-career workers, how can we help them and motivate them to make further transitions.

The second one relates more to my work on career inaction that I’ve started on with Marijke Verbruggen… to look further into the reasons why people are not doing things, why they are preferring the status quo. Why is there so much stability and inertia in companies and people and labour markets when it comes to careers? That’s going to be an important line of research to explore in the future.

How important is context to understand the push and pull around careers? We had a conference at the beginning of the year talking about career transitions, and we had a group of delegates from Ghana who were saying their context is quite different.
Yes, that’s central to our understanding. When we look at careers from a European perspective, and certainly also from a Belgian perspective, we have a social security system, a labour market, that is characterised by certain industries, by certain supplies in terms of people with certain profiles. That’s enormously important in understanding people’s individual attitudes and actions they’re willing to take or not, but also the opportunities and the limitations they’re facing. You cannot understand the sustainability of careers without considering the context.

In terms of context, has anything changed for you in terms of attending and presenting at physical conferences?
Maybe my longing for physical conferences has only increased as the months passed… for me, it’s part of the whole experience of my career as an academic. Not only for learning the latest ideas, but also for connecting with people and growing as a person, your social capital. I won’t be the only one looking forward to it that way.

Yes, it’s almost like being a musician and not having an audience to play to! Everyone I’ve spoken to is craving and excited by that – getting inspired, seeing new ideas take shape.

- Find much more from EAWOP, and information on attending.

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