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"Rethinking the future of work: an interview with Joe Ungemah" on the OUPblog

Rethinking the future of work: an interview with Joe Ungemah

Dr Joe Ungemah, author of Punching the Clock, examines whether the future of work is compatible with maintaining the social fabric of the workplace and the psychological needs of workers. His work seeks to make connections between the psychology underlying human behavior and the social world we live in, translating scientific theory into simple and straightforward insight that can be applied in the workplace and beyond.

What are the key differences between pre-and post-pandemic work? 

The first thing to remember about the difference between pre- and post-pandemic work is that the change has been felt differently by workers across jobs and industries. Service workers or those working jobs that are location dependent do not have the same ability to work remotely and therefore, their ways of working may be relatively unchanged. Yet for those in office environments, trends like remote, hybrid, and gig work have left a permanent mark on the workplace. 

From a psychological vantage-point, the social distance created by these new ways of working poses challenges to the establishment of common social norms, shared identity, and clarity around performance expectations, as the cues and opportunities for social interaction are limited. Counteracting promises of increased flexibility, many workers are feeling the fatigue created by endless hours of remote meetings and the temptation for work hours to creep into personal time. In this way, behavior has not kept pace with changes in technology.

How can academic research make a practical improvement to worker well-being? 

There is a wealth of psychological literature on behavior and motivation that is ready for application into the workplace. There are so many insightful experiments from social and occupational psychology specifically, on the big topics like altruism, obedience, and conflict, that have not made their way into leadership development programs or practical advice for companies. If companies were to adopt a more humanistic perspective, by digging into the human drivers that corporate policies and procedures influence, greater employee well-being is likely to result. Right now, employees are calling out for a combination of financial, social, emotional, and physical well-being, which can be better informed by looking across disciplines and considering the workplace just like any other social environment where human drivers are at play.  

“If companies were to adopt a more humanistic perspective … greater employee well-being is likely to result.”

How do we develop and support the next generation of leaders in a more remote world? 

Remote, hybrid, and gig work pose distinct challenges for leaders to navigate. They will likely face employees who have a transactional mindset, less developed social networks, and inconsistent understandings of work expectations. Yet, they are likely to be more open to share their personal lives and have greater opportunities to work across geographies and cultures. As such, leaders will need the time and capability to set and communicate clear vision and goals, help employees navigate the organization, and capitalize fully on opportunities for social interaction. At the same time, these leaders might require coaching for themselves on how to attend to their own needs, even as they help others.

How does increased flexibility impact employees and organizations? 

Much of the attention on the topic of flexibility has focused on physical location (i.e. working from home instead of the office), however this is just one type of flexibility. Employees are also calling out for a say on when they work, with control over start and end times or the ability to work a 4-day week, prioritizing this type of flexibility over physical location. When flexibility is not provided, research by EY (Work Reimagined Employee Survey, 2021) discovered that 54% of employees were willing to quit their jobs. Employers have responded by providing leniency on working hours, offering unlimited paid time off, and providing home office equipment, yet at the expense of empty and eerily quiet offices.

“When flexibility is not provided, research by EY discovered that 54% of employees were willing to quit their jobs.”

What do you think the world of work will look like in 10 years? 

I think in time, we will see the pandemic as just one step along a journey away from the traditional office. Twenty years ago, offices were built on a need for record keeping. Pushes towards a paperless office made file drawers disappear and bookshelves go empty, yet the office hung on due to needs for employees to access computers and other technology. Laptops and cell phones took that need away, leaving personal interaction and collaboration as the core purpose. The pandemic taught us that even that was not sacred and video conferences were an effective mechanism to get work done. 

We have seen so much change in such a short time that it is difficult to predict what the future will hold. It is only in hindsight that we can see the progression of technology and how it can fundamentally change behavior and needs.

Visit the Rethink Work hub for more organizational psychology insights

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