Research Highlight The future of work: what it means for employees
The way we work has been completely transfigured in recent years, with the surge in remote work, freelance and contract arrangements, agile management and the digitalisation of tasks. But do employees benefit from modern ways of working?
The future of work
In 2023, it would not be far-fetched to proclaim that the traditional 9-to-5, in which employees clock in at 9 am, out at 5 pm with a one-hour lunch break in the middle, is dead. Indeed, a large part of the 21st-century active population may be found either working from home, freelancing for several clients – possibly even as a digital nomad – or, on the lower rungs of society, taking their orders from the algorithms of an Uber-type food-delivery platform.
While work has always evolved, its recent transformation has taken place at an unprecedented speed and affected the workforce to an unprecedented extent. As a team of researchers writes in an article on ‘new ways of working’ published in The International Journal of Human Resource Management, “modern work arrangements challenge existing notions about where work takes place, how it is done, who does it and even what work is.” The Covid-19 pandemic accelerated existing trends, suggesting that an increasing number of individuals carry out work in a non-traditional way.
So when can work be described as ‘new’ as opposed to ‘old’ ways of working? Remote work is one obvious aspect. While the past couple of decades saw a significant increase in homeworking (up 115% in the US over the 2005-2015 period for example), the Covid-19 crisis made it relevant to a majority of the workforce nearly overnight. Automation is another aspect, with estimates suggesting that in about 60% of occupations, one-third of tasks could be automated. Last but not least, the number of gig workers – on temporary or freelance arrangements – is projected to rise to 78 million in 2023, up from 43 million in 2018.
These are not minor adaptations, but large-scale transformations. Yet little is known about their impact on employee experience. This is why the researchers set out to explore four major transformative processes and their benefits and downsides for employees’ attitudes, performances, skills, career advancement and well-being.
- Workspace and time
Flexible working, usually in the form of remote work, is generally perceived as beneficial for employees. Numerous studies show that they enjoy increased autonomy in managing their schedule and tend to report greater levels of satisfaction than their office-based counterparts, with such positive outcomes as reduced stress (no more commuting!) and less work-life conflicts.
But recent studies also show that ‘high-intensity teleworkers’ struggle over disconnecting outside working hours, which induces stress and exhaustion, with higher intentions to quit. While ‘telepresence robots’ (screens enabling co-workers to see each other) have been studied as a way to decrease feelings of isolation, they are also potential threats to privacy.
- Work relations
The employment contract, once “the basic foundation that ties individuals to an organisation” in the words of the researchers, is waning. Instead, employment relations are now (more loosely) organised along such options as temp agency workers, freelancers, contractors, etc. This whole ‘gig economy’ has grown to the extent that according to the research article, “crowd work represents the main job for 2% of the entire workforce in 14 countries in Europe.” Gig jobs also include direct sales, and the so-called ‘sharing economy’ in which platforms digitally connect workers.
Discussions around gig jobs emphasise their positive aspects, such as schedule flexibility and higher levels of compensation (the latter evidenced by a 2019 study comparing Uber drivers with traditional taxis). However, gig workers often hold ‘precarious positions’ and lack social and job security compared to ‘regular’ employees. Plus, note the authors, in a bid to appear continually available, “freelancers tend to work irregular hours and their work is often in conflict with their private commitments.” Although they may perceive their careers as successful, these are uncertain and fluid, and without some level of organisational support, freelancers have limited chances to develop their skills.
Last but not least, for those being assigned tasks through the algorithms often embedded in the digital platforms of the sharing economy, the lack of human interaction and feeling of surveillance result in reduced well-being.
- Content of work
Since the advent of the steam machine, much ink has already been poured about technology automating tasks previously carried out by humans, particularly dangerous or repetitive tasks, and about the fear – still very much alive – that jobs will simply disappear, with consequences in terms of anxiety for workers, especially among the less skilled.
More recently, research may have shown that machines may unleash human capabilities, but also has sparked questions about issues of agency that may arise for those working alongside ‘smart’ machines, with possible surveillance issues, and broader questions about new relations of power, authority and identity.
- Allocation and organisation of work
Conventional management hierarchies are evolving towards more ‘agile, participative’ ways of working. Agility is presented as a mainly positive new way to allocate work for employees, with improved engagement and satisfaction. The increased autonomy given to teams not only helps them navigate uncertain environments, but also “contribute[s] to the psychological empowerment and motivation of agile teams, with positive implications for the team's innovative behaviour and project performance.”
One caveat is that when management is delegated to algorithms in digital platforms, empathy and human connection are lost.
Challenges for human resources
Given the increase in non-traditional ways of working, HR practices need to adapt. For instance, suggest the researchers, “HR practices that are less often included in traditional HR bundles, such as wellbeing programmes or practices promoting job security, might be of high relevance to workers who are at the periphery of organisations (e.g. temporary or agency workers).”
Regarding flexibility, how to align the demands of workers (many of whom are less than keen to return to the office) and the operational needs of managers (persons present on-site to train new recruits for instance)? HR professionals will need to develop sophisticated solutions.