The Future of Work: An interview with Professor Lucy Taksa from Macquarie University

Against the backdrop of the World Economic Forum 2019 Annual Meeting, The future of work is at the heart of global debate.

We spoke to Professor Lucy Taksa, co-director of Macquarie University’s Centre for Workforce Futures, to understand her perspective on the Future of Work, and gain insight into what might be missing from current discussions, where leaders need to focus and what she is currently researching.

Ranging from integrating temporal workers, to reckless indifference to bias, to the dark side of technology, Professor Taksa brings a different lens to the Future of Work conversation.

Q: What pre-existing, underlying organisational issues are not currently being addressed in the Future of Work conversation: what aren’t we hearing about? What’s being overlooked and how should these issues be addressed?

A: Diversity is continuing to become more, not less complicated and it will remain a key characteristic of tomorrow’s workforce – not just in terms of our demographic differences, such as age, gender, and ethnicity/culture, but also in our approaches to work, including cognitive diversity and communication and problem solving styles, and in types of careers that will encompass temporal and flexible workers.

A big issue I think we need to face centres on accommodation of difference. We hear a lot of rhetoric around recruitment, retention and talent with respect to diversity, but we don’t hear enough about mechanisms to effectively value differences, acknowledge identity issues and ensure that particular skill sets are accommodated. For example, while we claim to celebrate cultural diversity, we tend to adopt a deficit rather than an asset model (Taksa and Groutsis, 2013). A good example is the way we view people whose first language is not English, or speak numerous different languages and therefore have different communication styles. Instead of focusing on their lack of English proficiency, we could consider how to leverage their linguistic skills and capacities. We need to look beyond human capital and qualifications by adopting a more nuanced approach to diverse forms of cultural capital.

Take neuro-diversity as another example. This is an area being investigated by a colleague at Macquarie University (Krzeminska,et.al., forthcoming) focusing on autism in the workplace. Research in this area is important for industries like IT, where we have a shortage of employees with specific skill sets, yet potential pools of candidates who may be overlooked. While our current regulatory framework around discrimination is an important starting point, I think we need a more nuanced approach to accommodating difference, which can include, engaging and empowering people who could add a lot of value to organisations.

Another critical issue I don’t think we’re dealing with is that of flexible work. We hear a lot about the increasing uptake and benefits of flexibility…but the question remains – benefits for whom? And how? It is often said that flexibility benefits women, especially through part time work, but research has shown that there are career costs related to that flexibility (Goudswaard and de Nanteuil, 2000; Manning and Petrongolo, 2008; Russo and Hassink, 2008). For example, working from home, and flexible working arrangements still involve high role overload and high family to work interference.

Relatedly, our organisations are not adequately dealing with the integration of more temporal workers with full-time employees. While the integration of employees in organizations is critical, some studies have shown that the integration of temporary workers with full-time workers is no easy matter (Mitlacher, 2008). Lack of effective management of blended workforces can have serious consequences such as low trust, lack of association with the organisation, low morale and higher staff turnover – all of which can lead to tangible costs. Issues of temporality and workplace flexibility have been explored in global research for some time, and increasing numbers of international studies on the impact of open and flexible workspace have highlighted health and productivity-related problems that require attention (Pejtersen, et. Al., 2011; Kamarulzaman, 2011). More recently, Harvard scholars, Bernstein and Turban (2018) indicated that open plan arrangements tended to trigger withdrawal from office colleagues.

Q: In the Future of Work, are you seeing new issues arising that need to be addressed? What do leaders need to focus on?

A: In my view, the increase in diversity that we are seeing requires us to consider the introduction of higher standards of behaviour in workplaces. This is particularly important in terms of unconscious or implicit bias, where the research shows (Correll, 2017; Duguid and Thomas-Hunt, 2015; Kalev, Dobbin and Kelly, 2016) that training to minimise biases has not actually had the desired outcome, but instead it can normalise bias, or give rise to resentment, making it possible for people to avoid being accountable for their biases and biased behaviour (Banks and Ford, 2009).

In the workplace, it is reasonably foreseeable that our behaviours and actions will affect others. I wonder why the notion of a duty of care to prevent reasonably foreseeable harm, central to common law tort, doesn’t apply in the workplace. I wonder why that notion of duty of care is not also a standard for discrimination and bias. In a recent opinion piece with Conversation and a Critical Issues Discussion Paper, I and a colleague (Louise Thornthwaite) also ask why is it that we have standards of behavior set by Workplace Health and Safety laws, which includes bullying for example, but those same standards don’t apply in relation to bias, stereotyping, discrimination and the like? In some instances, that bias is either negligent, or amounts to reckless indifference…in such cases, I would argue that people need to be held up to higher standards.

In a separate vein, we hear a lot about technology-based solutions, such as online training, in the context of future of work. This over-reliance on technological solutions worries me because it can lead to lip-service being given to training, and result in a compliance-based culture, rather than an engagement-based orientation. The question we need to ask ourselves, is how are we deploying this new technology? Is it undermining or supporting opportunities for interaction, creativity, and control over one’s work?

To use an analogy, the vacuum cleaner was depicted as ‘making life easier’, but in reality, millions of working class women lost their jobs, and middle class women had to do domestic labour that held them up to higher standards of cleanliness (Oakley, 1974). Whilst presented as the latest technology, its deployment had hidden costs and implications that were not sufficiently considered. This is something for leaders to keep in mind…

Q: What is next for you in your research? What insights will you be focusing on?

A: Overall my research focuses on identifying and collecting more data to enhance understanding of various complex diversity issues that have been under-researched in the past.

Currently, I am working on two projects, which tap into the need for a more nuanced approach to diversity and inclusion, and having higher standards of behavior. The first is an OECD multi-country survey, ‘Diversity in the Workforce’ focusing on HR professionals’ views of diversity strategies and initiatives, which was conducted in Australia by the Australian Human Resource Institute (AHRI). Included in this survey were specific questions on efforts to address conscious and unconscious biases.

The second but related area I have been investigating vilification in Australian workplaces. For this project I have been reviewing cases in the Australian Fair Work Commission. This subject is closely related to the problem of bias and stereotyping and it is often concealed by the fact that it’s often dealt with as part of general discrimination. To my mind, investigating naming practices provides a way of exploring how inter-cultural and cross-religious relationships are playing out in our workplaces. This work builds on previous work I have done on the misrepresentation of women leaders through gender ambiguous nicknaming (Pullen and Taksa, 2016).

This year I am also beginning a new Australian Research Council funded project, ‘Demographic and social dimensions of migrant ageing and wellbeing in Australia’, with colleagues at Macquarie University and UNSW (Fei Guo, Max Tani and Zhiming Cheng) and also from the University of Southern California (Lihua Liu) and the Global Labor Organisation (Klaus Zimmerman). In my part of the study I’ll be focusing on the role of social capital – i.e. community, organisations and family – in sustaining health throughout the ageing process. In the context of future of work, we have many migrants in the workforce, but also many migrants who are in older age-brackets who are under-employed and. I think this particular ARC project will help identify critical issues to better understand the relationship between work, and non-work in a migrant context.

For further information contact: Prof Lucy Taksa or Sarah Sgroi (interviewer) or visit Centre for Workforce Futures.

References

Bernstein ES and Turban S. (2018) ‘The impact of the “open” workspace on human collaboration’. Philosophical Transactions B. Royal Society. B 373:

Correll, S.J. (2017) ‘Reducing Gender Biases In Modern Workplaces: A Small Wins Approach to Organizational Change’, Gender & Society. 31 (6): 725–750.

Dobbin, F. and Kalev, A. (2016) ‘Why Diversity Programs Fail’, Harvard Business Review. 94 (7): https://hbr.org/2016/07/why-diversity-programs-fail

Duguid, M. M. and M. C. Thomas-Hunt (2015) ‘Condoning Stereotyping? How Awareness of Stereotyping Prevalence Impacts Expression of Stereotypes’, Journal of Applied Psychology. 100(2): 343–359.

Goudswaard, A. and de Nanteuil, M. (2012) ‘Flexibility and Working Conditions: A Qualitative and Comparative Study in Seven EU Member States’. Luxemburg: The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working

Conditions.https://www.eurofound.europa.eu/publications/report/2000/working-conditions/flexibility-and-working-conditions-a-qualitative-and-comparative-study-in-seven-eu-member-states

Kamarulzaman, N., Saleh, A. A., Hashim, S. Z., Hashim, H. Abdul-Ghani, A. A. (2011) ‘An Overview of the Influence of Physical Office Environments towards Employees’. Procedia Engineering 20: 262 – 268

Krzeminska, A., Bruyere, S., Austin, R., & Hedley, D. (Accepted/In press). Advantages and Challenges of Neurodiversity Employment in Organizations. Journal of Management and Organization.
Van den Bosch, K.E., Krzeminska, A., Song, E.Y., van Hal, L.B., (2018) ‘Nothing about us, without us: A case study of a consumer-run organization by and for people on the autism spectrum in the Netherlands’, Journal of Management and Organisation, 1-17

Manning, A. and B. Petrongolo (2008). ‘The part-time pay penalty for women in Britain’. Economic Journal 118.526, F28–F51.

Mitlacher. L.R (2008) ‘Job quality and temporary agency work: Challenges for human resource management in triangular employment relations in Germany’. International Journal of Human Resource Management Vol. 19, No 3.pp. 446-460

Oakley, A. (1974) Woman’s Work: The Housewife, Past and Present. New York, Vintage Books.

Pullen, A. and Taksa, L., (2016) ‘In the name of the other: nicknaming and gendered misrepresentation/s of women leaders’, in Elliott, C., Stead, V., Mavin, S., Williams, J. (eds) Gender, Media, and Organization: Challenging Mis(s)Representations of Women Leaders and Managers, Vol. 5 of Women and Leadership: Research, Theory, and Practice Series. Charlotte North Carolina: Information Age Publishing, Inc., pp. 111–132.

Russo, G. and W. H. J. Hassink (2008). ‘The part-time wage gap: A career perspective’. De Economist 156.2, pp. 145–174.

Taksa, L., and Groutsis, D. (2013) ‘Managing Diversity in the Workplace: Considering the neglect of identity’ in Jakubowicz, A. and Ho, C. (eds) For those who’ve come across the seas …’: Australian Multicultural Theory, Policy and Practice. Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Press, pp. 183-197.

Taksa, L. and Thornthwaite, L. (2018) ‘Training won’t end discrimination, we have to hold people responsible’, The Conversation, 30 August, https://theconversation.com/training-wont-end-discrimination-we-have-to-hold-people-responsible-101035.

Taksa, L. and Thornthwaite, L. (2018) ‘Shifting the dial from biased mental states to higher standards of behaviour’, Centre for Workforce Futures Critical Issues Discussion Papers Series, https://www.mq.edu.au/research/research-centres-groups-and-facilities/prosperous-economies/centres/centre-for-workforce-futures/publications.

Pejtersen J.H., Feveile H., Christensen KB, Burr H. (2011) ‘Sickness absence associated with shared and open-plan offices–a national cross sectional questionnaire survey’. Scandinavian Journal of Work Environmental Health. 37(5):376-82.


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