10 September 2020

Professor Sharon Parker is a John Curtin Distinguished Professor at Curtin University, whose research focus is the design of jobs and work, and the vital role that this design has in delivering a thriving economy with a healthy, flourishing workforce. Awarded $2.9m through the ARC’s 2016 Kathleen Fitzpatrick Australian Laureate Fellowship, Professor Parker has used this research funding to establish the Centre for Transformative Work Design, conducting high quality, independent and innovative research to understand the role of work design in generating healthy and productive work.

The Centre’s research program has operated through five research streams, examining work design through the lens of technology and societal change, the knowledge and skills that go into good work design, and how work design affects employees’ health and well-being. The Centre is also establishing longitudinal studies that look at how work design transforms individuals, teams and organisations over long periods of time.

However, in recent months the research program of the Centre has suddenly turned its attention to the unfolding COVID-19 crisis, and the subsequent shift of much of the workforce to working from home. Some of the Centre’s own research programs have had to be suspended, but the opportunities and challenges of studying this unprecedented situation have since occupied Professor Parker’s team in new ways.

“Although research already existed on working from home, the COVID situation was entirely new,” says Professor Parker.

“Previously, working from home was usually a choice, given to those trusted by their manager to work more independently. The current situation often feels less like working ‘from’ home, and more like working ‘at’ home, with no choice involved. So we thought ‘let’s create some studies on this topic’!”. 

In April 2020, during the early stages of lockdown, the research team began to survey approximately 1000 workers from all around the world, asking them about their experience of working from home. They have continued tracking several hundred of the survey participants, once per week for the first four weeks, then once a month, collecting eight snapshots so far. Some of the survey respondents are already back in the office, while some remain at home.

“We did find that the levels of psychological distress were high,” says Professor Parker. “During normal times, about 13% of workers report high or very high distress, but we have found these levels are at least double that at the moment. The question we now ask is why—what are the factors?”

Professor Parker says the responses have been mixed—and in fact, many people loved working from home and found it to be more productive.

“It’s not all gloom and doom. We can do something about it by managing better. We’ve been systematically measuring the factors that help and hinder people’s productivity, things like whether they have a big home office, or are working with kids around. Most importantly, people’s quality of work makes a significant difference to their wellbeing.

“For example, we found that wellbeing is linked to whether or not people are given some autonomy over their work. We found a fair chunk of people are feeling micromanaged at home —managers don’t know how to manage people who are out of sight. Some managers are really struggling to trust employees with consequences for employees’ mental health. At this time, not only do managers need to trust people, they also need to provide them with emotional and practical support.”

Professor Parker’s research group has also looked at the impact of lockdown and enforced periods of quarantine on the mental health of fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) workers, a group that already spends long periods of time away from children and family and friends. 

“Because of the need to self-isolate before and after going to remote places to work, many of these workers have been away 14 weeks or more, and some still can’t get home because of the hard borders. So we are looking into the experience of these workers and how they are coping and what organisations can do to make their work lives better.”

Professor Parker says that deeper changes to work patterns are starting to happen, and some CEOs ‘have dollar signs in their eyes’, seeing the potential to cut costs by retaining a portion of their workforce at home. But although there is potential for both workers and CEOs to cut costs by working at home, with no need to commute into offices in the city, there is a risk of ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’.

“Especially in those industries in which teams need to come together to engage in complex problem solving and be innovative, our research pre-COVID shows that performance will be higher when the activities are conducted face to face. It is important to be able to spark ideas off each other.”

Overall, Professor Parker says that the COVID crisis has made us all aware of just how much we do value having work, and that well-designed jobs, apart from the financial security, are a significant part of our wellbeing.

“It’s not just about having work, it’s about having quality work where you’re supported, where you engage in tasks that feel meaningful, where you’re autonomous. That has become really clear to people, whereas perhaps before COVID it was a bit more under the surface,” says Professor Parker.

“You realise the profound effect that work has on your life when it changes.”

 

Image: Professor Sharon Parker. Credit: Centre for Transformative Work Design.