Emma Parry: “In HR, we have a habit of following fashions”

The Cranfield HRM professor on separating fads from real trends in the future of work

Credit: Julian Dodd

The last two years were a massive upheaval for almost all organisations. But when it comes to the fundamentals of people management, Emma Parry, who heads up the Changing World of Work group at Cranfield School of Management, argues not as much has changed as you’d think.

The author of numerous publications on the subject, Parry has worked with organisations including the Home Office and the Department for International Development, as well as private sector firms. She is a firm believer in taking an evidence-based approach to HR policies and says context is king when understanding the needs of a workforce.

At a time when many organisations are still in a state of flux, People Management spoke to Parry about what the future might hold for flexible working, the skills shortage, and much more.

How do you understand the changing future of work?

I’m a big believer in a contextual approach to HR: this idea that we don’t have a ‘one size fits all’ approach, and what works in relation to people management is dependent on the organisation, sector, country, workforce, people, etc. That’s led me to undertake a lot of work about how the context is changing, hence the future of work.

In HR we have a habit of following fads and fashions. We get carried away with big ideas that might not necessarily be based on evidence. Generations are a classic example: we’ve seen consultancies and whole industries crop up around designing policies and practices to attract Millennials or Generation Z and actually, if you look at it, the evidence is weak.

What people want from an employee hasn’t really changed, and neither have the things that help keep people in an organisation. It’s about having a good relationship with your line manager; equity and reward; being recognised for what you’re doing; development and interest in the job; and meaningful work. 

Did we see a shift in the way people work even before the pandemic?

We are seeing different emphasis on different things. Flexibility is the big one, not just in relation to ways of working, but in relation to things like careers, job roles and benefits. We’re seeing people wanting personalisation of their employee experience and careers. People nowadays are much more willing to stand up for what they want, whether that’s ‘I’m worth more money so I’m going to move’; ‘I’m not interested in this in career anymore’; ‘I’ve now got a family, so I want more flexibility’; or standing up against climate change.

What does that mean for how businesses think about skills?

It’s about lifelong learning: how can we have this cycle of upskilling and reskilling people all the time so that they can adapt as their jobs adapt? That’s what we’re failing to do. Now, when someone comes into a job, they’re trained and then they work their way up some sort of hierarchy. In the future that’s not going to work, because we’re going to see skills become obsolete; because we know organisations need to be more agile; and because we know that technological advancement means skills need to change.

Some of it’s about agility, but some of it’s about recognising skills. We began to see that during the pandemic – think about the shift we had, when suddenly delivery drivers and care workers had the skills that were most important. In business we’re also quite reactive: I was talking to a construction company about the way their industry is becoming more digital, and they’re struggling because your typical civil engineer doesn’t necessarily have digital skills. That’s happening across sectors. We’re struggling to forecast the skills businesses are going to need 10 years down the road.

Lower-paid roles like carers are some of the most important yet hardest to fill – how do we attract people into them?

It’s about thinking how we can improve the employee value proposition so people get satisfaction from those jobs based on their meaning. You’re reliant on people who have a calling to do that sort of work, and at the same time the conditions are often quite difficult. They’re not well paid, and perhaps the benefits aren’t as good either. 

Are the changes businesses made during the pandemic here to stay?

I’m talking to a lot of organisations at the moment where line managers are saying they want people back in the office. The proof of the pudding will be whether those organisations let that carry on, or whether they take steps to challenge their line managers’ assumptions.

Of course, line managers are used to managing in a particular way. I’m used to managing in a way where I can see people in the office: they’re visible, I know if they’re working or not, and I can talk to them when I want to. It’s easier when everyone’s in one place. But we need to be helping team leaders performance manage people, communicate and collaborate and develop a team when not everyone is there and visible. You can have the best policies and practices in the world, but if the culture and line managers aren’t working in a way that’s inclusive and the culture isn’t inclusive, those policies and practices are useless.

Listen to Parry discussing the future of work on the brand new What If podcast (episode 1) from the CIPD’s Work. magazine, available via all good podcast providers