Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Will Work Really Change That Much?

 As people look ahead to the end of the Covid-19 pandemic, many are heralding a work-from-home revolution. But for centuries, it’s been easy to overstate predictions about the future of work. Even when they are not just plain wrong, such predictions are, at best, only partially true because how people experience work varies tremendously by education and skill level, gender, race, class, age, unionization, geography, sector, occupation, employer, and more. Even someone in 1935 who predicted a future of greater unionization in the wake of the then-new National Labor Relations Act would have been more wrong than right. 

Predictions about remote work are likely to suffer the same fate. Even during the height of the pandemic, less than half of U.S. workers were working remotely, and having the privilege of being able to do so was much less likely for Black and Hispanic workers and those without a college degree. When women choose flexible working arrangements, they are more likely than men to be perceived as having weakened career commitment. So even if we think that the future of work will be significantly different because remote work outlives the pandemic, this change will likely reproduce inequalities rooted in intersectional combinations of gender, race, and class. So at a fundamental level, this doesn’t sound like much of a change.

But will remote work even outlive the pandemic? The optimistic prediction is that workers who have been able to work at home will be able to have the autonomy to choose how to best structure their working arrangements. Most workers lost this autonomy with the advent of industrialization and the shift from home-based work to mills, factories, and offices. So at first glance, this could be a significant change for some workers. But less optimistically, this could become more of a return to pre-industrialization work arrangements than workers imagine. In a widely-publicized editorial, the CEO of Washingtonian Media openly admitted that if workers are rarely on-site, then “management has a strong incentive to change their status to ‘contractor.’” Indeed, Nicola Countouris and Valerio De Stefano warn that only employees with “highly-desirable, hard-to-find, firm-specific, ‘core’ skills” are likely to remain as regular employees while being allowed to work remotely; others are likely to be reclassified as contractors, with the accompanying loss of benefits and security. So even if it looks like workers have a choice of working remotely, for many it could be less of a free choice and more of an economically-coerced choice. Again, this doesn’t sound like much of a change in the fundamental nature of capitalist work.

Industry leaders have also been trying to lead the narratives around the future of remote work. Finance industry leaders have largely been preaching the need to return to the traditional office while technology industry leaders have signaled greater willingness to continue with remote work. These differences may stem from a variety of reasons, such as assumptions of how to manage workers, a need for different mentoring methods in certain settings, or the tech industry’s self-interest in selling products that support remote work. More generally, there are multiple reasons why a return to traditional work is likely, such as a need for belonging, learning from others, and separating work from home. But in any case, these narratives are laying the foundation for decisions about the future of work that will likely be made by employers, not workers, without significant worker voice.

While (some) employers are re-assessing their policies on work, it is also likely that workers and their families will be doing their own re-assessments. One recent survey revealed that a full-time, stay-at-home parent is the most popular family structure for caring for young children except among those earning more than $150,000. So 25 percent of women are thinking about reducing their labor market attachment, including dropping out of the workforce altogether. Others are re-assessing whether low-paid retail jobs are worth it when they face bullying from the public because of masks, their race, or other things that have become politicized and divisive. But until there are significant shifts in power relations, a recognition of deep-seated structural inequalities and privilege, and changed social norms, these reassessments are likely to yield individual and family decisions about work that react to the options available to them rather than shape new forms of work in meaningful ways. If work is going to shift more fundamentally, we need to center power and public policy, and do so in identity-conscious and intersectionality-aware ways.

So in thinking about the future of work, we need to remember that work is complex and diverse. If we focus on remote work, increased flexibility doesn’t fundamentally change the nature of the employment relationship. Workers are still trading their time for money fulfilling the policies and requirement set by employers. More importantly, a focus on remote work renders a majority of the workforce invisible, especially those who have traditionally been most vulnerable and least well-off. This is where a fundamental change is needed the most. So if we are looking at remote work to see whether work is really changing, we’re looking in the wrong place.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

The Importance of Cognitive Frames for Understanding HR Practices, Part 2 (Adding Workers In)

In the recent union organizing drive at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, workers were presented with competing narratives. Amazon portrayed unionization as unnecessary because it already provides good wages and benefits along with direct communication between workers and their managers, whereas union advocates emphasized the need for increased power through collective voice to counter Amazon’s power. While this messaging taps into employee fears or material interests, it also fundamentally reflects different beliefs about the underlying nature of the employment relationship. Is it best seen as a market-based transaction (which unions interfere with), a partnership in which organizations and workers share long-term interests (so unions are unnecessary), or an unequal relationship that includes conflict interests (so unions are needed to better balance power)?

Each of these underlying beliefs, which may be subconscious, comprises a distinct frame of reference on the nature of the employment relationship, where, more generally speaking, a frame of reference is a cognitive lens through which we perceive the world. In a previous post, I described the first part of new research with Dionne Pohler and Wei Huang in which we assert that we need to better consider leaders’ frames of reference in determining human resources (HR) strategies and practices. But as this example is meant to highlight, the second part of our research asserts the need to also factor in workers’ frames of reference.

As described in that post, we highlight four frames of reference on the employment relationship (neoliberal-egoist, unitarist, pluralist, and critical), and these apply equally to workers as well as organizational leaders. That is, workers have an implicit frame which shapes their expectations. One Amazon worker who supported unionization was quoted as saying, “I ain’t going to lie, I thought it was going to be a great place to work.” We can see differences in these expectations most visibly in the context of unionization, but this thinking applies to workers in all settings and pertains to all aspects of HR policies and practices. So just as we predict that a neoliberal-egoist manager will favor practices consistent with a transactional approach, a unitarist manager with a commitment approach, a pluralist manager with an accommodative approach, and a reformist critical manager with a cooperative approach, so, too, do we assert that neoliberal-egoist worker will favor practices consistent with a transactional approach, a unitarist worker with a commitment approach, a pluralist worker with an accommodative approach, and a critical worker with a cooperative approach.

But what happens when workers’ expectations are violated? Before addressing that, we recognize that there are many factors that push toward alignment rather than mismatch. Workers are not randomly assigned to organizations; rather, they apply for and accept certain jobs, are socialized into the organization, and can quit when their expectations are unfulfilled. Nevertheless, mismatched frames can occur for various reasons, including limited job opportunities for applicants, selection decisions that overlook fit or prioritize diversity, the inconsistent application of HR policies, new organizational leaders, and new events that change manager or employee frames. We’re not claiming that mismatch is more common than alignment; rather, we’re saying that the possibility of mismatch should not be overlooked as an organizational phenomenon and explanation for under-performing HR practices.

So again, what happens when workers’ expectations about HR practices are violated? We theorize that this will prompt workers to engage in a sensemaking process. This may cause them to come to accept what they are experiencing, to quit, or to resist the status quo. So a key part of our research is exploring what we think emerges from different combinations of (mis)matched frames between leaders and workers. For example, if they both have unitarist frames, we’d expect high-commitment HR practices created by leaders that are then embraced by workers, resulting in a high-performance organization. But a worker with a pluralist frame working for a neoliberal-egoist manager may try to find other similarly-minded co-workers to band together to fight for more voice, better pay, and other improved conditions. This mismatch is predicted to lead to conflict. Or, a neoliberal-egoist employee working for a unitarist manager is unlikely to engage with the high-commitment HR practices, leading to managerial frustration over under-utilized HR practices. Here is a brief summary of our predictions, with more detailed tables in our article:

Previous HR systems research has focused on archetypes—bundles or clusters of HR practices within organizations that are structurally determined, internally consistent, relatively stable over time, and documented across contexts—what we label here as transactional, commitment, accommodative, and cooperative. Our research seeks to highlight the important role of leaders’ frames of references, in addition to environmental, structural factors, for influencing the type of HR approach that emerges (see part 1 that precedes this postas well as the importance of shared frames with workers in order for an archetypical approach to be stable and result in less conflict. While there is a large research literature on person-organization fit, this has typically focused on job skills, organizational culture, or environmental and socially responsible values rather than beliefs regarding the structural nature of the employment relationship and resulting expectations about HR practices.

Moreover, by rooting expectations over HR practices in actors’ (mis)matched frames of reference, we can explain a broader and more nuanced set of HR policies and practices that better matches the variation observed in HR policies and practice in reality—including patterns that are more conflictual or the fact that competing organizations in the same industry can have very different HR strategies.

This also helps explain how conflict over HR practices sometimes results from employees wanting more, but also from managers’ frustration with a lack of employee commitment, loyalty, and participation. In this way, we propose a new categorization of HR practices: effective, underutilized, or causing recurring, antagonistic conflict.



Lastly, appreciating the potential importance of (mis)matched frames within the dynamics of an organization draws attention to the existence of framing contests within organizations. A framing contest is the intentional use of ideas and information to persuade others to adopt your frame, and thus follow your desired actions. We therefore expect managers to regularly use discursive practices to obtain and maintain employees’ acceptance of their frame of reference on the employment relationship as part of reinforcing a broader organizational logic that is viewed as legitimate. Organizations would generally have stronger communication channels than employees, but union organizing drives are one visible example where employees produce counter-narratives. In any case, this highlights the importance of communication practices within organizations not simply to inform, but to achieve conformity with the HR practices an organization wants its employees to buy into.

Source: John W. Budd, Dionne Pohler, and Wei Huang (forthcoming) "Making Sense of (Mis)Matched Frames of Reference: A Dynamic Cognitive Theory of (In)stability in HR Practices," Industrial Relations. [free access to the pre-publication version here].

Thursday, April 15, 2021

The Importance of Cognitive Frames for Understanding HR Practices, Part 1 (Organizational Leaders)

Last Fall, workers at two popular craft breweries in the Twin Cities (Fair State and Surly) announced their intent to unionize. The CEO of Fair State responded by saying “I am proud of the self-determination our team has shown by taking on the responsibility of organizing to make Fair State better,” and Fair State became the first U.S. microbrewery to unionize. However, Surly announced plans to close its taproom two days later. Even if this had already been planned due to pandemic-related financial losses, Surly certainly didn’t embrace the unionization effort, and it remains nonunion.

If market conditions determine human resources (HR) strategies and practices, such a stark difference is hard to explain. In a recent paper, Dionne Pohler, Wei Huang, and I assert that we also need to factor in the role of leaders’ frames of reference. A frame of reference is a cognitive lens through which we perceive the world. When someone says “labor union,” quick meanings probably come to mind; possibly, large, bureaucratic organizations protecting lazy workers, relics of a bygone era, or needed champions of social justice. This is because your brain has created a mental map based on prior experiences, assumptions, and beliefs. This then influences what you think is possible and desirable, perhaps subconsciously.

We focus on frames of reference on the nature of employment relationship, and consider four broad alternatives:

  1. The neoliberal-egoist frame in which organizations and workers are seen as dispassionate agents pursuing their own self-interest in economic markets that approximate ideal competitive conditions, often with a view that work is lousy but serves economic interests.
  2. The unitarist frame in which organizations and workers are seen as essential partners who can both thrive when appropriate policies and practices align and unite their mutual interests, which are often seen as psychological as well as economic.
  3. The pluralist frame in which organizations and workers are seen as having complex relationships in which they are each an important partner, but also that this partnership is set against a backdrop of bargaining power advantages for the organization which is important because not all of their interests coincide and can be aligned, potentially leading to harmful inequities.
  4. The critical frame in which capitalist organizations and workers are seen primarily as adversaries with opposing goals interacting in a world in which the dominant group uses its deep-seated economic and social power to maintain its advantages, systematically depriving the other of essential rights and standards.

We assert that most organizational leaders’ implicit views on the nature of the employment relationship can be usefully categorized as largely falling either in the neoliberal-egoist or unitarist frames. There can also be organizational leaders whose inherent beliefs are more consistent with the pluralist way of thinking.

Central to our work is that we assert that these views, even if subconscious, will influence what types of HR strategies and practices organizational leaders will prefer and implement. That is, neoliberal-egoist leaders will prefer transactional HR approaches, unitarist leaders will prefer commitment HR approaches, and pluralist leaders will prefer accommodative HR approaches:

Note that this dynamic can occur at various levels within an organization. The top leadership of an organization can have a certain frame that sets an overall HR direction, and then if lower-level managers have the same frame, their implementation practices will reinforce this direction. However, there are many ways in which lower-level managers can shape the implementation of HR policies consistent with their own frame. For example, a neoliberal-egoist manager could act in an authoritarian fashion while denying development opportunities to workers in a unitarist organization. So we admit that these relationships are complicated, but nevertheless we believe that research needs to place more attention on the importance of organizational leaders’ beliefs about the nature of the employment in considering how HR strategies and practices are determined and implemented. 

But what about the critical frame? The critical frame of reference sees the employment relationship as a deeply unequal one rooted in socio-political-economic dominance by an elite group, such as capital. A leader who holds this view could exploit this by acting only in the organization’s interest without regard for employee well-being. By dismissing employee welfare as something workers are themselves responsible for, such a leader would be acting in a neoliberal-egoist fashion, and would provide market-driven, take-it-or-leave terms and conditions of employment. Instead, consider a business owner who sees the employment relationship through a critical frame of reference but is bothered by the inequalities that disadvantage employees rather than seeking to exploit them.

Through a critical lens, redressing these inequalities requires structural changes in resources and decision-making rights. We label leaders who have this perspective as “critical reformist” because of the implied need to reform traditional capitalist organizational forms by creating non-hierarchical organizations or alternative employment models that are characterized by a relatively equal distribution of resources and shared authority over decision-making between managers and employees. We label this a cooperative approach where “cooperative” indicates worker-owned cooperatives (e.g., Mondragon) and other multi-stakeholder organizational governance forms (e.g., Stocksy). And thus, we can add another row to table above:

To return to the opening example, Fair State is, in fact, a cooperative, and hence the CEO sees unionization as “one more step to building the business that we have envisioned from the beginning—one where workers and consumers each have a say and stake in a business, working together to build something beautiful and thriving.” The Surly leaders might not be surly, but with more of a unitarist mindset they did not embrace unionization. More generally, previous HR systems research has focused on archetypes—bundles or clusters of HR practices within organizations that are structurally determined, internally consistent, relatively stable over time, and documented across contexts. Our research seeks to highlight the important role leaders’ frames of references can play in influencing an organization’s HR approach, in addition to environmental, structural factors.

But what about workers? They are also humans (!), and as such have their own cognitive frames, including on the nature of the employment relationship. So they have their own expectations about HR practices. This is an essential element of our paper, and is addressed in a follow-up post. Or you can watch our animated video overview.

Source: John W. Budd, Dionne Pohler, and Wei Huang (forthcoming) "Making Sense of (Mis)Matched Frames of Reference: A Dynamic Cognitive Theory of (In)stability in HR Practices," Industrial Relations. [free access to the pre-publication version here].