The Role of Organizational Design in the Future of WorkPosted on by
The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly impacted our society and economy. Every day, employers and workers find themselves encountering unforeseen challenges, finding novel ways of working, and adapting to a “new normal.” In a time when much is unknown, one thing is clear: the future of work is already here.
As it unfolds, the future of work will continue to include complex changes to the workplace, work, and workforce, all of which will require sustained attention from occupational safety and health (OSH) stakeholders. An inaugural blog on the NIOSH Future of Work Initiative introduced nine future of work priority topics, which were developed to serve as a guiding framework for future of work research and practice-based activities. A series of planned NIOSH Science Blogs will provide an overview of the priority topics, and each blog will be paired with a NIOSH-hosted webinar featuring both NIOSH and external expert speakers. This opening blog of the series highlights the first future of work priority topic with vital implications for the safety, health, and well-being of tomorrow’s workforce: organizational design.
Organizational design refers to the physical and functional infrastructures influencing where, when, and how work is conducted. It includes many psychosocial and physical aspects of the workplace that greatly impact worker safety and health, such as: autonomy, burnout and stress prevention, healthy leadership, job flexibility, leave systems, scheduling, social and corporate responsibility, workplace built environment, workspace, and work-life fit.
Poor organizational design can contribute to work stress, an increasingly critical well-being issue. Today, roughly two-thirds of individuals find work to be a significant source of stress (1). Elevated stress levels have been associated with a number of unfavorable health issues for workers, including poor physical health, burnout, anxiety, and depression (2). Evidence suggests workers will be at even greater risk for mental and emotional stress in the future, due to increasingly blurred work-life boundaries, greater demands for 24/7 work availability, and decreased interpersonal connections at work (3).
These changes will also contribute to workers’ increasing need to simultaneously manage work and personal life obligations. Flexible work arrangements, including that which is afforded through employer-sponsored leave (i.e., paid vacation, sick, parental, caregiving) have become one of the most prevalent methods for improving work-life fit, as the flexibility provided helps workers to successfully balance competing demands (4), increases job performance, job satisfaction, autonomy, and creativity (5-7). Innovations in information communication technologies such as Wi-Fi-enabled laptops, smartphones, and tablets make it possible to accomplish countless jobs from almost anywhere at practically any time of day or night (8, 9). This has led to virtual, remote, and telework becoming fairly widespread and accepted ways of working (10). At the same time, the frequency of jobs with a fixed schedule, a dedicated location, and direct control by a single employer has decreased (11). The COVID-19 pandemic has also led to additional growth in flexible work (8), a pattern that may continue post-pandemic, as worldwide issues demand.
The physical boundaries of work becoming more fluid will also play a role in how employers provide and maintain safe working environments. Whether work is conducted at one key location, home office, mobile site, or in another country or time zone, the physical work environment will continue to impact worker well-being and organizational performance (12, 13), meaning that future workers will continue to require access to ergonomic workstations and tools, personal protective equipment, and hazard-free work environments (14). However, as new workplace facilities are constructed, existing worksites are modernized, and workspaces change, employers may need to consider using different means to foster worker safety and health.
Amid changes in the future of work, a mounting body of research suggests healthy leadership will continue to play a crucial role in protecting and promoting worker well-being. Healthy leaders will need to create conditions that support and empower future workers by communicating clearly and leading by example; creating a respectful work community; imparting fairness and autonomy in scheduling and decision-making; managing workloads and building in time for recovery; offering rewards to illustrate appreciation; and maintaining health awareness (15).
Additionally, the role of corporate social responsibility is predicted to become an even more critical organizational design issue in the future (16). Encompassing the economic, legal, ethical, and discretionary (philanthropic) expectations society has of organizations at a given time (17), corporate social responsibility is an important psychosocial risk management tactic that can positively impact the quality of working life (18, 19). Examples include providing safe working environments, diversity and inclusion policies, childcare programs, continuing education, worker community engagement opportunities, and ethical labor practices (20).
As more traditional ways of working diminish and more flexible ones abound, organizational design-related OSH concerns may increase in the future. Tackling challenges and harnessing opportunities presented by future of work developments in organizational design requires input from stakeholders at all levels. Please tell us about innovative organizational design features you have experienced and how they have impacted you.
Would you like to learn more about the impact of organizational design on tomorrow’s workforce? Join us on Wednesday, January 27, 2021 from 2pm-3pm EST for the inaugural NIOSH Future of Work Initiative webinar: The Role of Organizational Design in the Future of Work, featuring Dr. Jessica Streit from NIOSH and Dr. Leslie Hammer from the Oregon Institute of Occupational Health Sciences, Oregon Healthy Workforce Center. This webinar is open and free to all; registration is required: NIOSH Future of Work Webinar Series. The webinar is available here.
To learn more about the NIOSH Future of Work Initiative, please visit the Future of Work Initiative webpage.
Sara L. Tamers, PhD, MPH is Coordinator of the NIOSH Future of Work Initiative, Coordinator of the Total Worker Health® Program, and Assistant Coordinator of the Healthy Work Design and Well-Being Program.
Jessica M.K. Streit, PhD, CHES® is a Research Psychologist and Deputy Director of the NIOSH Office of Research Integration.
Naomi Swanson, PhD is a Research Psychologist at NIOSH.
Leslie Hammer, PhD is Co-Director of the Oregon Healthy Workforce Center, Oregon Institute of Occupational Health Sciences
- American Psychological Association. Stress in America 2019: Stress over election, health care and mass shootings: https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/. 2019.
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