Meet Professor Emma Parry, Professor of Human Resource Management and Head of the Changing World of Work group within Cranfield School of Management…
Professor Parry’s research covers the impact of contextual factors and changing external context on the world of work, including the workplace, the workforce, and how people are managed, so we interviewed her to find out more about her role and research.
“I love research – I think it’s really exciting. You learn something all the time. I especially love the applied research that we do at Cranfield. I love the fact that I can work closely with organisations, help them address problems, and learn something along the way.”
Can you tell us a little about your role within the School of Management, and what your research covers?
“Broadly, my research interests are about context, and how context – and particularly the changing external context – might affect anything to do with people in organisations, particularly how we manage people. One area that I’ve done quite a lot of work on is around national context, and how managing people varies across different countries. I’m interested in how the context in a country – whether that’s about culture or something else – affects how we manage people, and how it affects careers and how people behave at work. I also do a lot of work about how emerging technologies and technological advancement generally affect how we work – so, the world of work, the workplace, and the workforce – but also how we can use technology to better manage people. Then, the third area is around age demographics. How is the make-up of the workforce changing, and how does that affect how we manage people? A big part of that in recent years has been about how workforce attitudes are changing and whether that is really about age, or whether it’s about when people were born in the generational sense. I’ve done quite a lot of work about generational diversity and take quite a critical view, because I’m not a big supporter of the idea that we have these different groups in the workforce. Alongside those three main strands, there’s lots of stuff that crops up, but anything that’s about the changing macro environment and how that affects work and the way we manage people interests me. So, of course, in the last 18 months, a lot of the conversations that I’ve had with organisations and some of the work that I’ve done has been about COVID-19 and how that is affecting work, the workplace and the workforce, and how that affects how we manage people, including things like remote working and hybrid working.”
What drew you to research – and, specifically, HR research – as a career path?
“As with a lot of careers, it wasn’t completely planned. I was always interested in psychology so I studied in that, and then did a PhD because I had got into research after my Master’s and wanted to do more. I was offered some funding at Cranfield in what was then the College of Aeronautics, so I did my PhD there but, after that, the plan was to get into consultancy and earn big bucks. I didn’t want to stay in academia, so I looked for jobs, and joining Cranfield was really happenstance to be honest. I went to a careers counsellor and they said to me: ‘You say you want to do consultancy but, actually, when you talk about research, you light up and you seem to be really excited about it’. That made me reflect and, at the same time, someone approached me from the School of Management – it was someone who had done their PhD in the same centre as me – and said: ‘We’re looking for a researcher on a project, are you interested?’ This was in 2002. I didn’t have a job yet, so I said: ‘Yeah, okay, I’ll do that’. And the rest is history, really. The job was in what was the Human Resources Research Centre, so I ended up in HR and it’s just progressed from there. So, getting into research and my job was complete chance, but I’ve stayed in it because it is the thing that makes me light up and get excited. I’ve had an unusual academic career compared to some people in that I’ve never had a really high teaching load – I’ve always focused on research.”
What does a typical day look like for you?
“There are no two days the same in my role, which is good because I get bored quickly. Pre-COVID I travelled a lot because I’m part of a couple of international networks to do research because I’m interested in national context. So, I could be anywhere; I could be out in the UK collecting data, interviewing people, or in an organisation working with them. I could be teaching. I could be working with a doctoral student. I could be head-down, writing. I don’t think there is a typical day, and I wouldn’t do this job, to be honest, if every day was the same: it’s the variety that keeps me going.”
Why did you choose to work at Cranfield?
“As I’ve already mentioned, it was really happenstance, but the reason I stay is because it is a very dynamic environment. It changes all the time, and there are always opportunities. I get bored very quickly. But Cranfield allows you to be quite autonomous and entrepreneurial as long as you’re ticking the boxes, so it allows you to carve out your own career and create new things. That works for me. I couldn’t work in a more controlled environment. I could also never work in an academic institution where I only did work that other scholars read, that was highly theoretical. Now, I do quite a lot of work that’s quite theoretical, but it’s very much about informing practice. My job is very much walking that tightrope between consultancy and academia, because I do a lot of work that’s nearer to consultancy, albeit with an evidence-based approach.”
What is your favourite part of your job?
“I work on a lot of research programmes, like the PhD and the Doctorate in Business Administration. I love research – I think it’s really exciting. You learn something all the time. I especially love the applied research that we do at Cranfield. I love the fact that I can work closely with organisations, help them address problems, and learn something along the way. That really excites me. It’s always excited me. When you’re younger and earlier on in your career, it’s all about your learning. Now I’m at a point where I’m realising that, actually, people can learn things from me or I can help support people to learn, whether that’s students, doctoral researchers or people within organisations, supporting them to solve problems.”
Tell me more about your current research.
“At the moment, I have six months left of a two-and-a-half year project for the Ministry of Defence, which is about how the context is changing and how that will affect the future world of work, specifically what that means for recruitment, retention and management of people in defence, whether that’s soldiers or civil servants. We’re looking at the demographic make-up of the workforce, but also how macro-level trends are affecting people’s expectations and preferences, as well as their behaviours at work. I’m also involved in a cross-country study with more than 20 countries looking at careers from an individual perspective, including increased social isolation, reliance on technology and the impact of what we might call career shocks – if you’ve lost your job or been furloughed for example. So, thinking about the pandemic, has it affected people’s attitudes towards their careers in terms of their expectations and what they want out of a career? After everything we’ve been through over the past year, do we want to spend more time doing things that make a difference? Or, if we’ve been furloughed or made redundant, is it all about job security and money? There is some data out there that suggests that people at all stages of their careers, but particularly those aged 30 and below, a lot of them are talking about leaving their jobs and doing something different. Whether they do that and it is practical to do so may be another matter, but I think the experience we’ve had over the past 18 months does cause you to reflect, especially if as some people have, you’ve had an enforced period of time out of the workplace, whether on furlough or longer, it does make you think: ‘Is this really what I want to do?’ It’s a cliché, but it makes you realise life is short.”
Why does research into the changing world of work matter? What does it aim to do?
“I think we’ve had a tendency historically to have a one-size-fits-all approach to everything – to do this HR practice and it works for everyone. Well, there’s growing evidence that, actually, it doesn’t. It’s not universal. So, I think it’s important that we take a more contextual approach, because we know that the changing context is affecting how we’re managing people. We have these differences in attitudes and these changing attitudes, because the world isn’t the same as it used to be. When I grew up, we didn’t have computers like we do now. At university, I wrote all my assignments on paper. So, if you think back to what was only 30 or 40 years ago, when I was a teenager, the world has changed dramatically. I think it’s really important that we understand that. The changing world of work is a very buzzy subject – there’s a lot of rhetoric out there and, to be frank, a lot of it is rubbish! Just look at the past year or 18 months – everybody is talking about how the world is going to look after COVID. Some of that is very evidence-based and rigorous, some of it is not.”
What is the real-world impact?
“If we take the MoD project as an example, we’re looking forward to about 2035, and what that might mean in terms of what people want and need from work, and what the workforce looks like physically. That then translates into what the MoD needs to do now to change what they’re doing to prepare for that.”
Is your research interdisciplinary? If so, how does it bring together the different fields/themes?
“The defence project is interdisciplinary because, as soon as you start talking about the macro-level context, it brings in elements around technology and social policy and human geography, environmental aspects and sustainability. I’m working with external people on this particular project, but I could have worked with colleagues in our environment theme, for example, on it. I’ve just finished another project for defence in which I worked with colleagues in Cranfield Defence and Security. It was around developing a tool for the future, scoping a tool that could identify, manage, track and forecast knowledge, skills, experience and other attributes – so it was very future-focused.”
What comes next?
“I’m beginning to try to explore doing some work with Cranfield’s Centre for Robotics in terms of the psychology of working with robots. How do people feel about working with them, and how does it impact their career? I think there’s something really interesting in that that I’d like to explore. A lot of the work I do is about technological advancements, so partnerships with people in our School of Aerospace, Transport and Manufacturing generally make a lot of sense to me.”
Do you have any advice to offer potential students who are thinking of coming to Cranfield to study the changing world of work?
“The first thing I would say to people would be to recognise what I said before – that this is a subject that is often talked about and you need to be able to cut through some of the rhetoric and a lot of the popular conversation that’s out there to make sure you’re really getting at the evidence. I’d recommend a grounding in a discipline, whether that’s human resources like me, strategy, marketing, psychology, sociology… so you can take an evidence-based approach towards whatever you’re doing. At Cranfield, most of our Master’s courses in the School of Management talk about the future of work, the changing world of work or at least the changing world in some way. If you do a procurement and supply chain management Master’s, you look at emerging technologies. If you do marketing, you talk about big data and analytics and emerging technologies, and the same if you do HR. So, I would say choose your discipline and take the changing world lens on it, don’t choose the changing world of work as a subject in itself. I would also encourage people to realise that this is a difficult and challenging area, because you’re talking about the future. We don’t have a crystal ball, so looking at the changing world of work is challenging and problematic, as well as exciting, because – actually – we don’t know. It’s not like when you do some research and something has happened before from which you can draw conclusions and say: ‘We’re quite confident this will happen’. It’s happened to me – five years or so ago, I had done a piece of work about future attitudes and the things that were shaping them. We were really pleased with it, then, a few months later, we voted to leave the EU, which threw everything out of the window! Obviously, the referendum had been on the cards, but I’m not sure that people at the point we did the work really expected what did to happen. Two years ago, when I was starting the MoD project, we didn’t know about COVID. We started in December 2019, and it was just emerging in Asia. People weren’t calling it COVID-19 and we didn’t know much about it. The ever-changing context is what makes this area exciting, but it takes the certainty out of it, so if you’re a person that likes certainty then it’s not the area for you!”
And finally, what do you do when you’re not working?
“I’ve become a bit of a fitness fan, so I always make sure I make time to either go to the gym or for a run. That’s my stress release and my way of staying healthy. I like to spend time outside walking. I love theatre, I do a bit of art, and I love travelling. I’m lucky to travel quite a lot in my job, but often it is all airports, hotel rooms and the inside of a university, so you could be anywhere really. So, if I’m going somewhere new or somewhere that I like, I try to take at least an extra day so I can look around, or plan a holiday attached to the trip. I go to North America probably two or three times a year, so I’ve taken holidays in Alaska, the US, across Canada, and in the Rockies. I’ve seen some beautiful parts of the world. I take students on a study tour every year, so I’ve been to Malawi and I’ve been to Sri Lanka five times. I’m very lucky that my job allows me to do that.”
The Changing World of Work Group brings together expertise in the areas of Human Resource Management, Employment Relations, Leadership, Organisational Behaviour and Gender, Diversity and Inclusion in order to explore and address these changes.