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Changing work presents a wealth of research topics

Is there anything stable left in work life? At least constant change, say Future of Work researches, and advocate joining forces in work related research.
Hertta Vuorenmaa ja Eero Vaara. Kuva: Venla Helenius.
Hertta Vuorenmaa and Eero Vaara list five central research areas: leadership, industries and business models, servitisation, organising and strategy work. Photo: Venla Helenius.

Work life is changing at a tremendous pace. Many jobs no longer depend on time, place, or work contracts. Robotics and AI are altering or obsoleting old professions, while societal changes are creating entirely new ways of organizing work.

It is no wonder that Aalto University researchers are fascinated by the intensifying transformation of work and technology. The four-year Future of Work research project has ambitious goals. Funded by the Academy of Finland and Aalto University, this research project aims to bring together all Aalto University researchers interested in the transformation of work and create a world-class hub for studying the future of work.

“Future of Work helps work-life researchers find each other and work together,” says researcher Hertta Vuorenmaa.

“We also bring together leaders, policy makers and think tanks. We are organising various kinds of events and lecture series to create a forum for discussions – and we have exciting research collaboration with both public and private sector organisations. Ilmarinen is a good example of an organisation that we have versatile research collaboration with,” Professor Eero Vaara adds.

“Our aspiration is to have Aalto University and Future of Work be the first things that come to people’s minds when they ponder where to find the most relevant research on the transformation of work.”

Practical answers that benefit everyone

Vaara and Vuorenmaa emphasise that the world is full of research that no one can find, or which has no practical benefits outside academia. Future of Work strives to change this. It challenges researchers to create answers about the changing nature of work that are relevant and useful for society, businesses and individuals.

There is no shortage of things to study: leadership is transforming, as is strategy work, organising, business models – in continuously accelerating change, hardly anything about work remains intact.

“Leaders and researchers alike have more questions than answers right now. This makes the entire Future of Work research programme so interesting and relevant: no answers are self-evident. An answer that is fitting for a certain area of industry in Finland, for example, may be completely irrelevant in India,” Vaara points out.

Empathy and sensitivity are increasingly important

More questions than answers may prevail, but researchers can nonetheless describe many interesting manifestations of changing times. For example, progressively versatile skills are now valued at work. In addition to digital dexterity, communication and other interaction skills are also highlighted – not to mention media literacy.

“There is nothing new about constant change, but the pace of change is a new phenomenon. Above all, employees now need passion and aptitude for learning new things; as well as change resilience, which means the ability to adjust and bounce back in surprising new situations,” Vuorenmaa emphasises.

She also says that social skills are deemed imperative by a growing number of recruiters. White collar workers especially are expected to have more and more empathy and propensity for critical thinking. Leaders in turn may be surprised of the strength of emotions triggered by new technology related insecurity.

“Although work and technology are changing, people stay more or less the same. Individuals might feel intense shame if they are incompetent with new tech, for example. Consequently, leaders need increasing sensitivity – the thoughtfulness and capacity to identify these situations,” says Vuorenmaa and reminds that for example empathy can be learned.

Courageous experiments and lacking resources

Eero Vaara explains that organisations have more and more colourful ways of working and organising work.

“There are quite a lot of pioneers in Finland. The City of Espoo is a great example. It conducted its entire strategy work through storytelling. The Espoo story is its strategy, steering the city’s actions toward mutual goals,” Vaara says.

Though fresh new takes on organising are mushrooming all around, many leaders are striving to cope with a heavy burden: scarce resources are making good leadership an impossibility, irrespective of their leadership skills.

“The general level of awareness is growing all the time. The principles of good change management are understood extremely well in many organisations, yet managers may have no realistic possibilities of achieving them,” Vaara remarks.

“Many Finnish companies overlearned cost-cutting during the financial crisis, and this is holding back resources direly needed for good leadership.”

A cornucopia of research topics

Future of Work presents a myriad of highly interesting research themes. Vaara and Vuorenmaa have a near-endless list of attention-grabbing topics: young professionals are making life tough for HR Directors as they shop around to find employers that match their values. Platform economy is disrupting structures and inventing new ones. Unions are losing their significance in many industries.

“And in the midst of all this, the structures of society and legislation are lagging way behind. Wherever I go to speak about the changes in work life, the reception is extremely enthusiastic. There is no need to justify the need for this research,” Hertta Vuorenmaa affirms.

Eero Vaara agrees with his colleague: “All spheres of society regard this area of research as extremely important. It is quite an extraordinary situation for an academic. We are pacesetters with the Future of Work research project.”

There is no intention of reinventing the wheel. All the research projects selected into Future of Work are existing undertakings with solid track records. The project’s five central research areas focus on leadership, industries and business models, servitisation, organising and strategy work.

The project’s goal is to reach more researchers and revitalise and boost dialogue with the surrounding world through communications and networking.

“We are disrupting the status quo and driving people to intermingle through joint events. We are planning a Future of Work event for alumni for autumn 2019, for example,” Vuorenmaa mentions.

Text: Joanna Sinclair. Photo: Venla Helenius.

This article is published in the Aalto University Magazine issue 24 (issuu.com) April 2019.

In the midst of all this, the structures of society and legislation are lagging way behind.

Hertta Vuorenmaa
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