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COVID-19 hastens trend towards more 'dynamic' workplace: U of T researcher

The shift to virtual and hybrid work in 2020 put the spotlight on some key challenges of the modern workplace by requiring employees to be more flexible and better at multitasking, says U of T researcher Jia Lin Xie (photo by Portra via Getty Images)

For more than two decades, Jia Lin Xie has researched the relationships people have with their jobs. What factors influence work satisfaction, motivation and emotional or physical well-being? And how do different cultures and generations connect to their work?

The answers were always complex and ever-changing, but Xie says the sudden shift to virtual and hybrid work in 2020 for most knowledge workers – people with jobs that can be done remotely using technology – has put the spotlight on some key challenges of the modern workplace.

“Jobs are becoming more dynamic, and that requires employees to be more flexible, available and better at multitasking,” says Xie, a professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. “There’s also an expectation for employees to constantly upgrade their skills to cope with increasing demands or uncertainty at work.”

In a 2018 paper published in Applied Psychology, Xie and her co-authors revealed a new class of work characteristics that had yet to be studied in management literature: “boundarylessness” (the blurring lines between people’s work and non-work lives); multitasking (having to balance multiple projects at the same time); non-work-related interruptions (such as routine fire alarms in a condo building or caring for family members at home) and the growing demand for constant learning (pressure from employers to pursue professional development activities outside of work).

Dubbed “hybrid work characteristics,” the four variables don’t neatly fit into the three categories of work characteristics that make up current management research: task (how the work is accomplished), social (the social environment at work) and contextual (the broader physical and organizational environment).

For instance, non-work-related interruptions fall under the social and contextual domains, while multitasking has aspects of all three categories.

Though Xie’s research on hybrid work characteristics began long before the pandemic, she says her findings are more relevant than ever today.

“Virtual and hybrid work have magnified the effects of these challenges,” says Xie. “We wanted to capture how this affects people – how can multitasking or the dissolving of boundaries between work and life be measured, and how do they impact employee wellbeing?”

Taking survey data from 968 employees of various seniority levels across two large North American companies, the researchers found that boundarylessness, multitasking, non-work-related interruptions and the growing demand for constant learning have a direct impact on job satisfaction, occupational commitment, emotional exhaustion and health disorders such as insomnia.

In the study, non-work-related interruptions were found to be most detrimental to an employee’s job satisfaction, occupational commitment, emotional and physical health.

“Interruptions at work are nothing new, but with technology and social media they’re constant and you have no place to hide,” says Xie. “After dealing with an interruption, the employee must spend more time and effort to recover from it to return to the point at which their work was interrupted.”

Compared to work-related interruptions, non-work-related interruptions are less likely to directly benefit the employee or the organization. They can also be more disruptive to the employee.

On the other hand, multitasking, boundarylessness and the demand for constant learning were found to be both depleting and enriching – meaning they can negatively impact employee wellbeing but improve attitudes, such as interest and engagement.

“People who enjoy stability, regular work schedules or have lower tolerance for ambiguity may suffer more,” says Xie, noting that people who are more flexible, enjoy change and multitasking may find these dynamics a rewarding challenge.

“This calls for managers to carefully consider how work can be designed in ways that facilitate positive employee attitudes without jeopardizing their health,” Xie adds.

Even if an employee is resistant to change, Xie says there are ways for companies adapt to the dynamic modern workplace.

“Organizations should use their resources to help employees with not only job-related training, but also cognitive and workstyle training,” she adds.

Some skills that more employees can benefit from include coping with stress, managing work-related anxiety and prioritizing tasks to navigate the demand for multitasking.

In an era where younger generations are changing jobs more frequently compared to older generations, Xie’s research paves a way for more experts to study how employees and employers can adapt to a rapidly changing workplace.

"We spend at least a third of our lives at work, and we prepare for many years before we even join the workplace. Then, we face this demand for constant learning at work – you're never good enough and it can feel endless,” Xie says.

“So, what’s the balancing point? We need to understand how work affects us, what type of work design can be stimulating for employees or deplete them physically and psychologically. I see it as a duty to contribute knowledge in this area, and this is just one small step in charting the new terrain of work design."

March 25, 2022

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