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TIP-TOPICS—The Top Trends in I-O Psychology: A Graduate Student Perspective

Mary Margaret Harris and Kimberly D. Hollman
University of Akron

 As the field of industrial-organizational psychology nears 100 years of existence, it is interesting to think about its evolution in response to changing work environments. Thanks in large part to technological advances, trends in the modern workplace include increased globalization, virtual work, and technology-enabled platforms that drive recruitment, selection, and training. These trends, in turn, shape I-O research agendas. In addition, compared to I-O’s early emphasis on employee productivity, issues such as employee development, happiness, health, and work–life balance now receive serious attention. In this edition of TIP-TOPics, we highlight what we believe to be the top-10 current trends in I-O psychology research and practice, as well as how these areas may continue to evolve going forward.

1. Globalization and the Virtual Workplace

Gone are the days where an organization’s primary competition was the rival across town; competitors now exist at the global level. When larger organizations want an accurate representation of their industry standing, they now refer to Fortune’s Global 500! Increased globalization has many implications for I-O. For example, globalization may increase the importance of cross-cultural leadership, with accompanying changes in organizational policies and practices. Leaders increasingly realize the importance of retaining heterogeneity from the team level to the national level rather than enforcing a single organization-wide set of practices. Such inclusive cultures allow organizations to capitalize on the strengths of employees from all backgrounds and to garner their “buy-in” and support (e.g., Moran, Harris, & Moran, 2010).

Globalization has also enhanced the need for, and the use of, virtual workplaces. Virtual workplaces may well change both how I-O psychologists perform their daily duties and the scope of their projects. Technological advances such as electronic whiteboards and Skype™ allow collaboration with people sitting on the opposite side of the world. I-O researchers and practitioners may want to seize the opportunity to investigate issues involving virtual workplaces such as (a) how they impact social relationships, (b) whether employees feel the same level of commitment in such environments, and (c) their effects on organizational culture and communication.

2. Internet-Based Recruitment and Selection

Job seekers are increasingly less likely to search for job openings in the newspaper and travel to organizations in person to complete paper-and-pencil applications. Today, many organizations find it in their best interest to enhance their online presence to attract desired applicants. Once attracted, job seekers can use the Internet to complete job applications, upload their resumés, and participate in virtual job tryouts. Organizations transitioning to a greater online presence may want to consider the implications of that change. For example, the composition of the selection pool may change if younger adults are more likely than older adults to possess the access and technological skills needed for online applications. Although this may become a nonissue as older job seekers also have computer experience, it is concerning now, given that Ryan and Ployhart (2000) found that applicants may view online selection processes as unfair when the position sought does not involve computer work.

In spite of some drawbacks, online selection systems have many benefits. Less paper is wasted. Applicants across the globe can apply on their own schedules, regardless of their time zone or physical location. Electronic systems are also built to adapt to the applicant, often providing training and immediate feedback. In addition, assessments can still be proctored at a testing center or at a later date following the initial screening. Future research will need to continue to assess how organizations can best utilize the Internet, including more knowledge about how to optimally combine Internet-based selection components with more traditional components such as interviews.

3. Defining Limits for Online Searches of Personal Information

Perhaps you want to know which famous North American landmark is constantly moving backwards, or the only vegetable or fruit that is never sold frozen, canned, processed, cooked, or in any other form except fresh. These days, such unknowns are likely to lead to a quick online search.1 Not surprisingly, as society has developed a “just Google it” mentality, online searches are used in such workplace contexts as employee selection and monitoring current employee activity. Indeed, 84% of surveyed employers reported that they use Internet search engines as an HR tool (SHRM, 2008). I-O professionals would benefit from more exploration of the implications of such easy access to employee personal information. For example, the legal ramifications of finding discriminatory information (e.g., race or disability) may outweigh the benefit of identifying red flags. Relatedly, California recently became the first state to enact a comprehensive social media privacy law protecting employees and job applicants from having to give current or potential employers their online profile passwords to services like Facebook and Twitter (National Conference of State Legislature, 2013), with five other states in the process of passing similar laws to ensure applicant privacy, and likely others will follow.

4. Innovation

Innovation is critical to driving our economy. Consider the wireless phone industry. Fifteen years ago, people were happy to have a wireless phone for emergency use. That a phone had the capability to provide directions, allowed access to Facebook, and streamed online movies would have seemed like something out of the Jetsons. Today such phone capabilities are routine, and innovative new functions are added almost continually. The push for constant innovation to remain competitive and simply to survive in a volatile economic environment (e.g., Voss, Sirdeshmukh, & Voss, 2008) is characteristic of many industries, not just the cell phone industry. However, innovation must be undertaken strategically and purposefully to gain the most organizational benefits. Organizations should have a clear purpose for all innovative initiatives, and they must also act within employee and organizational limits to change. I-O psychologists can do much to better understand and help organizations achieve an optimal level of innovation and change.

5. Technology-Enabled Training

In both work and academic settings, classroom-based training is being abandoned in favor of technology-driven alternatives. Simulation centers provide hands-on training that allows trainees to learn under conditions that would be too dangerous, rarely occurring, or otherwise prohibitive in the real work environment. For example, surgeons can practice surgeries that may be rarely performed in an ER but are crucial for saving someone’s life. Virtual classrooms—as opposed to traditional classrooms—allow instructors to reach many more students at one time without the added costs of bringing everyone to the same location. Employees may also be looking for trainings that are customizable to their needs and can be completed in sessions timed to match their schedules. We expect this trend to gain even more momentum in the future. As long as there are advances in technology-based training platforms, organizations will continue to find such alternatives to be increasingly more affordable and accessible with high fidelity. 

6. Heavy Focus on Developing the Top Employees

Every company has a few employees who are truly outstanding. These high potentials (typically the top 3–5%) are invaluable assets that organizations go to great lengths to identify, retain, and develop. Unfortunately, a study by the Corporate Executive Board (2010) found that 25% of employer-identified “high-potential” employees plan to leave the company within the year (compared to only 10% in 2006). This survey indicated that there is a growing concern that high-potential employees are becoming increasingly less engaged in their work. As organizations increase their investment in grooming high-potential employees, researchers need to validate high-potential identification systems and to evaluate the best ways to retain and develop these talent superstars.

7. Increased Coaching in the Workplace

Companies are hiring executive coaches to assist in employee development at a growing rate (DBM, 2012). Large consulting firm DBM projected in 2012 that organizations will use coaches to (a) help executives achieve higher performance, (b) groom high-potential employees, and (c) enhance team effectiveness. Moreover, a study conducted by the International Coaching Federation Global Coaching (2012) found that there is an opportunity to increase the awareness of coaching benefits and to develop credible data that shows ROI/ROE for hiring an executive coach. Future issues that need to be explored include figuring out whether coaching should be regulated, in addition to identifying (and potentially stopping) untrained individuals who call themselves coaches.

8. Proactive Approaches to Improve Employee Health

A recent survey by the National Association of Professional Employer Organizations reported a staggering 41.7% of employers consider health care costs to be the most serious challenge to their bottom line. Combining this concern with the finding that 66% of Americans are overweight or obese (CDC, 2010), increasing attention has been given to the organizational benefits of investing in workplace health. Moreover, research consistently finds that compared to healthy employees, unhealthy employees tend to have higher medical expenses, absenteeism, and presenteeism (e.g., Kowlessar, Goetzel, Calrs, Tabrizi, & Guindon, 2011). As a result, organizations are turning to health and productivity management programs because it is too expensive not to invest in the health of their employees. We will likely continue to see increases in evidence-based wellness programs that include incentives for employees to become healthier.

9. Facilitating Work–Life Merge

Facebook executive Emily White coined the term “work–life merge” to describe a life where work and personal activities are so intertwined that it becomes impossible to neatly compartmentalize the two. This concept differs from aiming for balance because the balance approach tends to assume that work—the hard grind—is the opposite of life—a time of pleasure. Employees with work–life merge tend to be individuals who enjoy their work and want to customize it to best fit their lifestyles. The classic example is of a working parent who wants to fit work responsibilities around family time, perhaps finishing up the day’s work after the children have gone to bed.

Because the concept of work–life merge is relatively new, researchers have yet to uncover the consequences (or benefits) of being permanently “switched on.” For example, the few extra hours a “merger” works at night counter traditional research suggesting that employees need to psychologically detach from work to recover from job stressors. Going forward we may see an increased focus on strategies that help people better manage stress throughout the workday. In addition, trends towards globalization and virtual workplaces likely mean more employees will find themselves living the work–life merge.

10. More Tweeting, Blogging, and Electronic Platforms

Many of the trends that we have discussed are linked to technology in some way. How we learn about the advances in our field, make connections with colleagues, search for jobs, and keep up with news will all continue to transition to online platforms. Further, companies will likely continue to enhance their online presence via outlets like Twitter and online blog forums, including hiring “social media experts.” Such transitions pose advantages, from the speed with which information can be transmitted to savings in cost and resources. TIP itself is experiencing the transition and emphasis on online forums, given that this will be the last issue to be put in print. As these online platforms are relatively new, we cannot definitively say where this trend is going, but it is certainly worth researching the impacts on organizations.

So, there you have the top trends in I-O psychology as we see them. Ultimately, you will be the judge—it is 2013, and the virtual world awaits your thoughts and ideas as to where the field should go next. Thanks for reading, and we will see you one last time in the next issue of TIP as our team at Akron says farewell after our 2-year stint with TIP-TOPics! Until then, feel free to contact us at akrontiptopics@gmail.com.


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