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Why HR Should Make I-O Psychology a Focus in 2021

Janine Nicole Dennis

Chief Innovations Officer at Talent Think Innovations, LLC

At the beginning of every new year, HR practitioners pore over annual lists that spot trends from the year prior and make predictions for the year to come. For those who forecast changes in the workplace, reviewing these listicle-style articles (that are typically focused on upcoming workplace trends) are as much an activity in providing practical insight for businesses as they are an exercise in shifting leaders' focus towards the future of work. Year after year, there are fluctuations in importance of the various HR trends and less prioritization of specific operational focus areas.

But this year is wholly different and calls for a shift in how we prepare organizations and people for the years ahead. Instead of just looking at the trends, HR leaders should focus instead on larger organizational theories—in particular, Industrial-Organizational Psychology (I-O Psychology).

According to the American Psychological Association, "I-O Psychology is the scientific study of human behavior in organizations and the workplace." Plainly, this branch of psychology gets to the root of how people think, feel and react to work. Some organizations have long understood the value of getting to the core of the many challenges that crop up along the journey of employing humans, but it took civil unrest, political chaos, economic upheaval, and a global pandemic for the rest of the industry to awaken to a new way of thinking about work.

Preparing for the Year Ahead

In a quantum leap, the pandemic has thrust organizations and leaders into the future by illuminating the manual and inefficient nature of operations pre-COVID, simultaneously causing us to revisit foundational principles like I-O to glean new insights for better work experiences.

As we continue on this journey into the new Roaring 20’s, much of what will determine an organization’s ability to successfully attract, retain, and develop people aligned with their business objectives will depend more on the organization’s ability to provide a stable work environment focused on safety, job security, access to a variety of resources, and the ability for employees to thrive rather than survive.

To achieve these organizational goals, it helps to have some foundational principles to look to as guiding lights as we search for ways to positively steer organizations in the right direction.

Here are three I-O practices worth focusing on in 2021:

1. Be Mindful of How You Design Your Virtual Workspaces

COVID-19 caused many organizations to abruptly shift from working in physical office spaces to working online. While virtual workspaces are not necessarily new concepts, shifting the nature of how we execute work before fully understanding the capabilities and challenges of the cloud, video conferencing, team collaboration platforms, work-life balance, and remote working is new. One of the foundational prongs to I-O Psychology is design.

As we collectively approach a year of living in these current conditions, we need to unpack lessons learned, even if much of it is hard to hear. Doing so will help design virtual workspaces to be supportive, properly resourced via the right technologies, productive, and harmonious for all employees. This may look like crowdsourcing a virtual workspace wishlist from employees to tease out themes of wants and needs that you can improve upon in the new year.

2. Double Down on Health and Wellbeing

Before the pandemic, there were bigger health concerns looming in the background. Employees have long been stressed, overworked and unable to dedicate time and resources to remain healthy, whole and well. With COVID-19 thrusting many organizations into a work-from-home arrangement, this shift has exacerbated mental health challenges, burnout and imbalance between work and life.

I-O Psychology centers our attention on what is ethical, legal and responsible as it pertains to productivity, especially under mounting societal and organizational pressures. Work does not get done if organizations don’t have people of sound mind, body and spirit to execute.

Exploring how to better support people by eliminating unnecessary stressors—such as overextending them within their job roles or requiring them to present behaviorally to suit unhealthy organizational culture norms—is a step toward promoting a healthy work environment. For example, institute a hard stop for the workday and encourage people to be fully present with family and personal obligations when they are off-the-clock.

3. Move Towards Data-Centric Decision Making

HR as an industry is still fairly new to the AI and machine learning game. However, companies like Pfizer are using a chatbot companion to allow the sales teams to give quick reviews after meetings. The chatbot companion is compatible with their sales software and has resulted in better communication and knowledge transfer between Pfizer’s sales and marketing teams to better allocate support and resources for more critical and urgent sales needs.

I-O Psychology is a discipline that promotes data-centric decision making. Machine learning offers an opportunity for organizations to identify risk factors, blind spots, and opportunities so that teams and leadership can focus more on solutions and mission-critical tasks.

In times of pivotal shifts, it is useful to examine recurring and new challenges through the lens of simplicity and sustainability. To achieve both it is oftentimes a matter of returning to basic principles and fundamentally understanding all of the variables that inform why people show up to work every day.

What else should HR teams have on their mind in 2021? Click here to read more about what workforce trends to expect in the new year.

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