The changing nature of work


By Jane Partridge, Senior Lecturer in Human Resource Management at the University of Northampton

The recent legal cases regarding Uber, Pimlico Plumbers and CitySprint, demonstrate the challenges of the ever-increasing gig economy. These highly publicised cases highlight that these organisations require greater workforce flexibility as part of their business model and the basis of their strategy for survival in our uncertain and changing external environment. Their solution to the challenge of uncertainty is the increased use of alternatives to the standard full-time, permanent, employment contract. This links back to shades of the Atkinson (1984) flexible firm model.

These cases also highlight the opposing needs of the workforce for greater stability and permanence through employment contractual arrangements. This raises an interesting point with regards to the different responses to handling uncertainty within the work relationship; the disparity between the flexibility, required by organisations to be able to adapt to the changing external environment, and the workforce, requiring stability of permanent employment.

This highlights the differing expectations and implications for the psychological contract. These cases imply that the workforce favours the stereotypical, relational, psychological contract; the organisation on the other hand – the transactional (Guest and Conway 2002; Arnold et al.1998). The differing expectations are unfulfilled, and the psychological contract broken. Organisations want flexibility; the workforce, stability.

However, the contingent workforce is on the increase. The Office for National Statistics Labour Force Survey for April (2017) identified 15 per cent of all people in work are self-employed. Secondly, 905,000 people are on a zero hour contract, representing 2.8 per cent of people in employment (between October and December 2016). Although unemployment has decreased, full-time employment has remained static (Jeffery 2017, cited in People Management 2017). Also, a study by Deloitte identified approximately a third of multinational workforces are contingent, with estimates to increase in the next five years.

There are also implications for job composition, as Frey and Osborne (2013) estimate, 47 per cent of total US employment is at risk of computerisation. This leads us to conclude that the skills organisations required, as well as career and work opportunities, are changing.

This situation creates challenges for the HR profession in terms of providing organisational flexibility through job design, types of employment, learning, as well as the sourcing and development of skills, as core competencies. There is also the achievement of a mutual balance for the workforce, offering forms of security through contractual arrangement, development and/or rewards. These changes create challenges for academics. How do we prepare our students for a different world of work, with different career journeys?

Part of the answer lies with the personal development of skills, through an active blended learning approach – a changing shift from the traditional, knowledge-based approach. As part of the BA Human Resource Management programme at the University of Northampton, our students are required to design and deliver a recruitment and selection process. One of the tasks involves the creation of a two-minute employer brand video. A simple enough task you may think, but the secret lies in the vast number of skills the assessment develops. There are the skills of working with others, dealing with difficult people, identifying skills sets and allocating resources as appropriate. There is dealing with under-productive or over-productive team members, meeting deadlines, contingency planning, creativity and thinking outside of the box, working on new tasks and dealing with the uncertainties of the unknown. There’s also planning, organising, setting objectives, reviewing progress, taking ownership, adapting to different and challenging environments. And finally, they develop digital literacy skills and communication via different media – both digital and non-digital.

This relatively insignificant task has targeted a range of people management and change management skills, valued for their linkages with improving productivity. Through the provision of the opportunities to explore and experience skill development, we can promote personal flexibility, needed for the changing workforce model. As PWC (2017) estimates, 15 million high-skilled jobs will be required in the UK by 2022, with a shortfall of 3 million skilled workers. The emphasis on skill development is ever more compelling and imperative. In conclusion, there has never been a more exciting time to study HRM and join the HR profession.


Arnold, J., Cooper, C and Robertson I (1998) Work Psychology. 3rd ed. Harlow: Financial Times Pitman Publishing

Atkinson, J (1984) Manpower strategies for the flexible organization. Personnel Management, August, 28-31

CIPD (2017) UK ‘Sleepwalking into a low-skills economy. People Management. May, p10.

Frey, C. B and Osbourne, M (2013) The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to computerization? Oxford: Oxford Martin Programme on Technology and Employment

Guest, D and Conway, N (2002) Pressure at work and the Psychological contract. Research Report. London: Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development

Jeffery, R (2017) Who needs staff? People Management. May, pp26-31

Office for National Statistics (2017a) UK Labour Market: April 2017. London: ONS. Available online at:

Office for National Statistics (2017b) People in employment on a zero-hours contact: March 2017. London: ONS. Available online at:

PWC (2017) 20th CEO Survey: UK Findings Available online at: