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Improving the Workplace, Changing the World

Meredith’s I-O Psychology Graduates are Helping Organizations Adapt to a Rapidly Changing Workplace

By Cailyn Whitman, ’18
Colorful graphic depicting the "left" and "right" sides of the brain.

Improving the Workplace, Changing the World

Meredith’s I-O Psychology Graduates are Helping Organizations Adapt to a Rapidly Changing Workplace

By Cailyn Whitman, '18

As more companies and organizations adapt to a new normal following COVID-19 lockdowns, industrial and organizational psychologists have an important role to play in helping workplaces open up – and more importantly, to do so in a way that fosters diversity and inclusion.

Industrial-organizational (I-O) psychology is a fast-growing field that focuses on improving the workplace through the lens of psychology. After the shifts in workplace culture since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for I-O psychology professionals has never been greater. Not to mention in 2020 many companies began to take a long overdue look at their diversity and inclusion efforts – a task for which many I-O psychologists are uniquely trained.

Diversity & Inclusion

Portrait of Michele Xiong.

Take Michele Xiong, ’21, for example. As director of diversity and inclusion at the Raleigh Regional Association of REALTORS®, she uses what she learned in Meredith’s I-O psychology program on a daily basis.

“A huge part of what I-O psychologists do is going through the process of change management,” said Xiong. “In my current role working with the REALTORS® community, it has been about examining processes and questioning why and how they came to be. It’s about recognizing systems that no longer serve everyone and coming up with a strategic plan to change them, putting that plan into action, and measuring the outcomes to ensure it’s working.”

Xiong believes the ultimate role of I-O psychologists is to make the workplace better for everyone. In order to achieve that goal, employers have to recognize that each of their workers have unique wants, needs, and experiences that shape their performance.

A Growing Field

As the demand for increased diversity and inclusion in workplaces continues to grow, Xiong sees the field of I-O psychology continuing to grow as well. “I-O psychologists cannot be easily replaced by automation or outsourcing, so that in itself makes us valuable professionals,” she said. “We are the ultimate listeners and thinkers of any organization.”

But what is it that makes I-O psychologists different from any other human resources professional? Xiong believes it’s the increased attention they pay to behavior among employees, leaders, and teams as a whole. Not for the purposes of reporting misconduct or evaluating fit, but to assess problems on a deeper level and provide scientifically-backed solutions.

“If an organization is waning, hiring an I-O psychologist would prove to yield a high return on investment,” said Xiong. “We can help with motivation, coaching, human resources, organizational structure, and so much more – all through the lens of psychology and data.”

Emily Buchanan, ’20, is another graduate of Meredith’s I-O psychology program who is witnessing a growing need for practitioners within the field. She believes the field is an “untapped mine” that is just about to be discovered.

“Much of the research on how we work, especially throughout the pandemic, is being sought out by organizations and increasingly becoming a topic of regular conversation. This field is going to grow immensely,” she said.

As a training and development specialist for US LBM, Buchanan’s best advice for creating meaningful change within an organization is to ask the right questions. “Don’t just go off of what is ‘best practice’ or what has worked in the past, but instead ask: what will work right now for these individuals?” she said.

“I often describe I-O psychologists to people as the therapist for organizations. We can understand an organization, diagnose it with data science, and then treat it with an intervention.”

A Key to Navigating Labor Shortages

This sort of diagnostic intervention is in high demand right now for many industries that are struggling with labor shortages. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about four million people quit their jobs in April 2021 alone. That’s the highest quit level the agency has seen since they began publishing these rates in December 2000.

“The pandemic put two things into focus: one, employees showed they can be productive from home and should be trusted to create their schedules as they see fit to get their work done. And two, that there are more important things in life than work,” said associate professor and program director, Joseph Mazzola.

In a year when millions lost their jobs, switched career paths, launched their own businesses, or quit working altogether – no one is better qualified to answer the questions employers are left wondering: What now? Where do we go from here? Companies have the unique opportunity to partner with I-O psychologists to answer these questions and ultimately, help with the return to work, recruit and onboard new hires, strengthen employee retention, and more.

“I-O psychologists are uniquely trained to help design systems that maximize the type of flexibility employees want in order to be satisfied and engaged, but also allows for the sharing of communication that creates the productivity for the organization to be successful,” said Mazzola.

Arielle Smith smiling at the camera in cap and gown.Arielle Smith, ’21, is an I-O psychologist who has a front row seat to the hiring frenzy happening in corporate America right now. After interning with Lowe’s the summer before graduation, she was offered a full time role with the Fortune 50 company as an HR assessment analyst. In this role, she manages projects related to assessments the company uses for high-volume hires, including CliftonStrengths. Smith stays up-to-date on the trends playing out in workplace culture and as someone trained to analyze and report on those trends, she offers a unique perspective.

“Currently, the largest trends we’re seeing in the field are around remote work, employee health, diversity and inclusion, social justice, and the changing nature of work,” said Smith.

All of these trends play a role in employee satisfaction, engagement, and morale – so I-O psychologists are critical to keeping companies adequately staffed.

“The pandemic brought about the rise of remote work, and now organizations are realizing it is here to stay,” said Smith. “With many organizations heading towards a hybrid workforce, I-O psychologists are essential in helping to re-design what work looks like and addressing challenges such as, how can in-person and remote teams collaborate effectively? Or, how can we ensure that culture cascades down to remote employees and not just those in the office?”

Smith also highlighted that during the pandemic, I-O psychologists were frontline advocates for employee health and well-being to help combat burnout. “Since we have a better understanding of the world of work, it is our job to promote a better way of working, one that involves organizations shifting away from the “live-to-work” mindset and instead, embraces work-life integration.”

Strengthening the Bottom Line Through Evidence-based Concepts

Paul Jones smiling at the camera.As the mindset around work shifts within our culture, I-O psychologists like Paul Jones, ’20, are leading the way in helping organizations adapt to those changes through evidence-based research.

As the mindset around work shifts within our culture, I-O psychologists like Paul Jones, ’20, are leading the way in helping organizations adapt to those changes through evidence-based research.

As the manager of organizational engagement for Butterball, LLC, Jones has played a critical role in helping the company navigate the post-pandemic world.

“Remote working, flex scheduling, organizational culture, diversity, equity and inclusion – these were all conversations happening before 2020. However, COVID-19 forced many companies to reexamine how they address these topics. That’s where I-O psychologists come in,” said Jones.

One of the most important things Jones learned from Meredith’s program was not only how to apply evidence-based concepts to the workplace, but how those changes can impact the bottom line for organizations. “We offer a scientific approach,” he said. “And that is invaluable for executive leadership, because it allows them to make informed decisions that will benefit both their company and its employees.”

In the coming years, Jones agrees with peers from his cohort that the field will only continue to grow. “One of the things I love about I-O psychology is the wide variety of topics it encompasses. If it relates to the workplace, an I-O psychologist is probably doing research on it,” he said.

With companies launching new programs left and right to address remote work, diversity, and more, Jones believes all workplaces can benefit from hiring an I-O psychologist.

“We bring a unique perspective grounded in evidence-based research that can be applied to real-world business situations,” he said. “It’s not enough to say a new program will work and then hope for the best. I-O psychologists can examine a new program for its validity, determine its probability of success within a margin of error, and report on how its success will impact the company.”

Work-life Balance

Another question among employers right now involves performance evaluations and productivity. With an increased focus on work-life balance, how can managers evaluate performance without rewarding unhealthy work habits?

Cathedia Rose smiling at the camera.

Cathedia Rose, ’22, director of operations for LightWire, Inc., said studying I-O psychology at Meredith has given her the tools to address exactly these types of issues.

“In the next few years, I see this field being instrumental in helping to address issues related to company cultures,” she said. “I see this field contributing new, creative ways to help with employee wellness, increasing workplace productivity, and reshaping our beliefs on how and where we perform work today.”

Rose’s training and education allows her to support her company by improving processes such as training, top-down communication, employee well-being, performance, and more.

Helping Workplaces Navigate the Way Forward

Elizabeth Anglis, ’21, agrees with Rose. As a training coordinator at Cepheid, she said Meredith’s program allowed her to practice critical thinking while keeping people at the forefront.

“The pandemic has given I-O psychologists the opportunity to explore new ways to ensure employees stay engaged, even in remote work environments,” said Anglis. “I-O psychologists also play a role in guiding workplace culture, educating employees about work-life balance, and act as consultants for organizations to help them make decisions that will benefit both their employees and the company going forward.”

As workplace norms continue to evolve under the pressure of societal and cultural shifts, the skills that I-O psychologists have to offer will likely increase in demand – so companies can only benefit from having one on their team. “Having I-O psychologists on staff at any organization ensures that at least one person in the company is making all decisions with people in mind,” said Rose.

Learn more about the Master of Arts in Psychology: Industrial-Organizational Concentration at Meredith College