Sitting in sociologist Tanja van der Lippe’s office in the Science Park, you’re bound to feel it: she is alert. She patiently explains each step of the research format and, with a twinkle in her eye, she tells about its impact. The main question concerns which organisational investments contribute to a ‘sustainable labour market.’ Van der Lippe uses this term in reference to interactions at three levels: satisfied employees, profitable companies in which people cooperate with each other, and a high level of labour participation in a healthy economy. The ERC is supporting her five-year study, which is being conducted in nine European countries, involving 270 companies and thousands of employees. The research team made a bold start in 2014.
Van der Lippe: ‘Previous studies have focused on national provisions and the welfare of employees. The novelty of this study is that we are zooming in on the meso level of companies and organisations, focusing on the relationship between employers and employees. We are looking at five types of provisions: policies on work/private-life, types of contracts, provisions for the elderly, flexible working, and training and education. For example, when do employers decide to invest in training for employees? Do they prefer to invest in older or younger employees? When do employees decide to take advantage of these offers? Does this investment provide any long-term advantages for the organisation, or are employees tempted to transfer to the competition after they have been trained?’
An employer’s choice to invest in personnel facilities and the extent to which employees take advantage of these investments is partly dependent upon context. At the macro level: which national healthcare provisions, flex contracts and early retirement provisions exist? At the micro level: does the staff member have a partner with a job that pays well? ‘The environment is important, even within the employing organisation. For example, we expect that it is easier for employees to take family care leave if their supervisors have also taken such leave. We’re collecting and mapping a large amount of data in and around the organisations – from Bulgaria to Finland and from Spain to Sweden.’
The researchers are using a variety of methods: a large-scale study of companies in Europe, an inventory of national and sector-level provisions, online surveys of employees and managers, interviews with P&O staff and a vignette study. In the last type of study, researchers present cases to respondents throughout all of Europe, with slight differences in each case. This provides an exact overview of what triggers particular decisions for employees (e.g. to start working part-time) or managers (e.g. to hire a new employee). All of the information collected is being stored in a new database. In this regard, Utrecht will be the hub of an impressive and unique quantity of information in the years to come.
Van der Lippe has been in love with the city for years. ‘I completed my doctoral degree in Utrecht, and I’ve been working there ever since. Utrecht University allows me a great deal of freedom to conduct this type of research. We actively collaborate with economists, psychologists and other specialists on the topic of Institutions. My research initially focused on the division of labour and care tasks between men and women from an international comparative perspective. It eventually expanded. Now I’m interested in the sustainable labour market.’
As a research director, Van der Lippe is heading her own group of employees. Which opportunities does she offer them in such areas as working from home? ‘We have chosen not to work from home, but to be active in the faculty. My researchers participate in the academic community, in which we are always asking each other substantive questions and keeping each other on our toes. It is known that the cohesion of a team affects the extent to which the team members are willing to support each other, in addition to affecting their performance. We experience this in a tangible way in our work.’
In addition to the massive study, the professor takes time to teach classes, both to beginners and to advanced students. ‘I enjoy sharing my passion for sociology.’ When a PhD candidate enters her office carrying his newly printed dissertation, Van der Lippe expresses heartfelt congratulations. Nothing escapes her quick gaze: ‘How nice that your name is now under the title. It’s a lot more visible.’
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Written by: Youetta Visser