Analysing how we work

Public administration expert David Giauque studies how people work. And how new ways of working affect our wellbeing and performance. The aim is to determine best practices in human resources management.

The question that drives David Giauque in his research is simple: How does this work? To the layperson, however, his research topic – human resources (HR) management in public institutions – can seem a bit more complex. “I’m trying to understand how groups of humans in organisations successfully communicate and work together to achieve a common goal,” says Giauque.

Over coffee in his office, with its colourful, well-stocked bookshelves, Giauque retraces the steps that brought him here. They include bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science from the University of Lausanne, followed by a stint as a research associate at the Swiss Graduate School of Public Administration (IDHEAP), also in Lausanne. A mobility grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation supported his PhD project on HR management in public institutions, first in Montreal, Canada, and then in Switzerland. At this point, his research began to turn away from political science and towards the functioning of teams within organisations. “At the turn of the 20th century, the sociologist Emile Durkheim observed a shift from old, closely knit traditional farming communities, where the individual was subsumed as a part of the group, to more industrialised and individualistic societies,” says Giauque, currently professor of human resources and public management at IDHEAP. “Durkheim wondered on what basis and by what rules these new societies would develop. That is exactly what interests me today when I see how ways of working are evolving.”

Complex hospitals

But why the “public” aspect of HR? “Because this sector is facing new challenges. It has its own set of values – a concern for people, their wellbeing and professional development, and their career path. But, like the private sector, the public sector is also moving towards greater individualism and the quest for performance.” This is not without its risks. "Nurses, for example, feel they are no longer doing a good job because they are being asked to spend more and more time filling out forms instead of caring for patients. Prioritising performance while forgetting what actually motivates people for the job can lead to them losing a sense of purpose in their work," he explains.

Giauque believes that, for a work group to function in a public institution, you need to create a balance between the regulation imposed by the hierarchy and the informal regulation that is set up within the teams, often involving notions of altruism and helping each other. "This can be very complex in some institutions such as hospitals," he explains. In public institutions, HR management consists of ensuring that both forms of regulation can coexist. “This can be very complex in certain institutions, such as hospitals. There you may find dozens of different professions, from nurses to doctors to technical and administrative staff,” says Giauque. “Each of these professions represents a group with its own rules, values and understanding of how to work together. For the whole to work, management has to be contextualised according to the professions on the basis of common institutional rules.” And you cannot forget the individual.

Covid-19 as a real-life laboratory

The complexity inherent in public institutions is compounded by new ways of working, which in turn require adaptations in personnel management. “With the sudden spread of remote working in 2020, Covid-19 gave us an exceptional opportunity to study this issue. We have benefited from a real-life laboratory for studying a new way of working,” says Giauque. "Many managers found themselves at a loss when it came to managing teams in hybrid mode.” His objective is to determine the best HR practices in this new context. His main observation: remote work requires reorganisation, including better organisation of teams, managing inequalities between those who are able to work from home and those who are not, and increasing the appeal of offices so that workers are more eager to return. Because our need for social contact has not disappeared. "Four days a week alone behind the computer screen can be pretty sombre. I think around two to three days is optimal".

What also interests him about this field are all the developments that are likely to change our habits: remote working, of course, but also co-working spaces, the flexibilisation of work and new information and communication technologies. He wants to understand the impact of these developments on worker performance and health. “In fact,” he says, “to understand how groups navigate these new organisational and work realities, it all comes back to my original question: How does this work? The goal is to determine best practices for future human resources management,” says Giauque.

Giauque is currently working on two additional research questions. The first is the integration of artificial intelligence into human resources, for example in the recruitment or assessment of personnel. He is working with other colleagues to map the use of artificial intelligence in public administration to obtain an overview of practices in Switzerland, and to evaluate their impact: is AI objective or biased? How does it deal with profiles that are different or original? The second research question has to do with evaluating various HR management practices in the public sector, in particular Swiss municipalities. Says Giauque: “This is a question that to date has hardly been studied in Switzerland. Are the existing practices useful? Which ones are more useful? Do they contribute to the wellbeing of workers, to their performance or to both?”

Constantly questioning the concept of work is second nature to Giauque. So what does he think of his own work? “I am very lucky. I have an inspiring team, an institution whose values I share, and activities as diverse as teaching, research and engagement with the public sector. In short, I have a wonderful job,” he says. But there’s more to his life than just work. He reads lots of novels as well as books about history and politics. He is also interested in sports, which he pursued at a fairly high level in his youth. “I like to watch team sports, for example football matches. Who wins, who loses, who performs well and how they do it,” he says. In other words, human resources management in a different context.