Gathering perspectives on Good Work – A Q methodological approach

Work can occupy most of our waking hours, it can provide us with money, it can give us a sense of purpose, and it can show that you are a willing and contributing member of society. Not only that, but the quality of your work can of course have a substantial impact on your health and well-being. This job quality approach as opposed to job quantity is starting to become more prevalent in the UK economy and across the globe.

In the UK, there has been a jobs boom over the past few years, with record high employment figures. By and large this is positive news, especially since this boom has brought some of the most disadvantaged groups into the labour market. A third of the working-age population with the lowest qualifications account for almost half of this rapid increase in employment. People with disabilities often fall disproportionately into this low qualification category. However, this boom has also been categorised by increasingly precarious jobs which can be flexibilised, low-paid, insecure, and often the relationship between worker and employer is redefined to the detriment of workers’ rights.

Here at the Centre for People, Work and Organisational Practice (CPWOP), we are involved in researching how these forms of work operate with a view to providing good job quality for employees, or not as the case may be. My PhD research involved gathering perspectives about job quality from those that were most disadvantaged in the labour market including people with psychological health issues, learning difficulties, long-term health issues, physical disabilities, and early school-leavers. Whilst people with disadvantages are no different with regards to the elements of work that make their job ‘good’, they may prioritise these elements in a different way to people not facing the same challenges.

Thinking about what you prioritise with regards to good work is difficult. If I provided you with a list of things that might make your job better and asked you to rank them individually from 1 to 10, this might provide a useful overview of what you consider important. The disadvantage of this approach is that it isolates each item. The approach I adopted, Q methodology, allows for the ranking of factors according to one another in a way which can be analysed both quantitatively and qualitatively. Whilst I cannot do justice to the methodology in this blog post, at least introducing it to you as a possibility for your own research as well as a potential indicator of what research the CPWOP might carry out in the future is, I think, valuable and hopefully interesting.

Q Methodology Grid

The picture above is of a Q methodology grid, with statements about good work. A participant is asked to sort these statements according to the question at the top of the picture. The shape of the grid forces them to make decisions on statements in relation to other statements. They might value work that is meaningful over work that is fun. This leads to questions around what the difference is between meaningful and fun in a work context, maybe it has to do with small amounts of beneficial stress? Then the statement on stress comes into play as well.

Almost everything about this grid is flexible in that you can have many more statements, you could use pictures, sound clips, objects, you can choose your grid shape to an extent, you can run it with focus groups, and with young children. It’s even possible to sort the statements yourself, then sort them again according to how you think someone else would sort them, like your boss for example. You can do this longitudinally, or to provide a snapshot. You can do it online, over the phone, in the post, or in person.

The analysis relies on the sorted statements but also the qualitative interview which is performed after the sorting. This interview allows for clarification on decisions made on deciding about priority of one card over another. It is this combination of the sorting and the interview which allows a unique insight into the subjective viewpoint of an individual on a certain topic. These viewpoints can then be compared to uncover shared viewpoints, as well as areas of disagreement. That’s why this methodology has already been used in a wide range of topics from river banks to children’s toys, the meaning of love to the organisation of local renewables, and everything in between.

Being able to use this research with such a wide range of people, across different contexts and in various formats makes this methodology a very flexible, innovative yet rigorous methodology. My own research has helped to provide a voice to those who may have been harder to reach with more traditional data collection methods and with a growing number of people with disabilities entering a market that is becoming increasingly more precarious, I think it’s important those voices are heard. Hopefully this short introduction to good work and the possibilities of Q methodology are useful in your own future research ideas.

A more in-depth introduction to Q methodology can be found in this video.