Investigate changes in working lives and power in the workplace

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Apply for funding to explore power dynamics in the workplace and changes in working lives.

The opportunity is for UK-based individuals or research teams. You must be based at an approved university or independent research organisation.

We encourage co-investigators from business, third sector or government organisations.

You must address at least one of these themes:

  • managing working transitions
  • power and voice in a changing world of work.

The full economic cost of your project can be between £535,000 and £720,000. We’ll fund 80% of this.

Your project must start in April 2022 and last three years.

Who can apply

Principal investigators must be based at a UK institution eligible for ESRC funding. That organisation will be responsible for submitting the grant application to UKRI.

Collaborations beyond academia are encouraged. UK co-investigators can be from across different sectors and be any of the following:

  • businesses
  • third sector and non-profit organisations
  • government organisations
  • public sector research establishments (PSREs).

Standard ESRC eligibility rules apply. Read more about individual and institutional eligibility in the ESRC research funding guide.

International collaborations are permitted, but:

  • projects must focus predominantly on issues relevant to the UK
  • any findings or recommendations must have a direct bearing on the UK context.

Projects should be primarily social science.

Successful projects must aim to start in April 2022.

What we're looking for

As part of its Transforming Working Lives (TWL) priority, ESRC is looking to fund a programme series of innovative and novel research projects across two overarching themes:

  • managing working transitions
  • power and voice in a changing world of work.

Proposals should seek to make a significant scientific contribution with a view to addressing challenges with key policies, practices or both. Findings should help to build the evidence base for effective future interventions in the areas under study.

In particular, ESRC would like projects to:

  • understand the empirical realities of contemporary transformations in work and working lives, the causal factors involved and the implications for individuals, businesses, practitioners and policymakers
  • engender relevant, meaningful, and accessible change in policy and business practices to transform our working lives for the better.

All proposals must set out how the research relates to the existing evidence base and must clearly identify the project’s original contribution.

The successful projects will be expected to work collaboratively and coordinate with one another to ensure the collective impact of this programme of investments. ESRC will make available a small fund to support collaboration and coordination, but projects should also budget-appropriate resources.

Proposals should include practical suggestions for specific activities, and we welcome inventive and inclusive ideas. The ESRC office will work with the successful projects to confirm the shape and governance of inter-project coordination.

We welcome proposals that explore any of the following themes and sub-themes.

Managing transitions

Projects funded will explore how people navigate and manage transitions into, within and out of work over the course of their working lives, taking into consideration any of the following sub-themes.

Into, within and out of work

This can include:

  • early career or life event-driven transitions
  • midlife (and other) career transitions: experiences, shaping factors and implications
  • working after the age of official retirement
  • supporting sustainable work pathways (including barriers to accessing and retaining work, both generally and with regards to specific groups, as well as systemic and place-based approaches to provision of decent and fulfilling work).

Attitudes, motivations and decisions that shape working lives

This can include:

  • changing attitudes or motivations towards work and working lives
  • decisions about jobs, work and career pathways
  • the impact of household finances on transition decisions
  • the impact of changes to labour markets, job security, working patterns and environments on working lives.

High-level cross-cutting themes that are also within scope

This can include:

  • barriers, enablers, actors and agents of change
  • role of organisations, structures and institutions
  • individual decision-making processes, including drivers, motivations and decision pathways
  • experiences of specific groups (including people with disabilities, people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, older workers, young workers, middle-aged workers, women, people from the LGTBQ communities and so on)
  • transitions at individual and household level:
    • balancing roles
    • managing transitions and competing demands
    • differences across various demographic groups in relation to age, gender, family status and caring responsibilities
  • the impact and effectiveness of different workplaces (including location, modes of work, different locations or modes for different roles, tasks or jobs, and ‘non-organisational’ work structures) and working practices to manage transitions.

Power and voice

Projects funded will explore:

  • workplace relationships
  • employee and employer experiences
  • labour voice.

Understanding contemporary dynamics of power and their implications

This can include:

  • agency-power dynamics, including issues of workplace autonomy and control
  • structural power inequalities, including the role of regulation and the legislative framework
  • links between contractual relationships and power relationships
  • exploring sectoral and geographical experiences
  • intersectional dimensions of power (inequalities)
  • notions of bi-directional trust
  • value creation and distribution
  • the role of different (and changing) workplaces, work practices and job types.

Labour rights, labour organisation and labour voice

This can include:

  • understanding contemporary dimensions of labour voice
  • employee or worker engagement, participation and voice
  • the contemporary role of trade unions and employee or worker bodies
  • alternative models of labour organisation, including different types of employer and different working practices
  • exploring sectoral and geographical experiences.

High-level cross-cutting themes that are also within scope

This can include:

  • experiences of particular groups of workers or employees, including:
    • socio-economic dimensions
    • geographic dimensions
    • specific age groups
    • gender dimensions
    • people with disabilities
    • people from Black Asian and minority ethnic communities
    • people from the LGBTQIA+ communities
  • role and implications (psychological, sociological, political) of:
    • individuals
    • employers
    • professional and trade bodies
    • organisations and institutions
  • the relationships between productivity, power and voice in the workplace, and their implications
  • technology, trust and power dynamics in the workplace.

Overall requirements

All proposals should set out clearly defined, targeted and measurable outcomes to demonstrate evidence of planned impact, whether:

  • conceptual
  • policy
  • economic
  • cultural
  • other.

Outcomes should be as specific as possible.

ESRC welcomes any methodological approach whether quantitative, qualitative or mixed methods in nature.

We also encourage the use of approaches that are interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary or both.

Linked administrative data

Where relevant, applicants are encouraged to make use of linked administrative data held by Administrative Data Research UK (ADR UK).

Projects that use ADR UK data must support research that delivers a public good.

Further details about existing linked administrative data can be found in the ADR UK data catalogues, and new data-sets are being made available all the time.

Explore the ADR UK data catalogues.

Ineligible costs and activity

The following will not be supported:

  • projects that do not focus predominantly on issues relevant to the UK context
  • research that duplicates or overlaps with other planned or ongoing research
  • proposals that are deemed to be less than 50% social science
  • PhD studentships.

How to apply

Applications must be made through the Joint Electronic Submission system (Je-S).

To be able to do this your host organisation must be registered for Je-S, and you must hold a Je-S account. If you are unsure about this, you should contact your research organisation’s research office for further guidance.

Proposals will need to show 100% of the full economic cost of the proposed research, with ESRC covering 80% of the costs.

When applying select ‘New document’, then:

  • council: ESRC
  • document type: standard proposal
  • scheme: research grants
  • call/type/mode: Transforming Working Lives 2021.

Mandatory attachments with the application include:

  • case for support
  • justification of resources
  • data management plan (for grants planning to generate data)
  • CV or CVs.

Read the Je-S guidance attachment for in-depth information about the application process.

How we will assess your application

Proposals are reviewed by a pool of experts covering a range of relevant disciplinary areas.

You can nominate up to two academic and two non-academic reviewers. We invite only one to assess your research proposal and may decide not to approach any of your nominated reviewers.

Reviewers are invited to assess each proposal based on their individual merit.

If a proposal meets the standard ESRC minimum quality threshold, the principal investigator is given the opportunity to respond to the reviewers’ comments.

Proposals are then assessed by a specially convened expert commissioning panel, taking into consideration the scores and comments of the reviewers. The panel includes non-academic experts.

The panel evaluates the proposals on their individual merits, in addition to providing a comparative assessment of all the proposals. They make a final funding recommendation to the ESRC.

The ESRC makes a strategic decision on the proposals to support, within proposals rated highly against the assessment criteria outlined below. Funded grants are considered as part of a portfolio of awards.

All proposals are assessed using the standard ESRC peer reviewer scoring system against the following assessment criteria.

Research excellence and scientific impact

This includes:

  • compelling plans for new research that has the potential to generate new knowledge and lead to new insights on under-researched themes
  • clearly described and justified research methods and research design
  • clearly described and justified data management and access plans that identify the risks to, and mitigations for, accessing, managing and sharing data, if data management is part of your proposal.

Fit to the scope of the opportunity

This includes whether:

  • the proposal addresses one or more of the themes outlined
  • the proposal is situated within the wider research context
  • the proposal adds value to the existing research landscape
  • the project takes place within the timeframe required.

Outcomes, impact and engagement

This includes whether:

  • the proposal sets out clear, measurable and achievable outcomes that demonstrate evidence of the research’s planned impact, and which go beyond a list of outputs
  • the project has practical outcomes, a policy impact or both
  • there is evidence of well thought-through and realistic plans for engagement and knowledge exchange, that maximise opportunities for academic, societal, economic and user impact
  • there is a clear commitment to work constructively and proactively with other grants holders from this funding opportunity in order to maximise the impact of the programme as a whole.

Value for money

This includes whether:

  • the funds requested are essential for the work
  • the importance and scientific potential justify funding on the scale requested
  • there’s a clear allocation of duties and responsibilities, if your proposal has more than one person
  • the proposal represents good value for money.

Contact details

Ask a question about the funding opportunity

Email: twl@esrc.ukri.org.

Ask a question about applying through Je-S

Any queries regarding the submission of proposals through Je-S should be directed to the Je-S helpdesk:

The helpdesk is staffed Monday to Thursday 08:30 to 17:00 and Fridays 08:30 to 16:30 (excluding bank holidays and other holidays).

Ask whether administrative data might be relevant to your project

Email: srs.customer.support@ons.gov.uk.

Additional info

In 2018/19, ESRC undertook a series of scoping workshops across the UK on the future of work in order to explore the shape of a new research agenda in this space.

Around 200 senior stakeholders with research, policy and practice expertise took part in the workshops. Participants came both from academia and from across the public, private and third sectors. The workshops focused on five meta-themes:

  • emerging technologies, skills, and training
  • new work practices, workplaces, and business models
  • inequalities, insecure employment, and in-work poverty
  • job quality, health, and wellbeing
  • lifelong resilience and sustainability.

The key aims of the scoping activity were to identify critical gaps in research, data and methods within these thematic areas. Also, critically, to identify areas where ESRC could add significant value to the space, above and beyond existing and planned activities by ourselves and other stakeholders.

As a result of our engagement with the community, ESRC identified two under-researched and highly relevant areas where our funding has the potential to make a significant contribution to scientific knowledge and to practice.

Managing transitions

The challenge of successfully navigating and managing transitions over the course of a working life was a consistent theme across all workshops.

Participants emphasised that ‘life-course’ and ‘whole life’ approaches to transitions are needed. Whilst also stressing that it is important to understand the specific factors at play at different times in people’s working lives. For example first transitions into work or transitions out of work into retirement.

Transitions do not happen in isolation, and supporting long-term sustainable work pathways requires a holistic perspective.

Power and voice in a changing world of work

As with ‘managing transitions’, issues around labour rights, labour organisation, labour voice and, critically, dynamics of power were raised continuously across all of the five meta-themes.

Participants noted that many stakeholders talk about industrial relations and ‘Industrial Relations 4.0’ but do these terms, and their implications, accurately reflect contemporary realities and experiences.

Particularly when fewer and fewer people work in what might be termed ‘traditional’ industrial settings. This theme is particularly apposite with regards to the widespread ‘digitisation’ of the work agenda.

The past few years, and not least the substantial impact of the ongoing COVID pandemic, have only served to highlight the critical importance of these two overarching themes.

About the subthemes

It is important to underscore that all of the sub-themes listed above are closely intertwined, and in many cases are not easily separated from one another.

The categorisation made here should not be taken as a conceptual statement. It has simply been done to help highlight and begin to unpack the multi-faceted nature of working life.

Moreover, while one or other of these sub-themes might at first glance speak more clearly to certain stakeholders, both have implications for:

  • individuals
  • groups of individuals
  • employers
  • jobs
  • the broader social and economic ecosystem.

Supporting documents

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