1.1 Job design

Raising skills through routine problem solving
Able to control quality
Task variety
Job discretion
Accessing information
Inclusion in decisions

Building workplaces in which employees can develop and deploy their competencies and creative potential begins with job design. Well-designed jobs that provide constructive challenges, opportunities for day-to-day problem solving, variety and collaboration help people manage the demands placed on them and avoid the psychological stress and disengagement associated with repetitive and disempowering work. It also helps them perform their jobs well because they make on-the-spot decisions based on background knowledge and experience of ‘what works’. They avoid delays caused by unnecessary referral to managers or manuals. They make time to learn and to reflect on what is working well and what should be changed. This generates steady flows of improvement and innovation.

Moreover in exercising discretion employees acquire skills that are transferable, increasing their adaptability and resilience within the organisation and their employability outside it, even in quite different occupations. Such employees may also enjoy discretion in scheduling their own work and in controlling its pace, minimising physical strain and psychological stress.

How Good Job Design Works

Individual performance and well-being, and especially the ability to manage pressure, depends on multiple factors, for example:

  • Time pressures. Sufficient time must be allocated to deliver the task properly, including opportunities for productive reflection and improvement.
  • The interruption rate. There should be sufficient opportunity to concentrate on the task in hand without distraction.
  • Conflicting demands. Management must be clear about priorities in terms of time scheduling, and employees should enjoy sufficient discretion in balancing different priorities.
  • Dependence on others. An individual’s ability to do their job in an effective and timely manner is likely to be dependent on others, so it is important that necessary decisions are made in an open and timely manner, and that delays or quality issues at earlier stages in production or service delivery are regularly reviewed and minimised.
  • Knowledge, skills and experience. Individual employees must be in possession of the competencies required to perform allocated tasks properly.
  • The quality of the task. The pace and complexity of the work must be manageable without causing stress and burnout.

Karasek’s Demand-Control model has had a large influence because it is straightforward and practical. Workplace stress is a function of how demanding a person’s job is and how much control the person has over their own responsibilities. Control includes the ability to make decisions about your own job, move between a variety of tasks, minimise repetitiveness, experience opportunities for creativity, learning and problem solving, and influence decisions made at team and organisational levels.

In countries such as Denmark and The Netherlands, prevention of job related stress has been an important part of “work environment” legislation since at least the early 1990s. Job design has therefore achieved a high profile. For example TNO (the Dutch national research organisation) developed the WEBA Model as a practical resource to help practitioners introduce better job design – in part to support compliance with the legislation but more broadly to promote convergence between high performance and high quality of working life. In the UK, Acas and NICE have both published guidelines relating to mental health and the workplace, both of which emphasise the importance of positive mental well-being for productivity.

Drawing on such sources, the principle dimensions of productive and healthy job design can be summarised under seven headings:

Further explanation of the seven job design criteria can be found in our Guide and the research evidence around job design is summarised here.

As we have shown, employees do not only fulfil static roles but can engage in self-initiated activities that go beyond stipulated tasks in order to solve problems, respond to external changes or make work more meaningful. Job crafting empowers employees to make active changes to their own roles and can play an important part in making workflow leaner, streamlined and more agile. In turn can bring about numerous positive outcomes including enhanced engagement, job satisfaction and resilience. This briefing introduces the core ideas of job crafting by defining it, describing why it is important, summarising key research findings, and exploring what it means for employees, managers, and organisations.

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Forum topic: People who have only experienced jobs with little or no autonomy and few opportunities for personal development are sometimes hesitant about expanding their roles. How do you help them overcome their reluctance?

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