To thrive during the COVID-19 crisis, employers should look to encourage idiosyncratic jobs and job crafting.
I was speaking with an HR professional earlier this week who described COVID-19 as HR’s “Industrial Revolution” moment. Whether organisations were prepared for it or not, she says the pandemic has “dragged us kicking and screaming into the digital age” and employers should be grabbing at this opportunity with both hands.
But it’s not just the digital side of work that’s going to shift. Over the coming months, HR professionals will have a huge opportunity to re-shape how we think about our jobs entirely. There’s a mountain of things to consider on this topic, but in this article we’re focusing on some interesting research that suggests rethinking role responsibilities can help organisations to move through ambiguity.
Not new, just amplified
Many organisations are already leaps and bounds ahead when it comes to forward-thinking ways of constructing employee roles. But you don’t have to work at a tech giant to utilise this thinking.
In fact, COVID-19 has required the adoption of aspects of it. The economic downturn means organisations have got creative about how they deliver their products and services and, on a more granular level, the resources they’re using to do this.
Even before the pandemic hit, experts were talking about the modern business environment as one defined by uncertainty. As recently as December, HRM was talking to academics about how HR could handle a predicted upcoming recession (a prediction that turned into a reality much faster than anyone expected) and even earlier in the year, HR experts held similar views.
Remaining viable amid uncertainty has always been a key business concern, the difference now is that it’s the main business concern.
If there was ever a time to rethink conventional role responsibilities, it’s now.
In a research paper titled ‘Idiosyncratic Jobs, Organizational Transformation, and Career Mobility (2016)’ researchers professor Anne Miner and Olubukunola Akinsanmi from Wisconsin School of Business found that the creation of what they call ‘idiosyncratic jobs’ has the potential to help organisations to navigate times of uncertainty and ambiguity.
They define idiosyncratic jobs as formal duties (i.e. approved by management) that match the talents and inclinations of an individual. They are roles where “the existence of the job holder prompted the creation of the position”. So if a traditional job is one where you figure out the responsibilities and hire someone to carry them out, an idiosyncratic job is where someone in your team takes on a new role that fits their “abilities, interests and priorities”.
For example, a manager may collaborate with her company on making her their head of marketing and product strategy, a role that the company now needs but previously didn’t exist.
Importantly, idiosyncratic jobs differ slightly from the more commonly known practice of ‘job crafting’ as these new duties aren’t necessarily shaped by or exclusive to the individual performing the role as managers will play a part in its formation. They may also continue to exist even after the person leaves that position.
However, the two can overlap. Job crafting is sometimes the first step in the creation of idiosyncratic jobs, say the researchers.
Job design, they say, is usually structured around three different models:
- The duties of a role precede the incumbent (you hire someone to fill a vacancy)
- Managers design the duties of a role (they might be creating a new team or expanding an offering and need new skills to achieve this)
- The job is designed to accomplish the current goals of the organisation (to use COVID-19 as an example, a business might all of a sudden realise gaps in its digital capabilities and have to quickly hire an expert/team)
Typically, organisations look to simply replace a departed employee. And while this might often make sense, in some circumstances it could be hampering a new hire’s full potential.
“Much scholarly research still takes it for granted that a job is imagined or created first, after which a person is sought to fill it,” Miner and Akinsanmi write.
They suggest the reason academics and business leaders might not normalise this practice could be due to a fear that after some people start crafting their own roles, everyone will want to, and eventually “jobs will have no meaning, so orderly organisational life will be impossible”. They also note there’s the potential for idiosyncratic jobs to produce negative outcomes, such as cronyism, perceptions of unfairness and inefficiencies.
However, the payoffs for a business that successfully utilises such roles can be very much worth it.
One of the most tantalising benefits of idiosyncratic jobs is that they can have a great influence on an organisation’s way of doing things as well as encourage “unplanned organisational learnings”.
They refer to separate pieces of research, also conducted by Miner, which suggest these jobs can lead to unplanned “bottom-up changes” in an organisation and contribute to shifts in an organisation’s goals more so than other types of jobs.
Most pertinent for the current business climate is the impacts these roles can have on adaptive innovation.
“Organisations and employees sometimes design idiosyncratic jobs when they are faced with major uncertainty about what to do, with far more problems than resources to address them, or with unexpected but fast-moving opportunities.
“Instead of suppressing variation, these jobs embody new activities that management had not anticipated. They thus involve innovation that offers adaptive value and represent a potential source of renewal for the organisation. The organisation had not imagined or valued the new job until the presence of the person made concrete the potential value or feasibility of the new job.”
In the current climate this could look like staff volunteering to be involved in COVID-19 response task forces or expanding their duties to include different kinds of work to cater to increased demand. However you could argue this is out of necessity rather than a genuine desire to work within a particular function, in which instance it wouldn’t be considered an idiosyncratic role.
The researchers suggest these jobs should be treated as an experiment, because some will work and some won’t. And while they provide short-term benefits, such as increased retention and greater innovation, their greater impacts lie in their long-term benefits.
“[This research] demonstrates that idiosyncratic jobs can play a crucial role in organisational transformation. This possibility becomes especially salient in contemporary work settings in which job duties and work arrangements vary greatly.”
A bite sized approach
While idiosyncratic jobs are based on formalised expectations between employees and managers, if you wanted to dip your toe in, there are smaller ways to encourage more autonomy and variance in an employees’ role.
As individuals, the way we view our own jobs is often very siloed. Think about the way you relay what you do when meeting someone new. You say, “I am an HR manager for X business” or “I’m a journalist for X publication”. Our workplace identity is tied to this thing that we are instead of the skills we possess.
Job crafting – where employees redesign their roles to align with their motives, values and interests – has been proven to help individuals feel higher levels of job satisfaction, resilience and engagement.
By shifting how we view our individual roles, the idea is that one day instead of telling someone I’m a journalist, I could answer their question like this: “I work for X company primarily in an editorial function, however I also specialise in relationship management and have technical expertise in computer programming.” (Let the record state, the latter is very, very untrue).
Technically, this could be the role of a writer, client manager and IT specialist, but by taking the time to properly assess my entire suite of skills (technical and core) and encouraging me to use them, my employer could utilise me as a resource across a variety of different business functions. The benefits are twofold: the business can do more with less and I’m more likely to thrive because I’m deriving more meaning from my work.
But job crafting doesn’t have to be this ambitious or cross-functional. It could mean adding a single task to your day that you find valuable. It could also mean someone homes in on a certain part of their role and amplifies it. For example, I enjoy writing about the psychological aspects of work, so I’ve made that a focus of the stories I produce for HRM.
Jane Dutton, professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, writes about this in an article for the Harvard Business Review. She’s been studying job crafting for two decades and she breaks it down into three categories: task crafting, relationality crafting and cognitive crafting.
Dutton uses the example of a housekeeper at a hospital who used cognitive crafting to gain value from her role. Instead of thinking as someone who cleans, she thinks of her role in helping others to heal – a clean environment is an important part of that.
To illustrate what she means by relational crafting, Dutton refers to a consultant who became known for introducing positive organisational scholarship to the business. This wasn’t part of her role, but it was encouraged by the business and helped her to develop deep, personal connections with her colleagues and clients.
Finally, Dutton explains task crafting by referring to the example of a manufacturer whose role largely had him working with his company’s products, not its people. As a self described “people person”, he decided to take it upon himself to become involved with his colleagues’ work by attending their team meetings. As he was able to learn more about how the different arms of the company functions, he was able to develop a comprehensive onboarding processes for the organisation, a function he now spearheads alongside his manufacturing duties.
By allowing and encouraging employees to create value, and even create roles, organisations can become more agile, and increase engagement and job satisfaction. Of course, it’s important to guide employees and collaborate with them on their efforts. HRM has previously looked at research which shows the initiatives of proactive staff can seriously backfire.
The main takeaway is that every organisation needs to start thinking differently about how we view jobs. But perhaps that’s better phrased as a question: “What will your work look like in a post-COVID world?
Want to learn how to make sense and progress amid uncertainty? Then AHRI’s webinar on the 21st of May will be of interest to you. AHRI members can attend for free.