In the lead up to her presentation at AHRI’s convention, Professor Sharon Parker reveals five critical elements of work design to create engaging and meaningful work.
Why are some job tasks more boring than they need to be?
Professor Sharon Parker, Director of Curtin’s Centre for Transformative Work Design – and an upcoming speaker at AHRI’s convention in August – has conducted several research projects that highlight why poor work design is a problem.
In one experiment, managers were asked to design a part-time clerical job made up of photocopying and filing tasks. When asked to turn it into a full-time role – giving them the opportunity to either make the job extremely repetitive by adding more of the same tasks or make it more interesting and by adding diverse tasks – 45 per cent of managers chose more photocopying and filing.
Another involved an illustrative case study of a warehouse worker named Karen who was failing to meet 50 per cent of her deadlines even though she often ran to pick up goods from various areas of the warehouse.
Rather than choosing to fix the work design, two-thirds of managers chose to fix the worker by sending her on training.
“I actually put that fitness question in as a bit of a joke,” says Parker. “But so many people chose it… it shows how people don’t understand work design. They tend to blame the worker and not the work.”
How can HR and leaders design work experiences that are stimulating and meaningful?
Parker and her colleagues have developed the five-tiered ‘SMART’ work design model, which stands for stimulating, mastery, agency, relational and tolerance. It provides a framework which focuses on identifying the important psychological features of a job.
“As human beings, we like to do things that are interesting, feel meaningful and have some variety,” says Parker.
“Stimulating work is important for learning because you’re using and developing skills.
“It’s also important for outcomes such as musculoskeletal injury, because if you’re doing the same thing over and over again, then you’re using the same muscles over and over again.
“That’s going to have consequences.”
Most people want to do their job well. So how can employers encourage a sense of mastery?
“What are the things that help them do their job?” says Parker. “One important thing for employees is knowing what it is they’re meant to be doing. Do they have role clarity? Do they understand why their job is important?”
Regular feedback is vital, she says. It provides a way for an individual to measure how they’re progressing against various responsibilities.
“Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking feedback is something given annually. Feedback should be provided when it’s needed, not months after a situation.”
Mastery is about aspects of work design that enable staff to know what to do, and helping them do it well. As Liz Wiseman, who will also be an AHRI convention speaker, would say: look for people’s ‘native genius.’
[You can read HRM’s article on the concept of ‘native genius’ here.]
Agency, or autonomy, is based on the fundamental human need to have control over one’s own world.
In a work context, this relates to whether an employee feels they have influence over their role, and when and how they conduct their work.
“Is the job highly prescribed so the individual can’t deviate? An example of low agency might be a person working in a call centre who sits in the same spot, has to stick to a very tight script and must complete a certain number of calls each hour.
“Ask questions such as: Do employees have agency over how they do their work or when they do their tasks?
“For example, can they do the intellectually challenging tasks in the morning when they’re fresh, and the others later? Are they able to influence the methods used to do their work, such as by making suggestions for improvement?”
“One important thing for employees is knowing what it is they’re meant to be doing. Do they have role clarity? Do they understand why their job is important?” – Sharon Parker
A lot of employers have had to ask themselves similar questions throughout the pandemic, and many have found that by loosening the reins and granting more autonomy, they’ve seen an increase in engagement and loyalty from employees.
“Sometimes managers think agency is anarchy,” says Parker.
“But it’s not about giving people carte blanche control. It’s instead about building in as much influence as is feasible, such as by eradicating unnecessary layers of approval, or delegating decisions from managers to the workers themselves.”
This pertains to another fundamental human need: to connect with others.
“We’ve seen this amplified through the pandemic,” says Parker.
“In a work sense, this is about whether we are connecting with colleagues. Do we have social contact? Do we get support from our manager? Do we get support from our colleagues? Do we feel part of a team? All of these aspects are relational. Of course, it’s also about eradicating toxic relational aspects such as harassment and bullying.”
Want to craft meaningful jobs? Professor Sharon Parker will be sharing more insights into effective work design at AHRI’s Convention in August.
Book your ticket today.
If jobs didn’t have demands, it wouldn’t be described as ‘work’. It might be cognitive demands in areas that require thought; emotional demands in sectors that involve looking after others; or physical demands for those in blue-collar fields.
“Whatever the demands are in people’s work, they need to be experienced as tolerable,” says Parker.
“What we mean by tolerable is that the demands should not overwhelm someone’s ability to cope with them.”
Having reasonable job demands has also become more important during the pandemic as people in almost all sectors and professions have had to cope with staffing issues. Demands have been enormous – consider the pressures felt by those working in hospitals, schools and aged care facilities, for example.
Where to begin?
The starting point facilitating good job design is in developing a clear understanding of where your organisation is currently at.
For example, you might have strong relational elements in place, but perhaps people don’t find the majority of their work to be tolerable.
“A really good starting point is to know the particular work design challenges for the individuals in your team – whether they’re about the amount of work, a lack of role clarity, a job’s repetitive nature, bureaucracy that is stifling agency, or something else.
“You can do that formally with surveys or informally through conversations.”
Parker’s colleagues have a SMART check-in at the beginning of every team meeting.
They choose a different letter each time and have a quick discussion around how that’s going and what aspects might be improved.
Managers play a key role in designing SMART work, such as providing role clarity or increasing people’s sense of mastery.
“If we want to create smart work, it’s a tripartite responsibility of the individual, the leaders and the organisation.
“Good work design is shaped by the actions of the individual doing the work. Individuals have a role to play to shape, develop and put boundaries around their responsibilities to ensure they remain tolerable. At the same time, the organisation has an important role in designing supportive policies, systems and structures – things that are often beyond the control of an immediate manager.
“SMART work design is the responsibility of all three groups, not just one or the other.”
When all three groups take responsibility for designing meaningful work experiences, that’s when a work culture truly sings.
This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the July 2022 edition of HRM Magazine.