As our disrupted times force us all to do things differently, the practice of job crafting – tailoring a role for more meaning and satisfaction – is gaining popularity.
Have you heard the one about John F. Kennedy and the janitor? It’s an oft-told tale in business schools that goes like this. When JFK was touring the NASA headquarters in the early 1960s, he came across a janitor, mop in hand. JFK asked why he was working late. The man replied: “Mr President, I’m not mopping floors. I’m helping put a man on the moon.”
This small interaction – whether it happened exactly that way or not – has become lodged in business mythology. Some organisational psychologists would describe the janitor’s thought process – his choice to focus on the big-picture mission rather than everyday tasks – as ‘cognitive crafting’. This is one component of a larger concept known as ‘job crafting’, which has gained momentum in recent times, especially since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Put simply, job crafting is how an employee tailors their job to best suit them. There are three commonly recognised types of job crafting: task, relationship and cognitive, which all spring from a desire for increased meaning and satisfaction at work.
Associate professor Ashish Malik, from the University of Newcastle Business School, says job crafting is a bottom-up approach to job design which often occurs organically.
“It’s a practice that is proactive, self-initiated and driven by the employee – sometimes in consultation with their manager or work supervisor, but often unsupervised.
“The idea is to allow employees more empowerment, flexibility and autonomy so they can craft their daily activities in a way that allows them to become more productive and have a greater engagement with the workplace,” says Mailk.
Professor Sharon Parker, director of Curtin University’s Centre for Transformative Work Design, says there has been much research showing that job crafting can substantially boost employee wellbeing. She says the term has been used in academic literature for two decades, dating back to a 2001 paper by researchers Jane Dutton and Amy Wrzesniewski. But the concept has gained more prominence recently, likely due to increased conversations about mental health and meaningful work.
“There’s increasing awareness of the duty of care that employers have to provide a safe environment, physically and mentally,” says Parker. “There’s more recognition that we have to find ways to create healthier work for people, and job crafting might be one way.”
The pandemic has also reignited the conversation about the benefits of job crafting. Malik recently contributed to research assessing how COVID-19 is impacting job crafting. Led by Ben Laker at the University of Reading in the UK, the researchers surveyed 1000 business leaders and 2000 employees across the US, UK and Australia.
Detailing their results in an article for MIT, the researchers found that of the respondents who had been job crafting during the pandemic 92 per cent reported feeling more job satisfaction, which led to a 29 per cent decrease in their stress levels.
Alongside the wellbeing benefits crafting offers employees, there are numerous potential benefits for employers, including better employee performance and productivity, and reduced turnover.
Job crafting in action
Job crafting has long been favoured by big tech companies such as Google and Facebook. Closer to home, recruitment firm Robert Half also actively encourages it. Its Sydney branch director, Nicole Gorton, says it has led to solid retention rates for the business.
“Not only do we encourage it, but we also talk about it to employees, potential employees, job seekers and clients,” says Gorton.
One Robert Half employee in particular, Tosh Chandar Sekhar, stands out as a job crafting success story.
After working as a recruiter for four years, Chandar Sekhar got to a point where he wanted fresh challenges. At university, he’d studied marketing alongside management, and it was an area he still enjoyed.
“I had the itch to do more and look at things more holistically,” he says.
Wanting more than the purely recruitment-focused role, Chandar Sekhar was considering leaving the business. Instead, he sat down with management, including Gorton, and discussed what he wanted out of his job. As a result, he has shaped, alongside his managers, a role that gives him the variety he was craving. That was two years ago, and since then he has thrived.
Today, as director strategic accounts, he splits his time between client management and working with the marketing team. His knowledge of both has proven to be incredibly valuable.
“In a typical week, half of my time is spent with clients on the account management side and the other half on the marketing side. I act as a bridge between the two divisions. Because of these combined efforts, we’ve been able to yield much greater results than we have historically,” he says.
“The idea is to allow employees more empowerment, flexibility and autonomy so they can craft their daily activities in a way that allows them to become more productive.” – Associate professor Ashish Malik, University of Newcastle Business School
Since making the switch, he’s also felt more engaged at work. “Because my energy is spent on different things, I can maintain a fresh perspective. From a wellbeing point of view, I’ve definitely got a lot more job satisfaction.”
Chandar Sekhar says ongoing support from his bosses has been vital. Gorton leads by example and has crafted her own role to suit her strengths and interests.
Alongside her typical management duties, she also oversees major client partnerships, and does public speaking, media and events.
“Tweaking your own role will encourage employees to make their own positive changes,” she says. “You should be very transparent about it. It can help others to think laterally.”
Make sure it’s employee-led
While job crafting can have a positive impact, there are certain things to remember when balancing increased employee autonomy with business needs.
Malik says crafting should be driven by the employee. He warns that if it’s too forced from the top, it may defeat the purpose. Instead, leaders should embrace the concept and discuss it openly with employees.
“It won’t work without leadership support,” he says. “They must enable, empower and give employees leeway and freedom. If you try to legislate job crafting, it might lose its charm for employees – if they aren’t driving it.”
Parker says it’s also advisable to introduce job crafting ‘interventions’, such as training workshops that introduce the concept to staff and encourage them to consider how they might like to tweak their own jobs. This might uncover a need for professional development, such as informal mentoring with a senior colleague or more formal external training.
Surveys to assess a workplace’s readiness for crafting are a useful first step for those considering introducing the idea. Highly rigid or bureaucratic contexts don’t tend to be conducive to crafting, so you might have to do some work to warm your culture up to the idea of introducing more autonomy – such as introducing initiatives to bolster trust – before something like this can take flight.
Parker’s research has established that crafting works best when it’s ‘wise’, meaning that a job crafter has:
- Considered the impact on other people, such as colleagues and other stakeholders.
- Kept the goals of the organisation in mind.
- Given thought to available resources and their own capacity.
She reminds that crafting shouldn’t be overly relied on if structural elements are the real issue.
“It can be powerful, but it’s not a panacea,” she says. “For example, take aged care, where people are working under incredible pressure, with incredibly high workloads. Focusing on individual crafting is not where we should put our attention in that case – it should be on the system,” says Parker.
Even in professions where crafting can work, some people might be more up for it than others.
“Job crafting won’t be for everyone, and you have to respect that,” says Gorton.
She also says managers should continue to set clear expectations to avoid ‘rogue traders’ who go in a direction that’s unhelpful for the business, or the employee if they end up taking on too much.
“While job crafting can be very beneficial to both individuals and the organisation, if you’re not careful, it can be beneficial to one but not the other… then the person stops enjoying it for whatever reason, or they’re being encouraged to do it, and they’re not really up for it.”
But when it works, crafting can reap rewards for both parties, as Chandar Sekhar’s trajectory shows. He suggests businesses shouldn’t “get too caught up in traditional thinking” and should instead focus on the benefits crafting can bring.
“Don’t try to fit everyone in the same mould,” he says. “If there’s appetite for change, and you’re able to create new opportunities for people, you’ll get long-term loyalty in return.”
This article first appeared in the June 2021 edition of HRM magazine.
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