Job design, or work design, refers to a process of dividing an organization’s total work into various jobs and assigning tasks to those jobs. It may also involve examining the goals and interdependence of tasks as well as the interpersonal relationships involved in accomplishing work. Because the tasks involved in doing a job and how these tasks are performed can change, managers need to know how to design and redesign jobs to make them as meaningful and productive as possible. Thus, a good job design is one that meets organizational requirements for high performance, offers a good fit with individuals’ skills and needs, provides workers with challenging goals and meaningful work, and provides opportunities for job satisfaction and career advancement.
The implications of job design for employee career development are considerable. For example, organizations today are becoming “learning organizations” that value not only financial capital but also intellectual capital. Organizations must have the capacity to acquire, share, and use knowledge effectively. This includes providing workers with opportunities to learn and develop. To accomplish this, the right systems and structures need to be in place to support the management of knowledge.
The way a job is designed can also affect a worker’s level of activity. For example, research evidence suggests that oversimplified jobs can lead to apathy and reduced drive and motivation. This indifference can often be reversed through increased complexity and autonomy. Other studies have demonstrated that autonomy and control can positively affect cognitive development and intellectual flexibility. Equally important is the effect job design could have on employee well-being. It is well documented that autonomy, or having control over various aspects of work, has a positive effect on health and well-being. That is, job-design factors can eliminate or minimize the negative effects that stressful job demands have on mental and physical health. Similarly, a well-designed job can actually foster learning and a feeling of mastery over time. This acts as a type of coping mechanism for workers in stressful work situations and leads to a greater capacity to learn and grow.
Another career implication concerns the opportunities for personal advancement. Many organizations have structures with reduced hierarchical levels. Instead of the traditional, rigid chain of command, employees or teams of employees are empowered to take responsibility for and control over their work. As decision-making discretion is delegated downward, there is less need for supervisors and managers. This, in turn, limits the promotional opportunities in a given organization and creates a need for new career-development choices, such as horizontal learning options (e.g., another department’s job, additional or new technical skills, short-term projects). The challenge for organizations is to provide these types of learning opportunities and create reward systems that recognize them.
Historically, the focus of job-design efforts can be traced back to what has become known as the philosophy of job simplification or job specialization, whereby complex tasks are broken down into a series of simpler tasks to enhance performance. In more recent years, however, the nature of work has changed dramatically. A number of job-redesign strategies have been adopted by organizations to counter the negative psychological effects of specialization, including job enlargement, job enrichment, and autonomous work groups. These ideas were popular during the 1960s and 1970s, and various aspects of these designs can be seen today in the form of high-performance teams, empowerment, learning organizations, and total quality production.
Information technology has also changed many jobs in the last 20 years. In some cases, workers experience increased responsibility and control through immediate access to information and resources. In other cases, however, employees perform routine work, face time pressures, are constantly monitored, and have little control over their work because of the use of computer information systems. In any event, whether the changing nature of work is brought about through technology or through increased efficiency or flexibility, there are often conflicts between an employee’s motivation to work and the pressures to maximize productivity and sales.
Job Specialization and Work Efficiency
Job specialization occurs when the work required to complete a product or service is divided into smaller tasks. This is often referred to as horizontal division of labor, whereby employees actually perform fewer tasks. The economic benefits of dividing work into specialized jobs have been described for centuries and include improved work efficiency. For example, in 1776, Adam Smith argued that work specialization leads to greater efficiency because employees have fewer tasks to complete and spend less time changing from one task to another. In addition, new machines were invented to help facilitate and automate work so that one individual could perform the work of many. Finally, workers could practice their tasks more frequently, and thus fewer resources and less training were required.
Frederick W. Taylor, an industrial engineer, was one of the strongest supporters of job specialization and established the foundation for modern industrial engineering. In 1911, he presented his principles of scientific management. In essence, they are as follows: (a) replace rule-of-thumb work methods with methods based on scientific study; (b) scientifically select, develop, and train each worker; (c) work closely with workers and cooperate with them to ensure the scientific methods are followed; and (d) divide the work so that managers apply scientific principles to planning the work, while workers actually perform the tasks. Additional elements of scientific management include time studies, specialized supervision, standardization of work methods, standardization of tools and equipment, and a separate planning function. Taylor argued that management and workers needed a complete revolution in their attitudes toward work. He asserted that there was “one best method” of doing every job so that efficiency was maximized. Today, many of the methods used by Taylor are commonplace in many organizations and include providing incentives for workers, examining the interdependencies between people and machines, setting performance standards, setting goals, and providing employee training.
Job specialization often increases work efficiency; however, it doesn’t necessarily improve job performance or employee well-being. Early research into the practice of work specialization focused on the consequences of performing low-skill, repetitive jobs for long hours. Generally speaking, this research confirmed the notion that too much specialization produces negative work attitudes, such as job dissatisfaction, fatigue, and boredom. Furthermore, psychological health and well-being can also be negatively affected if a job doesn’t offer a worker the opportunity to use a variety of skills and provide a sense of accomplishment and personal growth. As a result, several work design alternatives to job simplification emerged in the workplace and are still popular today.
Work Motivation and Job Design
Job rotation involves workers moving at regular intervals from one job to another to reduce fatigue and boredom. Many organizations introduce job rotation as part of a larger redesign effort to increase the flexibility and skills of the workforce so that there are few disruptions when a worker is absent from the job or staff shortages occur. As traditionally used, job rotation may not always have the desired effect of improving efficiency or job satisfaction, because employees often move from one routine job to another. Nevertheless, employees can benefit from job rotation because they are able to use different motions and muscles, thereby reducing repetitive stress injuries.
To counteract oversimplification, another design method commonly used in organizations is job enlargement. Rather than rotating employees from one job to another, job enlargement boosts the complexity of work by increasing job range or the number of tasks employees perform within their jobs. This can be accomplished by combining two or more jobs into one or by adding tasks to a given job. Either way, this approach is based on the notion that increasing skill variety will reduce the repetitive nature of the job and help reduce boredom. Job enlargement can improve efficiency and flexibility. However, it can be viewed by workers as merely adding more routine tasks to their already boring jobs. Research suggests that simply adding tasks to a job doesn’t necessarily affect employee job satisfaction, motivation, or performance. To achieve these benefits, employees should have the opportunity to use a variety of skills combined with the opportunity to increase job knowledge, while having some discretion in how work is structured. These characteristics are central to job enrichment.
In general, job enrichment refers to the empowerment of workers to assume more responsibility for scheduling, coordinating, and planning their work. In addition, employees should be recognized for their achievements and have the opportunity to advance and grow as they perform their jobs. During the period between 1950 and 1980, there were major theoretical developments in the field of job design that continue to exert considerable influence today. One of these developments, vertical job enrichment, was based on the work of Frederick Herzberg, an industrial psychologist who studied the various sources of job satisfaction and dissatisfaction at work. Herzberg and his colleagues began their research in the mid- to late 1950s by interviewing 200 accountants and engineers. Herzberg’s main proposition was that job satisfaction and job dissatisfaction were independent concepts and not opposite ends on a single continuum.
Herzberg’s interview data revealed that certain work characteristics seemed to influence employee satisfaction, whereas other characteristics appeared to affect worker dissatisfaction. Factors that increased satisfaction were achievement, advancement opportunities, recognition, responsibility, and the nature of the work itself. He labeled these work characteristics “motivators” and argued that they were more intrinsic to the work itself. In contrast, factors that were related to job dissatisfaction were working conditions, company policies and administration, interpersonal relations, and employees’ relationships with their supervisors. Herzberg labeled these characteristics “hygiene factors,” because they were believed to be extrinsic to the performance of work and could help maintain motivation but more often contributed to a decrease in motivation. Herzberg suggested that for managers to motivate employees, they should pay less attention to work conditions, company policies, and salary and instead try to design jobs that include opportunities for recognition, growth, and achievement.
During the late 1960s, Herzberg’s notion of separate determinants of job satisfaction and dissatisfaction generated more empirical research than any other job-design strategy and was embraced by many practitioners. Over the years, however, many critics have questioned Herzberg’s theory and methodology because other research studies failed to replicate his findings. Not surprisingly, Herzberg’s two-factory theory lost credibility and has not proved to be a useful guide for practicing managers. Nonetheless, the notion of job enrichment—designing jobs that satisfy higher-order needs for responsibility, recognition, achievement, and growth—continues to influence job-design efforts and stimulate interest in motivation and job satisfaction.
Another major development in the field of job design that is one of the best-known approaches to job enrichment is the job characteristics model. In 1975 and 1976, J. Richard Hackman and Greg Oldham identified five core job dimensions: skill variety, task identity, task significance, autonomy, and feedback.
These five core job characteristics influence the extent to which workers experience three critical psychological states. The first of these is experienced meaningfulness: the belief that one’s work is worthwhile or important. Skill variety, task identity, and task significance combine to influence the experienced meaningfulness of work. The second psychological state is experienced responsibility: the degree to which workers feel personally accountable and responsible for the results of their work. Autonomy contributes to the worker’s experienced responsibility for work outcomes. Employees must have the opportunity to control their work environments in order to feel responsible for their successes and shortcomings. The final psychological state is knowledge of results: the degree to which employees are aware of the effectiveness of their work or understand how they are performing. Feedback from actually doing the job determines whether a worker will have knowledge of the results of his or her work. This type of feedback comes from performing the job itself, not from a manager’s performance appraisal. The critical psychological states, in turn, promote work motivation, job satisfaction, performance, and reduced absenteeism and turnover. The model assumes that autonomy and feedback are more important than the other three work characteristics and that employees with higher growth needs (e.g., desire for learning, development, challenge) will respond more favorably to enriching jobs than will employees with lower growth needs.
To date, the job characteristics model has proved to be the most widely used theoretical model for job-redesign efforts ever conceptualized. Interestingly, though, many of the specific predictions of the model have not been supported by two decades of empirical research. For example, the core job characteristics are better predictors of affective outcomes, such as motivation and satisfaction, than they are of behavioral or objective outcomes, such as performance, absenteeism, and turnover. Second, the core job characteristics don’t necessarily work through the critical psychological states to predict the various outcomes. In other words, they directly predict many of the outcomes. Finally, the identified job characteristics have not always been found to be separate aspects of jobs. Nevertheless, the model continues to be a useful and valuable tool.
The job characteristics model hasn’t changed much from its original theoretical development. In 1996, Hackman and Oldham omitted absenteeism and turnover as potential outcomes and added growth satisfaction. Competencies and satisfaction with contextual factors are now included with the strength of growth needs as potential individual differences.
Sociotechnical Systems Approach
The models of job enrichment discussed previously have primarily focused on the individual and individual work units. They are not always appropriate for group or team-based structures. The sociotechnical systems approach to enrichment originated in the early 1950s at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations in London and provided a foundation for group designs. Studies of coal-mining processes in Great Britain found that productivity can suffer when either technical or social factors are allowed to dictate work processes. In essence, the model advocates designing work that integrates people and technology to optimize the relationships between social systems and technology. That is, if frequent interaction is required by the production technology being used, workers should work in groups that allow them to communicate as they perform their job duties. This would enhance employee job satisfaction and performance in the workplace. The Tavistock researchers identified some general principles or requirements that are central to employee motivation and satisfaction. These requirements are similar to the work of Hackman and Oldham but were developed independently in England. They are as follows:
- Workers should be able to see an identifiable product as a result of their work.
- Workers should be able to see how their products affect others.
- Workers should have some decision-making discretion.
- Workers should be able to continuously learn while on the job.
- Workers should be trained and have their work recognized by others.
The more contemporary concept of semiautonomous work groups evolved from this innovative research. In essence, work groups are given decision-making discretion over various aspects of their work, such as what methods to use and how to solve problems and allocate resources. More recently, we’ve seen labels such as self-managed teams, self-directed work groups, or flexible work groups to describe this type of work design. Without question, the sociotechnical approach to enrichment has had a major impact on group research and practice. There has been an increase in team-effectiveness models, which make more precise propositions and specifications about how group processes and group design factors affect outcomes. In addition, the potential advantages and disadvantages of group-based designs have been studied and documented. For example, group workers often experience increased job satisfaction and commitment and are able to produce more at reduced costs. Furthermore, there are often fewer accidents, lower turnover, and improved mental health when employees are involved in group-based work.
The sociotechnical systems model has been criticized for focusing too much on production and manufacturing settings and for advocating that “groups” are the answer to most organizational problems. This approach has also neglected to recognize the effects that individual differences and organizational culture could have on employees’ attitudes and behavior. Nevertheless, using this type of design does strengthen motivation, satisfaction, and similar work attitudes, and it has proved to be of great value to practitioners.
Further Developments in Job Design
The job characteristics model and the sociotechnical systems approach to designing jobs remain the most popular, and there have been additional developments and extensions to both. One such development that draws on the job characteristics model is Robert Karasek’s job demands-job decision latitude (i.e., control) model of stress, proposed in 1979. Essentially, the model proposes that jobs high in demands (i.e., workload) have harmful effects on mental and physical health. However, the effects of those demands are even greater when a job is simultaneously high in demands and low in control (e.g., autonomy). Karasek referred to this as a “high-strain job” because it is the most stressful. His theoretical approach has dominated job stress research for the last 30 years.
An extension to the job characteristics model was suggested by Gerald Salancik and Jeffrey Pfeffer in 1978. The social information processing perspective suggests that employees’ perceptions of job characteristics are often influenced by social information provided by coworkers, managers, suppliers, customers, and even family members. Social information can include comments made during conversations, meetings, and observations. It is important to note that employees don’t always respond in an accurate, reasonable manner when asked about characteristics of their jobs. Rather, actual job characteristics and social information cues tend to interact to affect employees’ perceptions of and reactions to their jobs.
At present, a popular job-design perspective is the concept of psychological empowerment. The concept of empowerment is defined as a psychological or motivational state in which a worker experiences more choice or self-determination, meaning, competence, and impact regarding his or her role in an organization. While job characteristics such as autonomy and feedback clearly influence psychological empowerment, the main focus is whether or not individuals perceive themselves as empowered. A worker’s personality type, cues from coworkers or customers, and the work environment can affect these perceptions. Interestingly, empowerment draws from both the job characteristics model and social information processing. Individuals’ assessments of self-determination, meaning, and so on are very similar to the critical psychological states in Hackman and Oldham’s theory, but the state of empowerment can also be influenced by the actions and behaviors of other people in the organization. Empowerment allows employees more discretion to use their skills and knowledge to solve problems directly. Thus, in an organization that values learning and initiative, empowerment can have an impact on employee motivation, commitment, satisfaction, and performance.
The Changing Nature of Work
Since traditional job-design approaches were developed, there has been considerable change in the composition of the workforce as well as the way work is done in many organizations. For example, the majority of new employees will be older, more educated, women, non-Caucasian, and from ethnically diverse groups. Employees are no longer spending their entire careers with one or two organizations. Factors such as downsizing and a worker’s need to be challenged mean that most employees expect to change jobs and organizations much more often. Another important change is a shift away from manufacturing and a move toward service- and knowledge-based work. Specifically, call centers have become increasingly common across a variety of industries worldwide, including telecommunications, retail, insurance, travel, mail order, and utilities. They tend to employ low-to-semiskilled workers who must perform rather routine, stressful work under time constraints, with constant monitoring from supervision.
This has given rise to the contingent or flexible workforce. Many organizations no longer employ individuals on a full-time basis with a consistent working schedule. Instead, they employ workers on a part-time or temporary basis, and these individuals often work irregular hours. Another rapidly growing segment is referred to as the knowledge worker. Unlike the semiskilled jobs in customer-based call center work, the knowledge worker is a highly educated, high-level employee, who is often found performing analytical and technical work in information systems, new product development, or forecasting future business needs. Many of these employees don’t work at the actual physical site of the organization; they work at home and telecommute or are part of a virtual team that assists core employees on various assignments and projects. The development of technology is a major factor in all of these movements. Work is no longer restricted by time or place. As a result, organizations can be much more flexible in their working arrangements.
Although many of the traditional approaches to job design should be applied to these new forms of work, clearly there is room for additional considerations. For example, telecommuters often have more autonomy and control, especially over the time and pacing of their work. However, there is also the potential for increased work-family conflict, particularly for women, when the demands at home interfere with getting work done. Many organizations value the knowledge that older workers possess and are redesigning jobs to include less physically demanding work—and more autonomy over how work is done and how frequently break periods occur. Without question, the introduction of technology has had a major impact on how organizations are structured. Traditional departments are disappearing; organizations are more integrated; and there is an increasing number of strategic partnerships among organizations. Furthermore, technology has helped to remove typical barriers and provide easy access to information and knowledge transfer.
Another consideration is that work designs should be expanded to include more professional occupations, such as doctors, lawyers, counselors, social workers, and some managerial positions. While these jobs contain characteristics similar to those already identified in work-design theory, they also contain characteristics, such as emotional and ethical demands, that have received little attention in studies of job design.
To conclude, job design continues to be at the core of the work experience. Since work contexts are changing and becoming more diverse, companies are building on traditional forms of design and introducing new design options. The opportunity to create more flexible, fulfilling work in which employees can use a variety of skills and knowledge is considerable. The challenge to organizations is to maintain a motivated and committed workforce while achieving superior quality and performance.
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