Work design is the process of making roles better designed, the careful specification of the role of the worker. One of the earliest scientific approaches to this was in the late 19th and early 20th century by Frederick Winslow Taylor. His approach (Taylorism) relied on the optimisation of detailed processes and strict supervision of the workforce to ensure standardization; with this, he eradicated the inconsistencies of workers1. Work design cuts to the heart of micro-level planning, which means that the scaled value of minor changes can be immense.
In the 1960s, psychologist Frederick Herzberg proposed a two-factor theory of job satisfaction2:
- Hygiene factors, the extrinsic elements such as pay and benefits.
- Motivators, those elements that are intrinsic to the role itself and provide job satisfaction.
Motivating the workforce
To achieve motivation relies on three vital psychological states in the workforce3:
- Work needs to be meaningful and valued
- Workers are accountable for the results of their work and,
- Workers know the result of their work
Considerations for design
In order to achieve these psychological states in the workforce, work must be designed with the following dimensions in mind:
- Variety. The most satisfying work comprises a variety of tasks and utilizes a variety of competencies.
- Identity. Those who are involved in a piece of work, from initiation to completion, will derive greater satisfaction than those who are involved only in part of the work.
- Significance. The most satisfied workers are involved in tasks that have significance and meaning, creating genuine value for their organization or society.
- Autonomy. The most satisfied workers have autonomy and discretion in their work.
- Feedback. The most satisfied workers receive clear feedback on the impact of their performance.
By stripping the worker of many of these core dimensions, Taylor presented a classic example of McGregor’s Theory X approach4. He asked workers to surrender these core dimensions in favour of higher reward. Though this remains a choice within an employee value proposition (EVP), it must acknowledge the negative impact on performance. Taylorism also assumes that when we apply scientific management to a process, we will create the perfect solution the first time and there is no possibility of disruption. As both are unlikely, a workforce with autonomy and empowered to refine processes will be more successful than those who are beholden to micro-management.
Within this work design, it is important to consider context switch, the ability to pause and resume processes. The term comes from computer processing and enables multitasking, a term which also has its roots in computers. The weight of evidence is that multitasking in humans is a ‘mythical activity’5. When presented with multiple tasks, the human brain is prevented from working on key aspects of both6. What takes place is context switching; we switch our focus between multiple tasks. Computers and humans alike, the main reasons for context switching are multiple tasks or interruption during a task. The result is that, like computers, this context switching drains resources; for the human brain, that resource is time. Analysis suggests that each concurrent task adds a twenty percent loss of time due to context switching; a significant erosion of available time7. Though the term superseded him, the eradication of context switching was a clear ambition of Taylorism. Therefore, to take an effective approach that aligns to the theory Y approach and maintains efficiency, it is vital to create flow. Create a sequence of activity, rather than workers being forced to maintain focus on multiple activities. If that creates process issues, then look to enable concurrent activity across the workforce so that process flows enable each other.
- Taylor, F W (1997) The Principles of Scientific Management, Dover Publications, Mineola
- Herzberg, F (1966) Work and the Nature of Man, Ty Crowell Co, New York
- Hackman, J R & Oldham, G R (1976) Motivation through the design of work: test of a theory. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 16 (2), pp 250-279
- McGregor, D (2005) The Human Side of Enterprise, McGraw-Hill, New York
- Hallowell, E M (2006) Crazy Busy, Ballantine, London
- Gladstones, W H, Regan, M A & Lee, R B (1989) Division of attention: the single-channel hypothesis revisited, The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology Section A, 41 (1), pp 1-17
- Weinberg, G M (2011) Quality Software Management, Dorset House Publishing, New York