If more work is being done with fewer jobs (I’ll review one source for this claim, The Second Machine Age, soon), the remaining jobs, and work in general, must be being done differently. What are the levers we can pull as we do this redesign? Who should be doing this redesign? These are the questions that everyone, from CEO to the newest freelancer, are -- or need to be -- grappling with.

Hackman and Oldham are the two best known names in the world of job design. Their most recent commentary:

It is true that many specific, well-defined jobs continue to exist in contemporary organizations. But we presently are in the midst of what we believe are fundamental changes in the relationships among people, the work they do, and the organizations for which they do it (p. 466).

Work Design for All of Us

Oldham and Hackman describe telecommuting, fluid job responsibilities, and independent contractors with simultaneous jobs of varying duration. But, as they note, while the phenomenon of work has changed, the human issues have not. Alienation, coordination, motivation, and performance are still critical themes to be addressed through the design of work. These themes grow in importance as responsibility for engagement, motivation, and direction shifts to include all workers (especially as freelancing grows), not just professional managers. As work becomes more virtual, distributed, and flexible, we have an opportunity to rethink work design as something carried out every day by everyone.

Emma Nordbäck, John Sawyer, Ron Rice, and I seek a simple model of work design and leadership that can be applied by the people doing the work rather than just management and human resource leads. In our recent presentations, we assess some of the basics of work design and leadership for employees as part of a larger study on flexible work and work-life balance in metropolitan areas. Traditional work at the office, working from home, and a variety of hybrid approaches, including working at other organizations or public sites, are part of these employees’ experience.

Developing a Work Design Tool Kit

Emma, John, Ron, and I are starting with the knowledge used to do work. Knowledge is foundational to the quality and quantity of the work we do. We all bring education and skills to the task, but additional knowledge comes from how the work is designed. Work design can bring to bear knowledge from:

  • The feedback you get from the work itself: You gain both motivation and direction from well designed work. The ability to complete a piece of work and see its result is both rewarding and helpful as you think about how to improve. Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, in The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, had people keep diaries and evaluate their work. What was true for the last 60 years remains the case, feedback as you do your work is a good thing. Feedback that is a direct response of the work is great: A chef can taste the flavor of the dish, a cabinet maker can feel the smoothness of the join, an app developer can see the the code run, and a salesperson can shake on a deal.
  • Technology support related to the work: When Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee talk about technology augmenting work, much of what they are describing is technology giving us access to knowledge we can use to do our work better. Hybrid chess teams made up of relative amateurs using a variety of computer programs can beat the best computer or human grand master, when they know to augment their skills with those of the computer. Truck drivers and airline pilots can be more efficient if they have access to electronic energy tracking systems. Lobster fisherman can track past catches to make predictions about the future. Technology can support of our work by enhancing the direction, method, and motivation of our work.
  • Where you work: Location can provide signals about our work. If you are working next to a team member, you may be better able to know when they are going to need the report you are working on. You may have overheard them talking with others, you may have heard them cursing under their breath, or you may see that they are about to pack up and head out to that important presentation. You may also be able to see how the team member is working and learn from his or her example. (While I've focused on physical location, with some thoughtful design, virtual work can be designed to provide the same benefits.)

These are our first three levers: Feedback from the work itself, technology support, and location. More will follow, as will the craft of how to work with these levers. Are these issues you are already managing as you build you own work? If not, use one of these levers to push a change in your work -- and let us know what happens.

Much to Our Surprise

In my next post I’ll share our surprising results from the first of the organizations involved in this research. The teaser question: Who communicates more with their supervisor, people who work in the office with them, or people who away from the office? Big implications for the location lever.

Thank you to Tekes and our universities for funding this research.