Job design is an important element of employee retention and successful recruitment but the concept doesn’t get much attention. However, creating jobs people will like is entirely possible, and doing so is important. A job’s design plays a significant role in employee satisfaction, engagement, and retention. If your organisation is struggling to fill a particular role or retain employees in a certain department, take a look at the jobs themselves. The problems may be stemming from the job design.
The definition of job design. Job design means designing a role with tasks and responsibilities that support the organisations’ business goals and is satisfying, rewarding, and motivating for employees. Ensuring jobs work for the people actually doing the work is an intrinsic aspect of good job design.
“If we really want to motivate and engage, then why aren’t we striving to make the roles themselves as engaging as possible?” asks Mike Thackray, in a recent opinion piece for People Management titled, “We need to bring the life back to work through better job design.” Thackray notes that a tweak or two in the elements of a job can “ can make a big difference to the level of engagement and satisfaction in your team.”
When you learn more about job design and the impact it can have on both employees and business outcomes, Thackray’s comment about the impact adjustments to a role can have made perfect sense.
The elements of job design
Job design comprises four primary elements: tasks, motivation, resource allocation, and reward, or more simply, what needs to be done, who is going to do it, how to get them to do it, and what they will be rewarded for doing it.
- A task is a defined piece of work that can be performed within a given timeframe. Good job design starts with clear identification of the critical tasks for the role and the associated timeframes.
- Motivation in the context of job design is considered from the standpoint of an individual. It’s what compels a person to complete the tasks and sustain the effort necessary to do so. “Individuals need to be compelled, excited, and passionate to do their work. Managers should design jobs that motivate employees,” according to an article titled “Job Design and Motivation” from Lumen Learning.
- Resource allocation (as related to job design) makes efficient use of an organisation’s resources to meet its objectives.
- Rewards play a key role in job design and include more than compensation and bonuses. Job security, benefits, and other rewards employees receive in exchange for their work are an important part of the equation.
In addition to the elements, which you could consider to be the framework of a job, job design also includes job characteristics. The five core characteristics – variety, task identity, task significance, autonomy, and feedback – are from the heart of Job Characteristic Theory, which was developed in the mid-1970s by two organisational psychologists, Greg R. Oldham and J. Richard Hackman, as a result of a study into why people lose interest in their jobs. Paying attention to these factors, and making adjustments to roles as employees gain more experience or in response to employee feedback, allows leaders to make jobs more engaging.
Let’s look at each in the context of their role in job design.
- Skill variety. This is simply the amount of variety in any one role. Some jobs are largely repetitive, others are widely varied.
- Task identity. This is the degree to which the job entails the employee identifying and completing a task with a visible outcome (as opposed to working on just a small component of a larger task.)
- Task significance. How important is the task, in terms of its impact on the company or its customers?
- Autonomy. Are employees trusted to do the work independently, or is performance closely monitored or managed?
- Feedback. How much insight does an employee have about their performance?
Not every job needs to have a high degree of each characteristic. Ideally, a job’s characteristics align with the employee experience. An entry-level role, for example, is likely to have a lower degree of autonomy and task significance. However, the characteristics of a job must evolve as employees gain more experience. When experienced employees have low levels of skill variety, autonomy, and task significance, chances are good they will become disengaged and more likely to leave the organisation.
Job characteristics that are out of alignment with employees’ experience levels impact employees negatively and can quickly erode morale and performance. In fact, the researchers who developed Job Characteristic Theory identified the impact of job characteristics on employees’ psyches and how they felt about their jobs.
Job characteristics and resulting psychological impact on employees
Jobs that score highly on the five core job characteristics are more likely to lead to positive outcomes, such as high levels of morale, motivation, work quality, and job satisfaction. Correspondingly, these jobs also result in better employee retention and a reduction in absenteeism.
To better understand how and why job characteristics impact employees to the degree they do, it’s useful to look a little deeper into JRT research and understand the three “critical psychological states” that result from a job’s characteristics.
- Experienced Meaningfulness of the Work: The degree to which the jobholder experiences the work as intrinsically meaningful and can present his or her value to other people and/or the external environment.
- Experienced Responsibility for Outcome of the Work: The degree to which the worker feels he or she is accountable and responsible for the results of the work.
- Knowledge of Results of the Work Activities: The degree to which the jobholder knows how well he or she is performing.
Interestingly, the researchers behind the theory found that several of the job characteristics had a greater influence on employees’ psychological states. The two most significant contributors are autonomy and feedback. When either or both of those factors are out of alignment, the chance of a negative outcome – such as poor performance or an employee’s departure – is increased.
Mini case study: the impact of better job design on turnover and morale
I learned about job design first-hand several years ago when I started to manage a team of marketers based in India. Despite being a prestigious employer brand, we had serious turnover problems in several of the marketing automation roles, and it didn’t take me long to figure out why.
The jobs were awful, requiring employees to focus repeatedly on just one or two elements of an email campaign. One person set up the emails. Another created landing pages. A third dealt with analytics. This assembly-line job design was a recipe for attrition. First and foremost, the work was boring. Secondly, it created needless delays and dependencies, as all the different elements were connected, resulting in frustration. Thirdly, the narrow focus of each role meant that employees had very little growth or learning opportunity. Finally, and probably most importantly, by treating employees like cogs in a machine, the organisation had removed any feeling of ownership or pride people felt for their work.
Looking back at the job characteristics of those roles, the problems come into stark view:
- Skill variety was very low. The work was boring and repetitive.
- Task identity was also low. Employees worked on granular elements of a marketing campaign, never the whole.
- Task significance was on the low end. While the overall campaigns were important, the team didn’t have a clear view of the impact of their individual work.
- Autonomy was low, especially given the simplicity of the work and the talent and experience of the team members, who functioned largely as order takers.
- Feedback was nearly nil. The team had no real insight into campaign outcomes, and the simplicity of the work didn’t invite a lot of feedback from stakeholders.
I talked to the team about their roles, and asked if they would rather handle full campaigns, end to end, if we saw to it they had the training they needed. The answer was a resounding and enthusiastic yes. Once the training was complete, we were rewarded with an immediate improvement in performance and enthusiasm. Most wonderfully, even though the employees’ skillsets grew quickly, no one left. Several of the team started to specialise, pursuing additional certifications, and bringing new capabilities and features to our work. They collaborated, created new processes, drove new initiatives, and developed more sophisticated and effective campaigns. Morale skyrocketed, results improved and most of the team ended up staying for years, gathering new skills and growing into new roles – and it all started with improvements to the job design.
How to improve job design
Jobs that are well designed have clearly defined roles, responsibilities, and outcomes that meet business needs, and the corresponding job characteristics result in satisfied, engaged employees who perform well and aren’t at risk of leaving the company.
Simple red flags that a job’s design needs improvement include:
- The role is experiencing turnover at a greater than expected rate,
- Employees in the role are absent from work more frequently than other employees,
- The job description has evolved into a huge task list, and many tasks are never completed, or
- The job description is focused on a small number of repetitive tasks.
Analysing a job’s design
You can analyse a job’s design several different ways, keeping in mind the goal of understanding the real business outcomes the role is delivering, and how employees who are currently in that role feel about it.
- Role and responsibilities assessment: Understanding what is expected of the role, and the work being done, is the first step in assessing job design. Depending upon the task variety associated with the role, you should be on the lookout for jobs that are either repetitive and lack variety, or are poorly defined, resulting in some tasks never being completed. In the latter case, talk to both employees and supervisors about the work that is always completed, sometimes is completed, or is never completed.
- Surveys: Anonymous surveys are a useful way to quickly gather information about a role, especially if several people hold the same job. Questions to ask include:
- Do you feel your work is meaningful?
- Do you know the results of your contributions?
- Do you feel connected to the outcomes of your work?
- Does your job provide a variety of tasks?
- Does your work provide you the opportunity to develop your skills?
- Are you able to see how your work contributes to the business’s success?
- Do you have the freedom to decide how to do your work?
- Are you satisfied with your ability to manage your work schedule?
- Do you receive helpful feedback about your work?
In addition to gathering information about how employees feel about the job, leaders should also notice if employee responses are broadly similar, or if there is significant variation. The latter can be a sign of unfair treatment by a leader.
- One on one interviews: Talking to employees, their supervisors, and department heads one on one can provide valuable insight into employees’ satisfaction with the work, as well as perspectives on the resource allocation the work requires
Pinpointing areas of improvement
Once you’ve gathered your data, you should be able to pinpoint aspects of the role that can be improved. Generally speaking, the improvements will fall into one of two categories: job responsibilities and management-related. Improvements to job responsibilities will focus on skill variety, task identity, and task significance. Management-related improvements will concentrate on ensuring roles have a healthy and appropriate level of autonomy, and employees are receiving consistent and helpful feedback.
It may seem difficult at first to make improvements to job responsibilities, especially if the firm is short-staffed, facing increasing demand, or is otherwise running full-tilt. Instead of thinking in terms of reducing tasks, think instead about:
- Delegating more tasks to roles that need more skill variety
- Combining tasks to give employees more robust and fully identifiable tasks, and provide an opportunity for upskilling
- Providing more experienced employees with new tasks from related areas of the business: you can improve the design of those roles while providing cross-training or stretch assignments to your more experienced people.
Management-related improvements may seem more daunting at the outset. Often, inexperienced managers, lack confidence or need more training default to micromanaging and/or favoritism. If you suspect some of your managers are struggling, our ebook “The 7C’s – Qualities Leaders Need For Post-Covid Success” provides an easy-to-use framework to raise leaders’ awareness of their habits, and will help build their leadership skillset.
Another great way to get managers on the right track is to use employee engagement scores in setting their goals. Many aspects of employee engagement are tied directly to management best practices. Running an engagement survey every quarter and observing trends in a team’s score will provide a clear measure of a leader’s progress. (Engagement Multiplier clients who would like more information on organising teams by individual manager on their dashboard should contact their dedicated Client Success Manager or send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Committing to creating jobs people will love is one of the most important and impactful steps you can take as a leader to strengthen your business, both in terms of the business’s performance and your employees’ morale, engagement, and retention.