Work Design – how and why to structure jobs the right way

Work Design – how and why to structure jobs the right way


Work Design – how to structure jobs the right way


Sometimes people love their work, they’re thriving. Other times they hate it, they’re dying a slow death every day…

You might expect the people who love their work to be doing the high status, high paid professions, like law or medicine and the people who hate their work to be on the other end of the pay status spectrum.

But this is not so.

I’ve talked to lawyers who hate their work because every minute of their job has to be charged to an account. I’ve also talked to home cleaners who love the freedom of their jobs, and who get a great sense of pride helping busy families clean their homes.

What I’ve learned is that how people feel about their jobs is not so much to do with the occupation that they’re in, but how their work is structured or designed and what feelings they get from the ability to demonstrate their qualification, skills and knowledge.

work design


For example, think about the job of a nurse, and imagine you are designing a new nursing job.

Questions you might ask, include which task should the nurse do? How much patient care should there be relative to paperwork? Which tasks should be allocated to doctors, or other medical professionals? Which decision should the nurse make? And which should be made by the nurse manager? Should the nurse be expected to work as part of a team? And if so, who else should be in the team?

These are all work design questions. Often, we don’t think much about them because the job is already designed.

Sometimes it’s only when symptoms of poor work design emerge…like:

  • High levels of burnout
  • Lots of talented people leaving the job

Only that we start to ask these sorts of questions.

When describing work design, we often talk about job characteristics.

This is a short hand way of summarizing important aspects of work design that we know affect people’s health, well-being, and performance. As an example, one job characteristic is skill variety, or how much a job uses a range of different skills.

You can imagine that most of the time the job of a nurse involves several different competencies. Practical skills like moving patients out of their bed, emotional skills like supporting sad families, and administrative skills like maintaining patient records.

We would describe most nursing jobs as having high skill variety. Skill variety is one important job characteristic.

Let’s talk about why work design is important. 

Our work design has a major impact on:

  • How we feel at work.
  • It affects our job satisfaction
  • How committed we are towards our company
  • Even our happiness. 

Listen to this portfolio worker talking about how her work design affects her feelings.


work feelings


Work design also affects how we behave at work. 

Listen to how this Finnish hotel cleaner describes her lack of variety in her work, and her lack of autonomy:

work design consequences


One of the consequences of this poor work design was that the cleaners began to steal.



So, we see the cleaners behave counter-productively to compensate for their poor work design.

Work design can even affect our physical well-being. Multiple  researches conducted  on cyber security agents whose job it is sometimes to sit and watch the screen, for up to eight hours a day with very little rest showed that it causes great problems for their lower back, and for their eyes.


So, work design affects how we feel and behave, and our physical and mental health.


It also affects the productivity of the organisations we work for.


There’s one further reason why work design matters. In many countries, good work design is required by law.

Australia law on work design


In other words, if, as an employer you design work that causes harm, you could be breaking the law.


But what is good work design? And how can you redesign work to make it more effective?


One of the earliest work redesign strategies that companies tried was job rotation. This is where people rotate from one job to another.

Think about people working in a restaurant.

  • One shift, the employee might seat people.
  • The next shift, the employee might take food orders.
  • The next shift, he might serve the food, and so on.

You can see that job rotation increases skill variety, which makes the job more interesting. You can also see how rotating across these different jobs would give employees a better understanding of the whole restaurant, which will help them to do their work more effectively.

Also, when a job is very physically demanding, job rotation can be a good strategy to prevent musculoskeletal strain because different muscles are used across the different tasks.

A step on from job rotation is job enlargement.

In this strategy, the job is enlarged to include a broader range of tasks. Going back to the example of people working in a restaurant, a person might,

in a single evening:

  • seat people at their table
  • take their orders
  • serve food and water
  • then arrange payment.
  • And they might do this for two or three tables across the shift.

Once again, the job has more skill variety. This enlarged job is also higher in what is called task identity. It is often more meaningful to people when they can see a whole job through from beginning to end.

The employee in the restaurant sees the people come in, get seated, eat, enjoy their food, pay and then leave, which can feel more meaningful than just seating people.

Although job rotation and job enlargement can increase an employee’s skill variety and their task identity, neither of these work design strategies improves the employee’s level of decision-making responsibility or their level of job autonomy.

Ultimately, rotation and enlargement are rather limited antidotes to job simplification.

This situation improved in the 1960s and 70s when proposals for work redesign focused on increasing employee’s autonomy over the planning and execution of their own work, or what is called job enrichment.

Job enrichment involves vertically enlarging the job, such as by giving a person responsibility for decisions that normally would be undertaken by their supervisor.

Let’s consider this classic study of job redesign, which took place in a bank in the 1990s.

Before the job enrichment, the bank tellers had rather deskilled jobs. But after the work redesign,instead of bank tellers having to refer commercial checks to specialist tellers, they were trained to be able to carry out all banking transactions.

This increased their skill variety. And after the redesign, instead of having to get the supervisor’s permission to allow customers to withdraw money, tellers were able to do this themselves as long as there were adequate funds in the customer account.

This increased their job autonomy. A rigorous assessment of this job enrichment intervention showed there were positive effects on the teller’s job satisfaction and commitment, and in the long term, positive effects on tellers’ performance. 

You may be able to identify similar ways of enriching your own work or the work of the people you manage.

There is another type of job redesign that also increases autonomy, and that is self-managing teams. 

Whereas job enrichment applies to an individual job, self-managing teams concerns the redesign of a group of jobs. In self-managing teams, groups of employees work together to achieve shared goals. For example, a team of employees might come together to provide a one-stop shop service to a particular client.

Autonomy means that the team is responsible for making its own day-to-day decisions, such as deciding who will do which task. Self-managing teams, also referred to as autonomous work groups, have been successfully introduced in many organisations, with research showing these almost always result in more satisfying and engaging jobs for people. Studies also show positive effects on productivity, for example, because of lower supervisory costs.

You might be wondering at this point, why? That is, why do job enrichment and self managing teams have positive outcomes? 

Here we need to turn to look at some of the theory underpinning work design.

One of the most well known theories is “Hackman and Oldham’s job characteristics model.” 

This model proposes five core job characteristics, three we’ve already discussed – Skill variety, job autonomy, and task identity. 

The remaining two are feedback from the job and task significance.


job characterstics model


Feedback means finding out how you are doing as you carry out the work.  This is a bit different to getting annual performance feedback in your performance appraisal from a leader about, for example, your strengths and weaknesses. It’s more about the day to day feedback you get when you’re doing your work.

As a nurse, for example, you might receive feedback from the families of patients about how you are doing.

Sometimes jobs are poorly designed, such that only the manager gets to hear about your performance.

Task significance refers to whether the job feels like it has impact or makes a difference. For example, if you were a surf lifesaver, and you see that your work is important in saving children from drowning, you will experience a higher level of task significance.

The model proposes that these five core job characteristics promote three critical psychological states.

In other words, if your job has these characteristics, you will feel your work is meaningful, you will have ownership over the outcomes of your work, and you will have a sense of progress. These feelings then result in higher intrinsic motivation and job satisfaction. 

And when you’re more motivated and satisfied, you’re likely to work harder and try to do your best. 

So your performance is higher. Does everyone benefit from having an enriched job? Well, the research says no. Not everyone will want or need the same work design. People are different in their personality and abilities.  As well as their age, and gender, and family responsibilities. All of these factors can shape what type of work design is best for someone.

One criticism that’s been made about the job characteristics model is that it’s rather narrow.

We need to extend this model to make it more contemporary. There are important core job characteristics beyond the five.

For example, these days, many service jobs have emotional tasks like dealing with dissatisfied customers. This means emotional job characteristics are important even though they weren’t in the original theory.Some of you might be thinking about your own jobs and wondering, why haven’t we talked about the stressful aspects of work?

Well, there’s another important work design theory that focuses on designing healthy work. Professor Robert Karasek argued that high job demands and a lack of job control or job autonomy, cause feelings of stress. 

Intuitively we know this is true, and the research bears it out. If you have a lot of demands in your job, such as high levels of time pressure or role overload, you’re much more likely to experience work stress and even burnout. 

If you have low control, this too is negative for physical and mental health. Indeed, because of the stress they cause, high job demands and low control can even increase a person’s risk of cardiovascular disease.

The demand control model goes further. It proposes that greater control can buffer the negative effects of demands. In other words, high demands are okay for health as long as you also have high control.Under this situation, a so called active job, you have the autonomy to master your tasks and engage in problem focused coping. Which means you will feel challenged and learn, rather than experience stress.On the other hand, if you have a lot of demand, but no control, or what’s called a high strain job,then the model argues this is the worst-case scenario for stress. Imagine a job in which angry customers return faulty products to the shop. And yet the shop employees don’t have the authority to replace the product. That is going to feel very stressful.

job demand-control


The job demands model has been extended in recent times, because scholars have recognized that not all demands are bad for people. Scholar’s have also recognized that, as well as control, other aspects of work can help people cope with high demands, such as having social support.

So these days, people talk about a job demands-resources model to indicate that there are other resources beyond control that help people to deal with stressful work demands.


So let’s look at the process of redesigning work or how to go about deliberately changing the work design.


Sometimes work redesign involves just a small set of people, such as when an employee who has been injured is returning to work and it’s necessary to redesign his former job to accommodate the injury. At the other end of the spectrum, sometimes work redesign is much larger, part of an organisational redesign or restructure. Such as when an organisation decides to implement self-managing teams throughout the whole company.

You can imagine, under this situation, it’s important to actively manage the change process. Two things are super important when it comes to work redesign.

First, is the power of participation.  – It is really important to involve the people whose work is being designed in the process. Obviously, it’s more motivating and less stressful for people to have a say in how the work is structured. But even more than that, the solution will be better. This is because the people who do the work day in, day out, know the most about it. Too many times we see managers and consultants designing work for employees without asking the workers themselves. I suggest going even further. Not just consult, but actually involve the workers in the process.

A second, very important point, is to remember that if you want to change the work, you need to change the broader systems and practices that support the work design. For example, if you introduce teamwork, you might need to change the selection system to recruit people who like working in teams. Or you might need to expand the training offered in the company to include training in team processes.

It’s also important to think about how people are paid and rewarded. 


If rewards focus totally on individual contributions, this will not align with the teamwork model. As another example, when self-managing teams are introduced, this can mean a quite radical change in the role of the team leader. Rather than being a supervisor who tells people what to do, the role changes. The supervisor needs to become better at coaching people and helping the team to manage its boundary with other teams.

These sorts of leadership skills are very different to the more traditional command and control model. So when redesigning work, it’s important to think about the ripple effects of the change, for training, selection, leadership, reward systems, and other practices.

It’s not always easy to redesign work. Indeed, it can be very challenging, because it involves changing the traditional power structures in an organisation.


Good work design makes a powerful difference to the lives of people at work.


The problem with the Overqualification…

Have you ever felt that you have job skills that are not required for your job? Or that someone with less job experience than yourself could do your job just as well, or that your previous training is not being fully utilized on your job. If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’re one of the 30% of employees that feel overqualified for their jobs.

Overqualification is when people feel they have more education, skills, abilities, and job experience than required for their jobs.

Overqualification is quite prevalent in the world. In developed countries, every fourth employee feels overqualified. These numbers are even higher in developing countries.

There are two main reasons for the prevalence of overqualification. 

First some people may know they’re overqualified fora job, yet they choose it anyway. Perhaps this is the only job available for them and they need to pay bills. Or they would like to spend more time on their family, hobbies, or voluntary work and they’re happy with whatever job they can get. 

Second, poor job design can explain why some employees become overqualified. If people are employed in boring jobs that lack autonomy, challenge or they do not have opportunities to use their qualifications, they can grow overqualified. 

Being overqualified is problematic for both employees and employers. This is because in general overqualified employees dislike their jobs and 

are not committed to them. Being overqualified takes a toll on psychological and physical well-being of these workers most probably because they feel they are wasting their time on boring jobs.

Hiring managers are concerned and rightly so that overqualified employees will quit as soon as they find a better alternative. Numerous studies support this in that overqualified employees voluntarily quit their jobs. If they don’t do that, they engage in counterproductive work behaviors.

For example, they put little effort into their work or they day dream or fantasie instead of working.Engaging in such behaviors can jeopardize the careers of overqualified workers. 

But why do they still engage in these behaviors? 

The research shows that they feel cynical about the meaningfulness of their work, or they may feel angry toward their employment situation.

Given all these negative consequences of overqualification, shouldn’t organisation shy away from hiring these people? 

The answer is no.

Think about it. These people have more qualifications than required for a job, and thus they can be productive workers if managed well.

So how can we do that? 

The key is good job design.

Let’s talk about several job design strategies that can minimize the negative consequences of overqualification and maximize the positives. 

First, make your overqualified people feel empowered and they will feel more satisfied with their jobs and stay longer in the organisation.

Second, give them more job autonomy, and they will feel better. 

This is especially true in highly individualistic countries such as Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom.

Third, provide them with more professional growth opportunities and they will stay longer in the organisation. 

And finally allow them to work with similarly over qualified peers and they will become better employees and better organisational citizens.

To summarise, if you are a manager looking at hiring an overqualified employee you should be aware of possible negative consequences. However, if your organisation can design interesting jobs that offer lots of empowerment, autonomy, and professional growth opportunities, you can reap the many benefits of having outstanding, highly qualified employees.







Well… just pick one…



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