Work design: improving employee’s experiences and boosting workplace performance

Nov 11, 2020

Quality work design can have a significant and positive impact on both organisations and those they employee.

When the words ‘work design’ are bandied around, some people think it’s about ergonomic chairs, good light and nice plants. What it’s actually about is all the elements of a person’s job that impact on their enjoyment, fulfilment and productivity. Getting it right is hugely important for employees and the organisations they work for too.

At Beyond Blue’s Heads Up, we’ve highlighted the vital role that good mental health at work can play in making employees satisfied and highly productive.

Moving employers and managers away from a “I need to address my legal obligations” mindset to a “mentally healthy, thriving employees can boost my business” attitude is now gaining traction.  

We’ve always promoted an integrated approach1 to workplace mental health that recognises the need to address a wide range of factors.

We divide the approach into three key areas of action:

  • Promoting employee wellbeing
  • Protecting employee mental health
  • Supporting employees with a mental health condition.

Promoting satisfying work experiences for employees (as part of both ‘protecting’ and ‘promoting’ in the integrated approach) is fast becoming the richest and most evolving area of study.

The Centre for Transformative Work Design (CTWD) within the Future of Work Institute Curtin University in Western Australia is at the forefront of this. Curtin’s Associate Professor Karina Jorritsma says there can be more to the role of work than meets the eye.

“There’s often a lack of understanding that work not only needs to be a place where people are safe from harm but a place where they can thrive, flourish and continually learn,” she says.  

“A key element to creating mentally healthy workplaces and encouraging employees to thrive at work is work design. By work design, we don’t mean ergonomic chairs and indoor plants but rather the nature of work that people do.”

Director of CTWD Professor Sharon K Parker defines work design as “the content and organisation of one’s tasks, activities, relationships and responsibilities in a job.”

CTWD has developed the SMART work design model, which outlines five key themes to consider when developing work roles. CTWD contend that getting the work design – the various facets of a person’s job – right, across these five themes, is the key to having happy employees and more productive workplaces. 

Each element of SMART describes important attributes of the employee’s work role.

S           Stimulating

M          Mastery

A           Agency

R           Relational

T           Tolerable demands

Stimulating refers to the extent a job involves skill variety (drawing on multiple skills and abilities), task variety (performing different tasks) and requires problem solving (freedom to ‘think outside the box’).

Mastery refers to role clarity (an employee knows the specifics of what needs to be done and the outcomes expected), feedback (information on how the employee is performing in their role) and task identity (the degree of end-to-end involvement or control over a task or project).

Agency is about how an employee delivers their work: scheduling and flexibility around times of working, choice in the method of doing work to achieve objectives and autonomy in decision making.

Relational refers to the support individuals feel from colleagues and supervisors, how they perceive the contribution of their work to the lives of others, its connection to their own values and how appreciated their efforts are.

Tolerable demands covers the need for having adequate time to complete work, acceptable emotional demands, consistency of instruction and feedback, and reasonable expectations on what can be achieved.

Now, no one employee is the same and these attributes will be of differing importance to each. What the model does is expose the factors that feed into an employee’s work experience and how employers and employees should consider how their current or future role aligns with these principles.

Addressing each of them will go a long way to improving the workplace outcomes for employers and employees alike. 

“We’ve already demonstrated that good work design leads to a range of positive outcomes such as improved productivity, decreased turnover, increased commitment of employees and greater job satisfaction,” says Jorritsma.

Work design has always been important but the rapid changes we’re seeing within the digital age, (including the recent impact of COVID-19), means that understanding the impact of these changes on the health, wellbeing and motivation of the workforce is increasingly urgent and complex.

Image courtesy of Centre for Transformative Work Design

1 Adapted from Tony LaMontagne’s Integrated Approach Model

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