Job and Work Design: Organizing Work to Promote Well-Being and Effectiveness


Sharon Parker & Toby Wall

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  • Advanced Topics in Organizational Behavior

    The Advanced Topics in Organizational Behavior series examines current and emerging issues in the field of organizational behavior. Written by researchers who are widely acknowledged subject area experts, the books provide an authoritative, up-to-date review of the conceptual, research, and practical implications of the major issues in organizational behavior.

    Editors:Julian Barling, Queen's University
    Kevin Kelloway, University of Guelph
    Editorial Board:Victor M. Catano, Saint Mary's University
    Cary L. Cooper, University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology
    Daniel G. Gallagher, James Madison University
    Jean Hartley, University of Warwick
    Denise Rousseau, Carnegie-Mellon University
    Paul Spector, University of South Florida
    Lois E. Tetrick, University of Houston


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    To our families


    These are exciting times for those concerned with job and work design. More than ever before, companies are introducing new forms of work organization, often involving major changes in the nature of peoples' jobs. The opportunity to create more fulfilling and effective work is considerable; but so too is the danger of making it worse. Rarely, however, are these new forms of work organization labeled “work design.” Rather, they have much more evocative names, such as “high performance work groups,” “empowerment,” and “total productive maintenance,” to name just a few. Nevertheless, usually driven by the need to make better use of employee skills, these initiatives all involve the reconfiguration of work roles. Work redesign is thus very much at the heart of today's organizations.

    When we were asked to write this book, therefore, we felt that the time was right. Despite the relevance of work design today, and the consequent resurgence of interest in it, the few books that focus explicitly on this topic are now quite dated. It is an appropriate time to take stock of and consolidate what we already know about job and work design and, just as importantly, to identify what we might need to know in the future. We hope to prevent those who are implementing or investigating modern initiatives from “recreating the wheel,” but equally we want to stimulate innovative inquiry and application.

    We believe this book will be useful for lecturers, researchers, and practitioners in industrial-organizational (or occupational/work) psychology, organizational behavior, human resource management, human factors, ergonomics, and related disciplines. The book will be particularly appropriate for postgraduates studying in these fields, including Masters of Business Administration students. The final two chapters in particular aim to provide more practical advice for those involved in redesigning work, such as managers, consultants, and applied researchers.

    We are grateful for the help and feedback we have received from colleagues and the series editors on drafts of the book. More generally, we wish to record our appreciation of our colleagues at the Institute of Work Psychology, past and present, who in working with us over the years have helped shape our ideas, and who have made our own jobs so rewarding.

    Introduction: Setting the Scene

    Recently, we were contacted by senior managers from a company that manufactures photographic film and paper. The company was making a multimillion-dollar investment in new computer-based technology to coat the “raw” film and paper with appropriate chemical solutions. Managers were confident that the new technology—by removing various manual tasks—would enhance the safety of the process and improve operational efficiency. Ultimately, they believed that the technology would give the company a clear competitive edge.

    Although the managers recognized that jobs and roles would need to be reconfigured in some way, they were uncertain about how best to organize the work in support of the new technology. Some elements of the work, of course, would be determined by the nature of the product and the new technology. But these were relatively minor constraints on work organization. The managers appreciated that before them was a seemingly limitless range of options. This was reflected in the many questions that they had formulated to structure their thinking and on which to seek our opinion.

    Those questions included:

    • How should the remaining tasks involved be combined to form jobs?
    • Should a strategy of specialization or of multiskilling be adopted?
    • How much responsibility should operators be given for managing the new technology?
    • Should the new work design be based on individual jobs or on teams?
    • What impact would decisions made in each of these respects have on productivity, on the well-being of employees, or on their ability and willingness to accept future changes in technology or products?
    • How should work redesign be implemented? What training would employees need, and what changes to human resource practices (e.g., payment schemes) and information systems would be needed, if any?
    • Should the technology itself be reconfigured or altered to support the new work design?

    The need to consider such questions about the design of work is not new. Collective enterprise entails a division of labor that raises questions about how to distribute tasks and responsibilities among employees, both whenever jobs are formed and whenever there is a change in the means or requirements of production, be this a consequence of technological, market, or social forces.

    What is new, however, is that organizations are becoming more proactive in considering alternative forms of job design to those traditionally taken for granted. More and more companies are formulating lists of questions such as those above. This trend is reflected in a burgeoning of new popular terms, such as empowerment, high-involvement working, and high-performance work teams, that promote particular kinds of job designs. As Littler suggested in 1985, recent market changes have “forced many Western corporations to re-examine their philosophy of job design and control from a solid ‘down to earth’ perspective—that of profits” (p. 21). Job design is thus becoming an increasingly important topic, one that deserves fresh attention.

    Our aim in this book is to document and evaluate research and practice on job design, addressing the sorts of questions listed above. Thus, we seek to map out the state of existing knowledge on how choices in the design of jobs affect attitudes and behavior at work. At the same time, we go beyond the present to ask what are the issues in job design for the future.

    Six considerations characterize our approach. First, we place our primary emphasis on the design of jobs in industry. This is not to say that issues of job design do not arise in relation to office, managerial, professional, or other kinds of work. They clearly do, and we give examples of these. However, we focus mainly on industry because this is the context from which most contemporary ideas on job design have developed, about which we have most expertise, and in which we believe that there are particular challenges and opportunities for the future.

    The second aspect of our approach is that we take an historical perspective. This is essential to understand job design properly. As Davis and Taylor (1972) observed, “The history of the origin of jobs has a powerful grip on the present, for this historical residue is the present conventional wisdom in the world of work” (p. 21). Thus, we consider the influence of historical factors on contemporary job design.

    Third, we emphasize the essential link between research and practice. By its very nature, job design research takes much of its agenda from practice. Jobs are designed by people for people, and choices that are made for those designs, whether deliberate or unthinking, are the subject matter of research. So this is not an area in which research follows its own “pure” agenda remote from the “real world” but one in which applied issues are to the fore. This does not mean, however, that it is all one-way traffic, for research also contributes to practice.

    Fourth, we adopt a principally psychological viewpoint. Job design has attracted the interest of social scientists from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds, including sociology, labor process theory, industrial relations, and economics. We draw on these contributions. However, our main emphasis is on the literature of industrial and organizational psychology.

    Fifth, consistent with the evolution of both practice and research in job design, our approach reflects a development from a relatively narrow conceptualization of the problem domain to a broader one. This is presaged by the title we have chosen for the book. We use the term job design to signify the narrower focus and work design to denote a broader perspective that links the job to its wider environment.

    Finally, we take a critical look at existing research. We focus not only on what is known about job design but on what needs to be discovered. The latter need arises both because of inconclusive findings from current research and because of changes in work that give rise to new issues and variables to consider.

    These six features are evident in the structure of the book. Thus, in the next two chapters, we trace the development of job design practice and research over three centuries. We start in Chapter 1 by documenting the early intellectual developments that arose during the Industrial Revolution and that were to shape job design practice to the present day. Our focus is on the simplification or deskilling of jobs, and we describe the early research to which that practice gave rise, as well as some of the early efforts to redesign work. In Chapter 2, we concentrate on a 30-year period, from around the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s, when research on job design was particularly vigorous and when the main theoretical approaches that remain relevant today were generated. We describe how these approaches led to two key practical developments, job enrichment and autonomous work groups.

    In the following two chapters, we reflect more generally on job design research and theory. In Chapter 3, we critique the theory and research that provide the foundations of our current understanding of job design, pointing to a need for methodological improvements and a broader conceptual focus.

    In Chapter 4, we present complementary approaches from the wider literature that inform job design research and help to broaden its theoretical focus.

    We then focus on developments taking place within modern organizations and begin the move away from the narrow focus on job design to a broader notion of work design. Thus, in Chapter 5, we consider recent innovations in manufacturing technologies, techniques, and philosophies and how these affect work design research and practice. We argue that much as the Industrial Revolution determined the work design agenda of its day, so what has been called “the second industrial revolution” (Halton, 1985) calls for a new and expanded agenda. This theme is continued in Chapter 6, in which we look at wider trends in manufacturing and elsewhere, such as teleworking, downsizing, the development of a contingent workforce, and the changing composition of the workforce, that raise further issues for work design.

    Because up to this point the focus of the book has been very much on the “what” and “why” of work design, in Chapters 7 and 8 we consider practical issues surrounding “how” to redesign work. Our aim in these chapters is to alert readers to some of the complex issues that need to be considered, rather than to prescribe the “one best way” (for which early approaches to job design have been so rightly criticized). In Chapter 7, we describe how the redesign of work has implications for wider organizational systems (such as human resource and information systems) as well as implications for multiple stakeholders (e.g., shop floor, supervisors, support staff, management, unions). In Chapter 8, we suggest some ways to manage effectively the process of work redesign, including the key stages involved in redesigning work, some useful tools and methods, and the critical role of a change agent.

    In the last chapter, entitled “Conclusions,” we present just that—some final thoughts that draw together our arguments in the book regarding the past and future of work design theory and practice.

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    Author Index

    About the Authors

    Sharon Parker obtained her Bachelor of Science with honors in psychology at the University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia. She received her doctorate in occupational psychology from the Institute of Work Psychology, University of Sheffield, England, where she is now a Senior Research Fellow. Her research interests include work design, modern manufacturing initiatives, employee development, change processes, and equal opportunities. She has published articles in leading journals such as the Academy of Management Journal, the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, and the Journal of Applied Psychology, and she has written several book chapters. She has considerable practical experience in working with organizations to help them redesign their work.

    Toby Wall obtained his first degree and his doctorate in psychology from the University of Nottingham, England. He is Professor of Psychology at the University of Sheffield, where he is Director of the Institute of Work Psychology and the Economic and Social Research Council Centre for Organisation and Innovation. His main research interests have been in industrial and organizational psychology and have recently been focused on the effects of advanced manufacturing technology and shop floor work organization on work performance and strain. His research has appeared in the Journal of Applied Psychology, the Academy of Management Journal, and other leading publications, and he is the author of several books, including The Human Side of Advanced Manufacturing Technology.

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