Why you should let staff craft their own jobs

Research shows people who personalise aspects of their work tend to be more engaged and perform better, says Rob Baker

Follow your dreams. This is advice people often receive at the start of their careers. While well intentioned, it can leave us chasing unicorn jobs – a perfect position that pays fantastically as well as fuelling our passions and strengths. Unfortunately, perfect jobs such as these seldom appear fully formed, just waiting for us to find them. This doesn’t mean we should give up hope. The truth is dream jobs aren’t created for us, but they can be created by us. 

One way to turn the job you want into the one you have is through a concept called ‘job crafting’. Rather than looking externally for opportunities for growth and progression, job crafting encourages people to find and squeeze opportunities for development and innovation from inside the jobs they already have. And there are considerable benefits. Research shows people who take steps to personalise aspects of their work tend to perform better, be more engaged and report greater levels of career growth and progression. They are more likely to be healthier and happier too. 

So what is job crafting? It refers to personalising and making changes to elements of our jobs. These include our tasks, relationships and thoughts about work. The term was first coined by two researchers, Jane Dutton and Amy Wrzesniewski, in 2001. In a study involving hospital cleaners they found certain employees actively personalised their jobs rather than just fastidiously fulfilling the duties of their job descriptions. The researchers referred to this as job crafting and found it was related to several positive outcomes. Fast forward to 2020, and there have been more than 140 peer-reviewed studies of job crafting involving more than 46,000 employees from across the world, in positions ranging from customer advisers to chief executives. 

Organisations such as Virgin Money, Logitech, Widerøe Airlines and Connect Health have all used job crafting to create a more personalised people experience. These companies have encouraged job crafting as an individual activity through workshops or training sessions, or embedded crafting conversations into development, check-in or one-to-one discussions.

To make job crafting happen you first need to create opportunities for people to be critical and curious about how they currently perform their role, and then encourage them to identify tweaks and changes that would make aspects of their work a better and more personal fit. There are five – often overlapping – ways in which people tend to job craft: task crafting, relationships crafting, skills crafting, purpose crafting and wellbeing crafting. 

Through my work and research, I’ve collected hundreds of stories of how people have crafted their work. These include Lucy, a call centre worker, who invested a maximum of five minutes a day tidying up confusing customer notes because she wanted to apply her strength of precision on a daily basis; Sam, an HR business partner, who produced a couple of video micro guides to key policies because he was creative and curious about ways to develop a better colleague experience; and Lisa, a leader, who wanted to experiment with one-to-one walking meetings to introduce more activity to her otherwise sedentary job. 

As well as enabling employees to become more alive at work, job crafting often has wider organisational benefits. There were, for example, a number of unintended outcomes of the examples above. Lucy’s colleagues and customers benefited from clearer notes. Line managers found the bite-size guides Sam produced a really useful way of getting an overview of key policies, and Lisa found the quality of conversation she had with her colleagues positively shifted by walking and talking outside. 

At first, managers and leaders are often sceptical about the power and benefits of job crafting. Surely there will be anarchy if people are expected to personalise their roles? In reality, evidence suggests people tend to job craft in positive and responsive ways. And the size of changes employees do make are mainly small and don’t fundamentally alter the fabric or footprint of their position.

Within the HR profession we have an opportunity – and I’d argue a responsibility – to encourage work in ways that make the most of the diversity of experience, talent and background that resides within our workplaces. Unfortunately, within many organisations, we don’t fully tap into the strengths of employees. Job crafting provides an opportunity to do this by shifting from outdated ‘off the peg’ perspectives to creating a more personalised people experience. It’s time to bring the personal touch to work.

Rob Baker is founder and director of HR consultancy Tailored Thinking, and author of Personalization at Work

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