We need to bring the life back to work through better job design

For roles to be meaningful to employees, they need more than just social events and volunteering opportunities, argues Mike Thackray

The pandemic has forced us to think again about the way we enable performance. While managing performance should never have been solely about controlling employees, the lockdowns have forced the hands of those who traditionally found it hard to let go of excessive monitoring and supervising after it became all but impossible while working remotely. Admittedly – and unfortunately – the pandemic has also led to a rise in creative ways in which managers could supervise (or spy on) employees but, unsurprisingly, we wouldn’t recommend using any of these if your goal is to engender long-term engagement and trust among your employees. I’d like to suggest an approach to doing so that has perhaps fallen out of favour.

Some years ago, I did some work for an organisation that had created an employee engagement team whose purpose appeared to be about organising events, arranging extra-curricular activities or devising programmes that allowed employees to spend some of their working time on an external cause of their choice. While this might form part of any holistic engagement strategy, it seemed to me that their approach to engagement was about anything other than the job itself. In fact, one rather insightful employee said that it was like being told “we recognise how soul destroying your job is, so here are a few sweets to make it more bearable”.

This slightly cynical view aside, he had a point. Often, engagement strategies do not consider the job design itself, and the tasks we ask people to perform as part of that role. If we really want to motivate and engage – particularly now that we are no longer able to supervise, prod or poke people in the way we once could – then why aren’t we striving to make the roles themselves as engaging as possible?

Long before I studied psychology, I worked a summer job as a greenkeeper at a local golf course, which I still consider to be one of the most rewarding jobs I have ever had. When I later studied some of the principles of job design, I quickly understood why. The greenkeeper role was varied and involved activities including cutting grass, building walls and planting trees (skill variety). Each task had a clear outcome, and once it had been completed you could see the fruits of your labour (task identity). Our team of three was allowed to decide the order and manner in which we completed the various tasks with relatively little outside interference, as long as we delivered good outcomes (autonomy). The feedback provided on the task was immediate. If you veered off course, you could literally see it in the lines on the grass and didn’t need a more senior supervisor to provide you with a progress report (feedback). And finally, you were able to see and hear golfers appreciate the quality of your work which had a tangible impact on the quality of their experience (task significance). 

The role had inadvertently ticked off all the components of a model of job design by Hackman and Oldham (see below). As a result, the role was hugely rewarding in itself, regardless of the salary (sparse), working conditions (an often wet and windy hilltop in mid-winter) or extra-role activities (a cup of coffee in a shed with the head greenkeeper).

The secret to engagement

According to Hackman and Oldham, high engagement is related to experiencing three psychological states whilst working:

  1. Meaningfulness of work: namely that the work itself has meaning to you and does not occur just as a set of movements to be repeated. The idea that performing the work should be motivating in and of itself is fundamental to intrinsic motivation. This consists of skill variety, task identity and task significance.

  2. Responsibility: that you have been given the opportunity to be a success or failure in your role because you have sufficient freedom/autonomy to take action.

  3. Knowledge of outcomes: important not only to be able to make changes as you undertake the work, but also to promote the idea that the work, including performance data, is yours to own (feedback).

Some roles lend themselves more easily to certain aspects of the model than others, but a tweak in one or two of these areas can make a big difference to the level of engagement and satisfaction in your team.

Let’s be clear – there is nothing wrong with organising events, throwing parties, or designing extra-role activities that people feel passionately about. But the simple answer to those concerned about how much effort is being applied in the absence of constant supervision, is to make the role itself engaging and rewarding enough to maintain people’s interest. Real, long-term engagement comes from the core of the role itself.

Let’s revisit the fundamental principles of job design and put life back into work.

Mike Thackray is principal consultant at OE Cam