Work design

Work design is the creation of systems of work and a working environment that enhance organizational effectiveness and productivity, ensure that the organization becomes ‘a great place in which to work’ and are conducive to the health, safety and well-being of employees. Work involves the exertion of effort and the application of knowledge and skills to achieve a purpose. Systems of work are the combined processes, methods and techniques used to get work done. The work environment comprises the design of jobs, working conditions and the ways in which people are treated at work by their managers and co-workers as well as the work system. Work design is closely associated with organization and job design in that the latter is conducted within the context of the system of work and the work environment.

To understand the meaning of work design it is necessary first to appreciate what is happening to the world of work and next to review its history.

What is happening to work

The key changes in the contextual and external environment surrounding the world of work have been set out clearly by Parker et al (2001). They are:

  • a shift away from large-scale industrial production, with a dramatic decline in manufacturing jobs and rise in service work;
  • partly as a consequence of this, an increase in customer-facing roles involving some form of emotional behaviour – the requirement for employees to express positive emotions in the way in which they interact with customers;
  • significant shifts in the demographics of the workforce in the shape of an increased proportion of women, greater ethnic diversity, more educated employees and an ageing workforce;
  • growth in the number of employees engaged in ‘knowledge work’ – for example, professional services and new product and service development;
  • the requirement for a greater variety of products and services and flexibility and agility in responding to customer needs and increased global competition;
  • developments in technology affecting the degree to which jobs are involved in IT and become dependent on it;
  • shifts from traditional, office or factory-based working to more flexible alternatives, including homeworking;
  • a significant increase in the number of employers that an individual employee expects to work for during his or her career.

Work design – a short history

Work design began with the concept of the division of labour originated by Adam Smith (1776). Much later came ‘Taylorism’, the scientific management movement pioneered by Taylor (1911), which was based on the belief that the most efficient way to do tasks was to remove the responsibility for how to do the work from the individual employee to engineers or managers. The next step was ‘Fordism’, the moving assembly line introduced by Henry Ford in 1914. Thereafter, the practice of work simplification became embedded in organizations and to a large extent still exists. The first move away from this situation was provided by the concept of job enrichment popularized by Herzberg (1968: 83), who referred to it as ‘vertical job loading’.

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