Effective approaches to better job design

Jun 12, 2021 | Reward & Compensation

Putting some thought and empathy into job design



I recall a conversation I had with an IT Director some years ago, a smooth and urbane character in the pharmaceuticals industry, in R&D. There was a need to reorganise the IT function so he was reviewing all the jobs. It came to discussing quite a junior role on Helpdesk. He made the excellent point that “no-one should have to do a hundred percent helpdesk work”, going on to say “it needs to be combined with something else” and then he paused and added “otherwise the person would simply get bored and leave”.



It was a much more thoughtful and empathic view than what I’ve seen many managers offer, which is to treat each job that comes up as simply a box they need to fill. A more nuanced approach is really needed when we talk about the design of jobs – and this goes for the design of jobs at all levels.




Some tips for Job Design



There are some points to consider when you are working on job design.



  • It can be difficult to make changes where it’s important to do so e.g. to ensure performance, value for money or service quality
  • You need considerable resources to conduct job evaluation using processes that have become custom and practice
  • Small changes to a job often lead to talk of whether the job should be regraded, and this can result in pay drift and pointless costs. A good jobs library or jobs catalogue can help determine any need for regrading very quickly and easily
  • Overly complex job design causes problems with workforce planning and talent management.
  • Job descriptions are sometimes altered to gain a desired pay outcome – it’s wise to make sure that changes are legitimate and defensible
  • More focus on the skills of employees and less on job content makes it easier to manage resources in flexible ways
  • It’s easy to over-engineer job design, but this gets in the way of implementing change.
  • Redesigning jobs in tiny detail makes it harder to identify shared or common skills across the organisation.



All good. But let’s take our practice of empathy a step further, and think about how we can design jobs in such a way as to maximise the worker’s engagement, interest and enjoyment. How can we build jobs so that people genuinely derive enjoyment and satisfaction from their work? Maybe your organisation doesn’t value their people this much, maybe it does. There’s certainly enough HR people out there at leat saying that “our people are our most valuable resource”. If so, we should expect to see more HR professionals (and their advisers – consultants, psychologists, etc) taking job design seriously.



Most of us get great satisfaction from the experience of Flow, as described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience – a mental state concerned with challenge level and skill level. By this he means the state of concentration and absorption with an activity, something akin to fascination, a state where the person is so immersed in the activity that nothing else seems to matter. This is like being “in the zone” or “in the groove” where the person is engaged, fulfilled, and enjoying the exercise of skill. According to  Csíkszentmihályi, during flow you are “completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost”. Ask yourself – how often do you get this experience in your work? Are the jobs in your organisation designed so as to maximise opportunity for employees to experience this level of engagement? And if not, how can we design jobs so that people can get this satisfaction from their work? 




Take a peek at this TED Talk where Csíkszentmihályi explains the notion of flow and the relationship between flow and happiness a bit more fully –






Public and ex-public sector scene



I’ve often seen public sector (and ex-public sector) organisations engage in detailed job design to support the job evaluation process. This was intended to bring a culture of felt fairness and pay transparency as part of the move to single status workplaces. While the aim was to reduce equal pay risks, it often came at the cost of flexible ways of working. That was over a decade ago now, and the world has moved on since then.



Many of the job descriptions I reviewed in councils, universities and housing trusts were based on long lists of activities, with little mention of the influencing, leadership and soft skills that were required to deliver results. So, it seems timely in a time of financial constraints and uncertainty to revisit the question of how to do job design effectively.



It’s Job Design….so use Design Thinking



Design Thinking is juicy stuff. It’s people-oriented and it’s a prototype driven process for innovation, something HR could do with a lot more of. It’s useful for understanding and solving complex problems where traditional approaches aren’t effective. Design Thinking is about more than tiny process improvements that add little. In Design Thinking we’re focused on finding the right problem to solve, and we seek a deep understanding of the user with the aim of creating better solutions. Design Thinking needs deep empathy for the user and their needs, and is less concerned with internal processes.



Design Thinking is not only used in product development, but also in designing organisational processes and structures, in training and development, in designing pay systems and in processes that affect people. So it’s particularly useful in HR. It helps HR shift from process-oriented approaches to people-oriented models, and it helps with managing change, and even reinventing HR entirely. Here’s a 2 minute clip about Design Thinking, which includes an explanation from David Kelley, one of the foremost thought leaders in Design Thinking.





In his book Drive, Daniel Pink suggests the secret to high performance and satisfaction in today’s world is our deeply held need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves while making a real contribution to the world. He offers a new paradigm on motivation, saying that salary has very little to do with your motivation; instead, the three core elements of motivation in the workplace are Autonomy, Purpose, and Mastery. So if you get these three elements right in the design of your jobs, you can ensure that your workplace becomes a highly motivated, happy, productive organisation.



Design Thinking in HR?



Yes, Design Thinking is great for HR and Reward. It’s not just for the Design School at Stanford University, product managers in tech, and the corporate giants like Apple, Nike and Coca-Cola. Lots of Chief HR Officers are catching onto the idea. For Chief People Officers in some smaller organisations, many HRDs and HRBPs, their first ever exposure to Design Thinking comes as a real epiphany, a sudden “a-ha” experience, a eureka moment. Now the penny has dropped!



Thinking about the Employee Experience is important especially with the priority to improve employee engagement. Design Thinking provides tools to build workplaces that inspire people, and in creating new roles, systems that are user-friendly and based on real feedback. In all of this, the employee is at the centre of our focus. If we are to improve engagement, productivity and innovation, we need to use deep empathy – something that’s in short supply in most workplaces. Design Thinking is essentially a human-centred approach – something HR people are assumed to be good at, but which experience shows often are not.



HR teams might have dialogues over such questions as – how can we reduce staff turnover in the first year, how do we retain the most talented employees, how can we design fair pay and reward systems, how can we capture the most innovative ideas from the workforce, what competencies will the company need in 5 years, and how can we design jobs so that people make their best contribution and genuinely enjoy their work?



Job design and job redesign are great opportunities to reinvent the organisation structure and make design choices that will make stimulating, satisfying and interesting jobs. Job enrichment, job variety, development projects, opportunities for learning and self-actualisation are all open for discussion. It’s a golden opportunity for HR to make a valuable impact on the business, and on the quality of working lives. Time to rethink some assumptions. Here is a great opportunity to get a really deep understanding of the job



Making job design manageable



  • A jobs library needs to be created to include all jobs across the organisation. Job matching can be used where there’s a high degree of similarity (say 80% commonality) between two roles.


  • No new job descriptions are required unless it’s agreed that a new job is sufficiently distinct from one already in the library


  • In the job library, it’s sensible to group jobs into job families so that common career paths and skill-sets are understood. Competencies need to be defined for each level in the job family


  • A simple role profile works better than a lengthy job description. There are always ongoing performance management conversations where detailed and one-off activities can be captured and documented as necessary.


  • The short role profile also captures the behaviours expected in the role when the job holder is doing the job effectively. Consistency is important, though requirements differ from one organisation to another


  • It can become too contentious to discuss pay and grading at the same time as job design, so keep these conversations separate. You don’t want job design to be influenced by pay issues.


  • Employees and their trade union representatives need to know that the compiling of a job library is not of itself a regrading project, nor a change in job content. That said, it’s almost inevitable that the question will surface when a major change exercise does happen.


The job library needs a central individual or team to manage it – again if there is no consistency, someone will make noise about unfairness. Capturing job content is sometimes done by interview or questionnaire, and sometimes by line managers and their direct reports. But we should remember that all questionnaires have their limitations, and can lead to black-and-white thinking. Depending on organisational culture, HR & Reward will want more or less control over the approach, and they may also provide tools, templates, guidance notes and the like. It’s important that Trade Unions can see the job library at some stage so that they know this is not about changing terms and conditions.


Review it and learn


As with other major initiatives, it’s important to review the job library for lessons learned, to improve and further simplify, and assess how far the goals of the job library were met. The need to manage risks around Equal Pay hasn’t gone away, but jobs do change and evolve, as to organisational structures. This means that job design and the job library will also keep changing. It’s important to have effective methods for tracking and managing these changes.



There’s a trend amongst Chief HR Offices lately in reimagining workforce planning toward agile career pathing for more dynamic organisations, and enhancing employee experience, There’s a distinct focus on how to go about building and deploying talent in the new digital ecosystem, and thinking in terms of employee skill-sets instead of jobs. It all points to the fact that having the flexibility to conduct job design and redesign in rapid, agile ways will become more critical in the coming years.



If you are rethinking your job and organisation design in the light of COVID-19, and would value some informed recommendations that help you take the right actions, get in touch via the Contact page.

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