Psychology Of Job Design Research Paper

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Jobs are created by people for people. Whether deliberately or by default, choices are made about which tasks to group together to form a job, the extent to which job holders have to follow prescribed procedures in completing those tasks, how closely the job incumbent will be supervised, and numerous other aspects of the work. Such choices are the essence of job design, which may thus be defined as ‘the specification of the content and methods of jobs’ for individuals or teams’ (Wall 1995). Other terms often used as synonyms for job design include ‘job’ and ‘work restructuring,’ ‘work design,’ and ‘work organization.’ It is difficult to distinguish among these terms, although those who employ the word ‘work’ in preference to ‘job’ tend to take a broader perspective linking the design of jobs more explicitly to the wider organizational context. Psychological interest in this topic is concerned with the effects of job design on employee attitudes and behavior, and with the technological and organizational factors that influence the choice of job design. In this research paper, the psychology of job design is described with regard to its main research emphases, historical context, proposals for job redesign, key theoretical approaches, research findings, and current issues and future directions.

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1. Main Emphases In Job Design Research

In principle, the concept of job design covers all types of work and job properties. Within applied psychology, however, a more particular perspective has developed. First, with respect to types of work, attention has centered mainly on lower-level jobs in larger enterprises, e.g., those involving office and especially shop-floor manufacturing work. Second, with regard to job properties, the focus has been on key generic job characteristics, such as the variety of tasks in jobs and the amount of discretion or autonomy job incumbents have in completing those tasks. Those emphases reflect the history of job design practice, as described next.

2. Historical Context

Since the turn of the twentieth century, the trend in job design within enterprises has been one of ‘job simplification’ or ‘deskilling.’ The move from small craft-based industries to larger factories, the emergence of mass production, and the ideas of Adam Smith (1776) and Charles Babbage (1835) on the ‘division of labor,’ together with Frederick Winslow Taylor’s (1911) exposition of the ‘principles of scientific management,’ are among the influences which led to the design of narrow jobs with closely prescribed tasks. (The above seminal writings are now difficult to find, but key extracts, along with other historically important contributions, are reproduced in Davis and Taylor 1972). The reasoning was that simplifying work in this way would reduce costs by minimizing the risk of errors, allowing less skilled labor to be used, and reducing training requirements. The epitome of this process is the assembly line, where jobs can be so simplified that they involve the continuous repetition of a single operation with a short cycle time, no discretion over how to carry out the task, and no control over the pace of work.

Concern about the human costs of job simplification inspired some of the earliest research in applied psychology. In the UK this was the focus of work conducted during the 1920s under the auspices of the government-funded Industrial Fatigue Research Board. Employees in highly repetitive jobs, such as cigarette making, tobacco weighing, and bicycle-chain assembly, were shown to be bored and dissatisfied with their work (Wall and Martin 1994). As this area of inquiry developed in the UK, the USA, and elsewhere over the next few decades, evidence also began to accumulate of more serious consequences in terms of a link between repetitive work and employee stress or mental health (e.g., Kornhauser 1965). Studies in the 1950s and 1960s extended the agenda by considering also how the restriction of job discretion or autonomy inherent in job simplification affected job holders, and showed similar and often stronger effects.

3. Job Redesign

Evidence of the negative consequences of job simplification fostered proposals for ‘job redesign.’ This normative term reflects the historical background outlined above. Job simplification is cast as the traditional form of job design, and job redesign is used to denote deliberate attempts to reverse its deleterious effects by building into jobs more task variety, autonomy, or associated properties. Understandably, suggestions for job redesign paralleled the history of job design research. Thus the earliest proposals focused on reducing repetitiveness by increasing the number of different tasks experienced by employees. One such proposal was for ‘job rotation,’ which involves moving employees at regular intervals between different (simplified) tasks. Another was for ‘horizontal job enlargement,’ which increases task variety by including a wider range of tasks in jobs.

Later job redesign proposals in the 1960s and 1970s were for ‘job enrichment’ or, as it is less commonly called, ‘vertical job enlargement.’ This approach reflected the concern about the low levels of discretion in simplified jobs, and focused on increasing employee autonomy over the planning and execution of their own work (e.g., by giving job holders responsibility for decisions that otherwise would be undertaken by support and supervisory staff). The term job enrichment, originally coined by Herzberg (1966) to denote the approach derived from his ‘two-factor theory,’ is now used more generally. That theory distinguished between intrinsic or ‘motivator’ job factors, such as achievement and responsibility; and extrinsic or ‘hygiene’ factors such as supervision and work conditions. The core proposition was that intrinsic factors were the key determinants of satisfaction and performance, hence the emphasis on redesigning jobs to promote these properties. A final proposal, aimed at enhancing the discretionary component of work at the team level, stems from the sociotechnical systems approach to work organization, and is for the implementation of ‘autonomous work groups’ or ‘self-managing teams’ (see below). It is effectively job enrichment for teams.

4. Major Theoretical Approaches

Two theoretical approaches have dominated research on job design, and have yet to be superseded. One of these, concerned with individual job design, is the ‘Job Characteristics Model’ (Hackman and Oldham 1976). This identifies five ‘core job characteristics,’ namely skill variety, task identity, task significance, autonomy, and feedback from the job itself, as determinants of work motivation, job satisfaction, work performance, labor turnover, and absence. The strength of the effects of the job characteristics on the outcomes is predicted to be affected by individual differences, in particular being stronger for employees with greater ‘growth need strength’ and (in later formulations) also for those with higher contextual satisfaction and more knowledge, skill, and ability.

The other dominant approach derives from the more general sociotechnical systems approach to organizational design. The emphasis in this case is on the design of work for teams, with the key proposal being for the implementation of ‘autonomous work groups.’ Six key criteria specified for such groups are that the work should be reasonably demanding and provide variety, afford the opportunity to learn and continue learning, include an area of decision making that employees can call their own, offer social support and recognition, be of wider social relevance, and lead to a desirable future (Cherns 1987). There is no particular acknowledgment of individual differences in the sociotechnical approach, but otherwise the specified properties of well-designed jobs are very similar to those of the Job Characteristics Model.

5. Research Strategies

Research on job design has been of two main types: cross-sectional field studies examining the relationship between job characteristics and outcomes, and change or intervention field studies investigating the impact of job redesign on outcomes. The latter are exemplified by two field experiments described by Wall, Clegg and colleagues (Wall and Martin 1994). In the first, previously simplified individual jobs in a confectionery department were replaced by autonomous group working. Team members were given greatly expanded responsibilities, such as allocating tasks among themselves and resolving every-day operational problems, within the constraints of agreed production targets and health and safety requirements. Effects were investigated over a period of 18 months and showed substantial increases in output and job satisfaction, and a reduction in strain. The second study compared the introduction of autonomous work groups in a greenfield site with a sister site within the same parent company which operated with a more traditional job design. Once again job attitudes (e.g., job satisfaction) were found to improve, but in this case output did not (though productivity was higher because of fewer support staff?).

The difference between these studies highlights a major feature of research findings more generally. Whereas the effects of job redesign on job attitudes appear highly reliable, the consequences with regard to performance are less consistent (Parker and Wall 1998).

6. Current Issues And Future Directions

Interest in job design, which peaked during the 1970s, making it then one of the most prominent topics of inquiry within industrial and organizational psychology, waned during the 1980s. However, at the start of the twenty-first century it is resurfacing in response to new strategies, practices and technologies emerging in manufacturing and elsewhere. Organizations see improved quality, flexibility, and responsiveness to customer demand as the route to greater competitiveness, as well as cutting costs, and are supporting this through the use of computer-based technology, just-in-time inventory control, total quality management, business process re-engineering, delayering, and other initiatives. It is widely appreciated that the success of these depends on their being supported by appropriate job designs.

This renewed emphasis on job design has been further strengthened by other developments, and in particular by more general proposals for ‘high performance work systems,’ ‘high involvement organizations,’ and ‘empowerment’ (e.g., Lawler 1992, Hardy and Leiba-O’Sullivan 1998). These proposals incorporate the traditional core principles of job design, inasmuch as they recommend that employees take on a wider range of tasks and be given much more autonomy and discretion in their work. At the same time they adopt a wider perspective than that usually encompassed within job design theory and research. In so doing they help to make explicit the limitations of existing knowledge and clarify directions for future development.

Several areas of development are high on the agenda (Parker and Wall 1998). The first concerns the relationship between job design and performance. Traditional job design theory, and its manifestation within the broader notions of high-involvement organizations and empowerment, is implicitly universalistic in this regard. It assumes positive effects of increased autonomy on performance irrespective of external circumstances. Yet, as noted above, evidence shows the impact of job redesign on performance is variable. Such inconsistency points to the existence of unspecified contingencies that need to be identified. One such contingency, suggested by organizational theory and recent research findings, is that of ‘operational uncertainty.’ It is likely that providing autonomy for employees benefits performance most under changing and unpredictable work conditions, but yields less benefit as requirements become more standard and predictable (Wall and Jackson 1995).

A second line of development concerns the need to investigate the effect of job design on a wider range of outcomes. Most studies focus on outcomes such as job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and mental health. Considerably less attention has been given to the consequences of job designs for health and safety (e.g., accidents, overexertion injuries, incidents of violence), employee learning and development (e.g., the development of knowledge, personal initiative), and outside-work outcomes (e.g., leisure activities, family relationships).

A third area for development is to broaden the range of work characteristics encompassed. At present the job characteristics considered are those stemming from traditional forms of work, in particular simplified jobs within manufacturing settings. The growth of service and knowledge work, the emergence of new computer-based technologies, and the opportunities being opened up by telecommunications suggest that a range of other job properties likely to affect employee well-being and performance will come into play. For example: many computer-based systems can substantially reduce the physical demands of work, but enhance learning and problem-solving demands; teleworking can accentuate social isolation; modern manufacturing initiatives such as lean production can increase employee work load and time pressure; and new forms of ‘contingent working’ (e.g., short-term, project-based contracts) raise questions of security and employment continuity. Job design theory will need to adapt to such changes.

Job design theory will also need to adapt to changes in the work force itself. Increasingly, employees are ‘less young, less male, and less white’ (Howard 1995, p. 33). Existing work design theory takes little account of age, gender, and race, yet these demographic factors could have an important influence on people’s requirements for, and responses to, job design. For instance, autonomy over working hours might be especially key for working women with children because it allows them more easily to juggle work demands with domestic and child-care tasks (for which women still typically have the major responsibility). For older employees working in physically demanding jobs, autonomy over work breaks might be especially important because it allows for rests to alleviate any physical strain.

Perhaps the least-well understood aspect of job design is that concerned with the mechanisms, or processes, through which job properties affect outcomes. Historically, job design theory and practice have been founded on motivational assumptions, that gains from job redesign result from enhancing the effort people put into their work. More recent research suggests that motivation does not provide a complete explanation, and that consideration needs also to be given to the effect of job design for peoples’ understanding of their work, their proactivity, their work orientations, and their feeling of self-efficacy (Parker et al. 1997, Parker 1998).

A final issue concerns the role of job design principles in the design of new systems. The emphasis within the job design literature has been on how jobs can be better adapted within their technological context. However, the technology may itself preclude job design alternatives that might be of value. It is equally important to ask how knowledge of job design might be exploited to design better systems in the first place, and to encourage social scientists and users to work alongside development engineers in the design and implementation of new systems (Clegg et al. 1996).


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