Learning to Design Better Jobs

The side-hustle. Freelancers. The gig economy. Whatever you call it, it’s dominating the US workscape at a rapid rate, despite reports that unemployment is at its lowest rates in decades. A recent survey revealed that 46% of Americans have taken on a side hustle to help cover basic expenses. 

If the economy isn’t in shackles, why are so many Americans supplementing their work outside of traditional contexts? Our economy is admittedly in a precarious position, but experts seem to agree that there’s more to it than that. Forbes contributor Chris Westfall poses the question, “Is it necessity, or a search for happiness, that makes the workforce dance with multiple career partners?”

The growing millennial workforce continues to highlight the demand for employment that is not just sufficient, but fulfilling. As part of that workforce, I continue to observe the appeal inherent in “designing your own job,” as more of my peers find themselves burnt-out and dissatisfied with their jobs. 

Contrary to popular belief, it turns out that this dissatisfaction isn’t out of laziness. Instead, reports suggest that growing disengagement with our work comes from frustration with how jobs are designed. A 2014 study in the Academy of Management Annals describes quality work design as, “a key determinant of employee well-being, positive work attitudes, and job/organizational performance.” Unfortunately, they note that “many job incumbents continue to experience deskilled and demotivating work.”

What is Work-Design?

You may be thinking that work-design sure sounds like something made up by someone who is in fact, looking to design their own job. But the study and prevalence of work-design has been around longer than the boom of the side-hustle. According to the Academy of Management, work-design refers to “the content and organization of one’s work tasks, activities, relationships, and responsibilities.”

Essentially, work-design is the reason that the exact same position in two similar companies may look wildly different. Traditional work design tends to prioritize repetitive and specific tasks in order to increase efficiency. Ironically, such tedious work, especially under pressure, provides less space for innovation and runs great risk of making employees less productive. 

Nonetheless, Harvard Business Review found that given the option to diversify job designs, 45% of managers and management students still “designed the job to be even more boring.” Are they still glorifying the quota above all? Are managers really content with delegating dissatisfying work, as long as said work gets done? If so, is it any surprise that employees would relegate their attention to a side-hustle, or even switch companies entirely?

Designing Better Jobs

There is still hope for job-design if managers can learn to diversify job descriptions and mobilize the assets of their specific teams.

When a worker is presented as being less productive, the traditional impulse is to “fix the worker” rather than consider the work design. HBR presented study participants with a warehouse worker failing to meet 50% of her deadlines, with enough detail to suggest that the work design was poor. Even so, a “surprising number of participants” still opted for a worker-focused approach, rather than restructuring the work design. For example, they suggested sending the employee in question in for extra training or threatening to reduce pay.

On paper, this “fix the person” approach seems pretty insensitive--and potentially expensive--yet it is still the go-to method for most managers. This is often because productivity improvements are focused on speeding up the work process, while not taking a psychological perspective whatsoever. 

How can we design jobs better so that not everyone resorts to a side-hustle for their sanity? We have to take an asset based approach. Work-design should be focused on the assets of the worker, while positions have to be flexible enough to give space for work to be innovative and diverse. When results or reports seem sub-par, the productive response is more than bombarding with incentive or banging a gavel. Because if your team is well-selected and well-trained, the odds are that a work-design issue could be to blame. 

HBR suggests that “through their own actions, managers can allow people more autonomy over decisions, ensure that tasks are various, and provide staff with support when demands are high.” Work will still get done, and employees will be more satisfied when their day-to-day tasks designed to play off of their strengths and coach them through weaknesses. 

And then maybe, just maybe, we won’t all have to rely on the gig economy to get by. 

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