Work Organisation and Work Design

See also: What’s Stressing You Out? Quiz

Work organisation and work design—broadly, how organisational operations are managed, and work processes are organised to get everything done—can have a significant impact on stress in the workplace. Poor work organisation and design are a major contributor of additional and often excessive pressure, which can in turn lead to stress among employees.

Workplace stress is associated with problems such as poor physical and mental health, sickness absence and high turnover. These problems are damaging for individuals and expensive for the workplace.

However, managers can use good work organisation and design practices as a way to relieve or avoid stress within their teams. This page discusses some of the principles of good work organisation and design, to help managers to make productive and helpful decisions.

Defining Work Organisation and Work Design

Some definitions

Work organisation... refers to how work is planned, organised and managed within companies and to choices on a range of aspects such as work processes, job design, responsibilities, task allocation, work scheduling, work pace, rules and procedures, and decision-making processes.”

European Foundation for the Improvement of Work and Living Conditions

Work design is the “content and organisation of one’s work tasks, activities, relationships and responsibilities”.

Parker, S. K. (2014). Beyond motivation: Job and work design for development, health, ambidexterity, and more. Annual Review of Psychology, 65, 661–691

Job design or work design refers to the content, structure, and organization of tasks and activities.”

Anja Van den Broek and Sharon Parker, Oxford Research Encyclopedia on Psychology

Work design is therefore about how individuals’ jobs and tasks are organised and managed. Work organisation is how that work fits within an organisational context, including the rules that govern work design. It therefore includes work design, but is a much wider concept.

In practice, however, the two terms are often used interchangeably to mean how work is organised and managed.

Why Work Design and Organisation Matter

Our page on Workplace Stress explains that the most stressful working conditions are those in which excessive demands are seen as normal, pressures are not matched to skills and knowledge, employees cannot control their own work, and little support is available.

It follows, therefore, that good work organisation and design would:

  • Reduce the level of excessive demands;
  • Match job requirements to skills and experience;
  • Enable employees to organise and control their own work; and
  • Provide suitable support from managers and peers.

You might expect that doing a more complex job would be more stressful. However, provided that people also have more autonomy, that doesn’t seem to matter.

Organisations where most workers have jobs with high levels of complexity and autonomy tend to score much higher on both workplace well-being and overall performance.

In organisations that involve their employees in decision-making, far more employees report high levels of work engagement than in organisations that do not do so. The figures are stark: 47% of employees in high-involvement organisations are engaged, compared with just 24% in low-involvement organisations.

Unfortunately, there are still many workplaces and jobs that offer very little autonomy or challenge. One study found that in just over one-third of organisations within European Union countries, fewer than a fifth of workers could organise their work themselves. That means that nearly a third of workers in European Union countries are not permitted to organise their own work.

This is a pity, because research from the European Foundation for the Improvement of Work and Living Conditions (Eurofound) shows a clear link between higher levels of employee engagement and better organisation performance.

In other words, there is a clear economic case for more employee autonomy—and it’s not just about stress.

Three effects of good work design

Good work design has impacts in three main areas:

  • Minimising potential harm, including through both physical risks and by decreasing stress and other psychological problems;
  • Improving health and wellbeing, by building a workplace in which employees feel more connected to the organisation and each other, and perform better; and
  • Improving productivity, because well-designed work is usually more effective and efficient, and because more engaged people work better.

Improving Work Design

Professor Sharon Parker, from the Centre for Transformative Work Design, has developed a model for thinking about work design known as the SMART model. It identifies five areas or themes that need to be considered to obtain positive outcomes at work (see figure).

 S  Stimulating work means having a variety of interesting and meaningful tasks to do that use your skills and knowledge, and stretch you mentally.
  • Skill and task variety
  • Problem solving
  • Complexity
  • Task Significance
 M  Mastery means understanding your role and how it fits into the organisation, and knowing how to do your work effectively.
  • Feedback from jobs and other people
  • Role clarity
  • Job identity (seeing through a piece of work)
 A  Agency means that you feel able to control how and when you do your tasks, and can make decisions about your job. It may also include contributing to broader team or organisational decisions.
  • Decision making control
  • Control over methods
  • Control over time
 R  Relational supports the need for connection and support at work. It includes being in a team, supportive management, and understanding how your work affects others.
  • Support from peers and managers
  • Interdependence
  • Social contact
  • Connection with end-users/stakeholders
 T  Tolerable demands means that what you are expected to do is not overwhelming. This covers aspects like reasonable working hours, level of monitoring, and consistent and clearly expressed expectations about your performance.
  • Moderate time, pressure and workload
  • Reasonable monitoring
  • Manageable emotional demands

Work Redesign

Work redesign can involve major organisational changes, including new team structures and organisational processes. However, this doesn’t have to be the case.

It is important to recognise that you don’t need to make huge changes to improve work design. Small tweaks can have big impacts.

However, it is very important to involving those affected in any work redesign process. This is for two main reasons.

  • The first is that individuals tend to know their work best. If you try to go ahead without consultation, you may find that you have missed important areas of work, and that your solo redesign simply doesn’t work.

  • The second is that principles of good work design require you to consult and engage with those involved. If you don’t do so, you have lost an opportunity to provide more autonomy and engage your team in decisions.

Involving people in discussing the nature of their work, and giving them a chance to input into decisions about how they work (see box), can have a huge impact.

Using the SMART model: a process for managers

How can and should you use the SMART model as a manager, to improve work design for those in your team?

The first question is to ask whether the job characteristics within each theme of the SMART model can be used to describe the work within your organisation.

You should then talk with your team to ask if there are any responsibilities or tasks that could be changed—added, removed or restructured—that would make their work SMARTer.

The key is to use the themes of the SMART model to ensure that work is motivating, and places enough demands (but not too many) on employees.

Job Design and Job Crafting

Job design does not always have to be done by managers. It can also be done by individuals.

If so, the process is known as job crafting.

Our page on Job Crafting explains that this is the process of adapting and amending your job so that it better fits your skills and experience, or what you want to do in your job. Like job design, job crafting does not necessarily involve large changes. It is more about how you do your job than what you do.

As a manager, it is good to open to the possibility of job crafting, and support employees who want to engage in that process.

In Conclusion

As a manager, your role is to facilitate and support your team’s efforts to do their jobs.

You can do this best by ensuring that work is well designed—and that means involving team members in how they work. Doing so will have huge benefits for individuals, the team, and the organisation as a whole. It will also reflect well on your as a manager.