What is a job and who determines what you do in a job? For John Paul Getty, if you haven’t got a problem, you haven’t got a job. At the most general level, for an employer a job exists if they have a problem that needs addressing. So if they haven’t got enough time, knowledge or skills to get the work done themselves, they clearly have a job vacancy for some lucky soul.
There is some truth in this maxim because it would be odd (but not unheard of) to employ people when there is nothing to be done. So if we follow the approach of identifying a problem the next logical step is to specify that problem in as much detail as is required to generate a position description for the role. Generally this will include a consideration of the tasks and reporting relationships associated with the role that we are beginning to describe. This process can be as simple as saying get me another one like “Pablo”, or it could get very involved indeed. We could set up a committee to design the job, or we could interview or observe other employees doing similar things to work out the core responsibilities and reporting relationships. Once we have an idea of the duties we can specify the qualifications, experience and perhaps personal qualities that we feel are necessary to do the role well. Then we advertise the role and wait for the hungry hordes of job seekers to come a-knockin’ at our door.
It all sounds so reasonable and logical, but it is questionable whether such a traditional approach to job analysis and job design is so effective in the current market. Debbie Loveridge CEO of recruiters Vedior Asia Pacific says “Even if organisations haven’t previously embraced adaptable working conditions, they will quickly realise the need to do so in order to meet the demands of their current and future workforce”. What the recruiters are saying is that the balance is shifting from designing jobs to meet problems, to instead designing jobs around employees. Employees have so much market power in the current talent war, that they have stopped trying to tailor themselves to the jobs on offer, and it is now the employers who are obliged to tailor their roles to the employee.
This revolution in job design has a range of benefits. Companies have always had an eye on staff turnover because turnover, especially in complex and skilled roles is inefficient. Productivity is lost while the role remains empty, and continues to be lost until the new incumbent is fully up to speed in the role. The less obvious productivity loss that Organisational Psychologists have known for years relates to the degree of engagement that the individual feels with their role and their employer more generally. What better way to increase employee engagement than by designing work around the skills, and abilities of your staff?
Such an approach naturally embraces diversity, and makes each individual feel special and recognised within the organisation, in the same way that the person in the tailored suit feels more comfortable than the less fortunate person squeezing into off-the-peg attire.
The traditional objection to designing jobs around people is that it effectively hands the employee a gun along with instructions to hold it to the head of the employer during salary negotiations. Even worse than being forced to pay top dollar, there is the risk of chaos if the pivotal employee moves on.
While these arguments may have held sway when skilled employees were plentiful, those times have passed, and the risks of structuring jobs around key people are outweighed by the benefits it brings to the organisation. So if you are on the look out for a new role, don’t put all your energies into squeezing yourself into a badly fitting job, have the confidence to work out the type of role you’d like and be good at, and offer it to your employer. You never know, you might just transform not only your own career, but the fortunes of your employer as well.