Meaningful work and/or job design?

A phrase in frequent use today is 'meaningful work'. See a 5 minute School of Life video How to Find Meaningful Work that gives a good take on the phrase. There's also a lot of talk about precarious work where much of the work is far from meaningful. See the International Labour Organisation 5 minute video on the rise of precarious work.

But today I'm sticking with 'meaningful work' because I've been asked whether 'we have any products on providing meaningful work that we can share with colleagues for them to consider and have an awareness of, to inform their thinking when designing business processes e.g. skill variety, task significance, autonomy, etc.' This is an intriguing challenge as it seems to suggest we can design job roles to deliver business processes in a way that lead to meaningful work by reference to a 'product', which I don't think is possible.

To make things easier(!?) I think we need to distinguish between 'job design' and 'meaningful work'. Job design is about 'the process of deciding on the contents of a job in terms of its duties and responsibilities, on the methods to be used in carrying out the job, in terms of techniques, systems and procedures, and on the relationships that should exist between the job holder and his superior subordinates and colleagues.' (Armstrong, M. (2011) How to manage people. London: Kogan Page). The CIPD in their Job Design Factsheet note that: 'Although in many organisations, formal job design is considered passe, there are clear advantages to it as part of an integrated approach to workforce strategy.' I agree there is a place for well designed jobs.

Interestingly, Michael Armstrong, two years later (2013) in his revised edition of the book, does not mention job design in his previously mechanistic terms. Instead he talks about developing job engagement by 'designing jobs that enable people to feel a sense of accomplishment, to express and use their abilities, and to exercise their own decision making powers.' He remarks that you can help job engagement by designing jobs that have interest, challenge, variety, autonomy, task significance and task identity and he offers 10 steps to engagement through job design. So here we have two 'products' on job design – the CIPD factsheet and Michael Armstrong's 10 steps. Neither talks about meaningful work. (There are multiple other similar job design 'products') but these illustrate.

Good job design by itself does not guarantee that the work it relates to is 'meaningful' to the job holder. Alain de Botton in his book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work asks the question, 'When does a job feel meaningful?' and answers saying 'Whenever it allows us to generate delight or reduce suffering in others.' Matthew Crawford in his wonderful book (thoroughly recommended) Shop Class as Soul Craft, explores meaningful work as being part of the 'struggle for individual agency … we want to feel that our world is intelligible, so we can be responsible for it.'

Meaningful work may or may not include conscious job design and it's not really within the employer's gift to 'provide' meaningful work. Employers can provide some of the conditions and context that support individuals in any desire they have for meaningful work. Individuals' attitude towards their work differ. For example, one hospital cleaner who worked on a wing with patients who were in comas started rearranging the artwork on their walls in the hopes of sparking their awareness. In doing this she was crafting her role to give her meaningful work and was in a context to be able to do that. Another hospital cleaner may have the same job design to deliver the same business process but view the work as simply a means of earning money and not craft it to give any meaning beyond the monetary. Or this second cleaner may not have a manager who would allow anything beyond achieving the cleaning objective.

To be a company where people feel they are doing meaningful work is what Satya Nadella, CEO Microsoft, describes as 'the quest'.

Is your organisation on the meaningful work quest? Where does job design feature in it? Let me know.

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