Forget office design…

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…we need some basic job design – agile smagile! Tech entrepreneur Glenn Elliott thinks we might well be missing the bigger picture.

We can faff around with our physical environments as much as we want but if we don’t go deeper into what people actually want then we might as well be rearranging the deckchairs on the proverbial Titanic. The problem, as I see it, is that while we’re getting quite decent, in some places anyway, at office design, we are universally quite awful at job design.                       

Most jobs that I come across, aren’t actually designed at all – we’re lucky if they are a list of loosely connected tasks and we rarely, if ever, think about how the person doing them will feel. As a result, we end up putting people in boring, repetitive jobs; frustrating jobs; and jobs where the person can’t tell if they’ve had a good day or a bad one.

One of the biggest mistakes we make with people at work is to think that they can play an effective role as a part of a machine. All the evidence I’ve seen is the opposite – people make terrible components in machines. Slotting people into roles without freedom, creativity and self-determination simply makes for miserable people who resent life and then become petty and annoying with others. It’s a result that we then tend to call ‘normal office life’.

“One of the biggest mistakes we make with people at work is to think that they can play an effective role as a part of a machine”

HR then typically makes matters worse by documenting these positions with ‘job descriptions’ – some of the most awful documents to ever come out of business. I often think these have a primary aim of being waved at someone as we fire them, saying, ‘See, you didn’t do any of these things’. And then, as if this weren’t enough, we convert the descriptions into job advertisements that paper over the cracks and make the key responsibilities even less intelligible or understandable.

The issue of job design is so poorly understood, it is missed by some of our best thinkers. In his book Leaders Eat Last, management consultant, Simon Sinek, discusses a gate agent at an airport who was yelling at a man attempting to board an aircraft before his number was called. When he asked the agent why she treated the man poorly, her response was, ‘Sir, if I don’t follow the rules, I could get in trouble or lose my job’. His conclusion is that a lack of safety and trust in her leaders is why she behaved badly to the passenger.

I think he’s wrong. The issue with the gate agent’s behaviour wasn’t what she was doing; it was how she was doing it. She could have gently explained to the customer that it wasn’t his turn, rather than shouting and making him feel small; that would still be following the rules. But she didn’t; she was mean and aggressive, and the reason isn’t a lack of safety. The reason is that she was stressed, frustrated and angry with her role.

Being a gate agent at an airport is a tough job with high demands and low control. Agents drive the jetway, open the door, check in crew, board hundreds of passengers in increasingly complex sequences and deal with reactions to overbooking, all while using archaic systems. But they have almost no control; the rules are there to be followed, it’s a safety- and security-critical job, so there is no autonomy. Even the freedom to pick which passenger is deserving of an upgrade if there is a spare seat in business class has been long given up to automation, based on frequent flyer status. As far as job design goes, being a gate agent sucks.

The attributes of a good job are not complex and, as usual, we’ve known them for ages – we just choose to ignore them. People need to deploy and develop skills, believe they are producing something meaningful, have enough challenge and demand to be stimulated over the long term, and have enough freedom and autonomy to make mistakes and innovate (yes, those two things go hand in hand!).

Many leadership jobs will tick many of those boxes, which might be why we’ve become so bad at this area.

Maybe all the people with power have decent job designs and can’t empathise with the people who don’t.

Glenn Elliott was CEO of employee engagement specialist Reward Gateway from 2006 to 2017 and now advises businesses on company culture, leadership and growth. He is the author of Build it – The Rebel Playbook for Employee Engagement (Wiley, 2018).