More than 30 years ago, I conducted my PhD research on the implementation of self-managing teams at a UK company. Self-managing teams are now at the heart of “radical” work designs used by companies that are seeing remarkable change: from passive to active; from disengaged to thriving; and from low to high performing.
I am thrilled to see such strong interest in work design in Australian organisations right now. Work design is (rightly) being seen as a way to address psychosocial hazards in the workplace.
What is work design?
During the Industrial Revolution, the most popular way to design work was to break it down into small tasks and then assign one task to each person. Managers were given all the responsibility and decision-making. This approach, which became known as scientific management, was thought to be the most cost-effective because people could be easily trained and were readily replaceable.
But the resulting repetition and lack of autonomy resulted in alienation, boredom, stress and injury for workers, as well as strikes, absenteeism, turnover and inflexibility for organisations.
Hundreds of subsequent research studies have shown that there are healthier and more productive ways to design work. SMART Work Design captures this evidence in one simple model.
What is SMART work design?
More than 100 years of evidence shows the key ingredients for a healthy, motivating and meaningful work role are as follows:
Using the SMART Model
The SMART work design model can be used in different ways.
First, SMART captures the key modifiable aspects of work that affect employee mental health (sometimes referred to as psychosocial risks). Work can be “redesigned”. Focusing on SMART helps to shift the discussion away from solely focusing on individually-oriented solutions like resilience training to preventing harm by improving work (for more detail on this idea, see the Thrive at Work model).
Second, the SMART work design model can be used to improve hybrid working. Instead of focusing on questions like ‘should we have flexible working or not?’, ask ‘how can we create meaningful and high-performing work - irrespective of where it is carried out?’.
Third, the SMART work design model can be used to successfully implement automation, AI and other digital technologies, which can dramatically change work, both for the better or the worse. When technological change is introduced, managers, unions and change agents can use the SMART model to proactively design high-quality human work roles.
The time is right to ensure your workers have SMART work. As well as fostering mental and physical health and well-being, you will create a workforce that is high performing, motivated, creative, adaptive and ready to embrace the challenges of the future.
If using the SMART work design model, please acknowledge its creator, Sharon K. Parker, Curtin University, firstname.lastname@example.org
Resources and References
A conference on work design featuring world-leading speakers on the topic, practical workshops, and thought-leading symposia, will be held in Perth, February 12-14, 2024. See www.transformativeworkdesign.com