Radically rethink and reinvent work design 

Recent events have taught us that work can transition at light speed — and that agile organisations are better equipped than others to thrive and weather rough storms. Although leaders continue to prepare for the future of work by tracking predictable trends, establishing the agility to take on unforeseeable events has become a priority. Such agility calls for thinking about what work is, how tasks get done and who (or what) is best suited to perform those tasks. This means creating a new operating model that reflects the fluidity of modern work and working arrangements instead of relying on antiquated jobs created for a vastly different world.

In other words, sometimes you have to break down a structure to rebuild it sustainably. That’s the newest, cutting-edge idea in work design. Agile organisations realise that fixed, inflexible job architectures fail to capture the realities of today’s work, account for socioeconomic developments or meet the needs of the people who perform the work — many of whom no longer desire a nine-to-five career.

The status quo is no longer working — and it no longer has to, if leaders are ready to radically rethink the way work is performed.

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The evolution of work

Work has changed dramatically over the decades, starting simply as jobs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and developing into more complex careers in the 1960s and 1990s.

The early 2000s added gig work to jobs and careers. More work was delivered through flexible arrangements as full-time work began to give way to myriad new work relationships and rising automation. Then, in the pandemic’s wake, the constructs of traditional employment began to dissolve even more rapidly. Organisations the world over were unexpectedly forced to embrace greater flexibility and accelerated digitalisation.

What’s next? We’re beginning to think of work in unprecedented terms — focusing on the skills, networks, experiences and capabilities that underpin work. These can take on many different forms (jobs, assignments, gigs, etc.) and can be performed by a plurality of work options (employees in full-time roles, employees in agile talent pools, external gig workers, outsourcing, robotic process automation, social robotics, etc.). In other words, sometimes you have to break down a structure to rebuild it sustainably. That’s the newest, cutting-edge idea in work design. Agile organisations realise that fixed, inflexible job architectures fail to capture the realities of today’s work, account for socioeconomic developments or meet the needs of the people who perform the work — many of whom no longer desire a nine-to-five career.

The status quo is no longer working — and it no longer has to, if leaders are ready to radically rethink the way work is performed.

The future of work design

Work has changed dramatically over the decades, starting simply as jobs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and developing into more complex careers in the 1960s and 1990s.

The early 2000s added gig work to jobs and careers. More work was delivered through flexible arrangements as full-time work began to give way to myriad new work relationships and rising automation. Then, in the pandemic’s wake, the constructs of traditional employment began to dissolve even more rapidly. Organisations the world over were unexpectedly forced to embrace greater flexibility and accelerated digitalisation.

Given this evolution and the demand for greater agility, we need a change in how we think about work design. Designing sustainable and resilient work requires deconstructing jobs and processes into tasks and activities. This allows us to redeploy tasks to optimal work options and reconstruct new, more impactful jobs and processes while clearly understanding the implications for skills and capabilities.

Redesigning work may help resolve common challenges facing organisations around the world and across industries:

  • How can we hire enough people — and the right people — without paying more?
  • How do we make work more attractive to current and future talent?
  • How can we reduce labour costs without undergoing a reduction in force?
  • As we introduce new technology, how do we increase productivity and realise planned savings?
  • How do we effectively introduce gig talent into our business model?
  • How do we create a talent marketplace? How can we help our managers rethink how they get work done? How can work be reconstructed into projects promoted through a talent marketplace?

What’s accelerating the need for a new work model?

Trends drive transformation. A confluence of changing priorities is creating challenges and, in turn, opportunities for organisations to evolve. Let’s look at some of the global talent trends calling for a new approach to work, paving the way for organisational redesign1:
  • Employee attrition

    Thanks to the “Great Resignation,” talent attraction and retention are top of mind for executives, with 50% anticipating that their organisations will struggle to meet demand for their services and products with their current talent models. Those who say they will struggle to meet demand with current talent models are also:

    • Impacted by changing or high staff turnover/resignations (35%)
    • Seeing an increase in “quiet quitting” (32%)
    • Facing difficulty hiring the right talent, at the right price, quickly enough (29%)
  • Skills gaps
    Despite 91% of employees saying they learnt a new skill recently, 98% of companies still report significant skills gaps. HR and risk managers alike rank skills obsolescence as a top risk. Moreover, nearly half (47%) of companies still need to develop an approach for classifying skills, a critical step toward a successful skills-based talent strategy.
  • New employee priorities
    Most employees say the pandemic has caused them to rethink what’s important to them, and only two in five say their companies are meeting all their needs. People are asking new questions, such as What do I want to do with my life and career? Are my values aligned with those of the company I work for? Does this work help me fulfil my sense of purpose?
  • The democratisation of work opportunities
    The growing ability to separate work from the traditional confines of space, time and structure allows employees to access and engage in more meaningful work aligned with their goals and interests. This enhances the employee experience while increasing productivity. In fact, thriving employees are twice as likely to report feeling in control of their careers when working remotely, find pay/promotion decisions fair and equitable, and believe they have a say in the future of work.
Add these talent trends to what’s going on in the world — including skyrocketing inflation and the prioritisation of environmental, social and governance (ESG) sustainability — and it’s clear that a new mindset is needed. Organisations must create the agility necessary to retain key talent, stay competitive, meet stakeholder expectations and bring their strategies to life.

Getting on board with modern work design2:

85%

of companies are co-creating new employee experiences with their people

46%

of HR professionals say their organisations have technology platforms to ensure transparent opportunities for gig workers

> 1/3

of companies have redesigned roles as fully agile, traditional, or a blend of both or plan to do so this year

32%

of high-growth companies have flow-to-work models on the agenda for the next two years

The new currency of work

Progressive organisations will embrace today’s challenges, seeing them as opportunities to prepare for a better tomorrow. They will change how they design work — bending the demand side of the work equation to match it to available talent rather than the other way around.

To keep the workers they need, leaders tend to fall back on conventional solutions — for example, paying more. Although pay remains a key factor in why employees stay, a newer approach is to ride the momentum of post-pandemic flexibility, offering more options around where and when work is done.

Some leading organisations are going further — deconstructing jobs into tasks and skills, pulling untenable roles apart, and delivering work in an increasingly agile way. By focusing on the skills and work that are needed instead of on fixed, legacy job descriptions, these organisations will tear down the rigidity of the traditional structure. In its place, they’ll build new, malleable organisations that can deploy the right talent working in the right ways in the right places at the right time and cost. These agile organisations will be able to adapt swiftly to whatever the future brings.

Leading organisations will also be more human centric. This means focusing on attracting and retaining the right people by offering flexibility that aligns with workers’ personal and professional goals and providing plenty of options around where and when work is done.

Work design creates efficiency, agility and resilience. It helps the organisation and culture evolve to embrace the new work arrangements that will productively retain and engage talent.

Case study: Oil and gas company fuels agile, profitable work design

A major oil and gas company redesigned the work on its oil rigs to significantly improve performance and the work experience. Activities were centralised (through the use of sensors embedded in equipment so they could be monitored remotely), shifted (from permanent onsite workers to shared services teams for maintenance), augmented (through the use of AI) and eliminated (through the introduction of robotics). Automation also created new activities, such as electrical/mechanical engineering and data analytics. There was no reduction in headcount as talent was upskilled and reskilled from legacy to new activities.

By deconstructing jobs, redeploying tasks and reconstructing new jobs, the company realised a 45% improvement in profitability — just one example of the benefits of work design.

Rethinking work design: Four new principles

Redesigning work starts with transforming the way you think about work and jobs. Here’s how can you shift your mindset.

Ask:

  • What work is required to execute our business model — today and in the future?
  • What tasks and activities underpin this work? What tasks will be necessary in the future? What capabilities are needed to perform those tasks?
  • Which of our current employees have the capabilities to perform these tasks, today or with upskilling (regardless of their current jobs)?

Ask:

  • What are the elemental tasks within the job? What are the characteristics and objectives of each task?
  • What types of automation can streamline processes? Does this automation replace or augment people? What new work does it create for people?
  • What’s the optimal way to combine human and automated work across jobs and processes?

Ask:

  • What combination of traditional employment and flexible arrangements will serve you in the future?
  • How can you tap employees across your organisation for projects and assignments?
  • What is the best way to engage talent in the work (full-time jobs, gigs, freelance, project-based assignments, alliances, etc.)?

Ask:

  • Where is work changing so quickly that job descriptions, hiring, training and career paths cannot keep up?
  • Where is automation able to complete some, but not all, tasks of traditional jobs?
  • In which areas are the best candidates increasingly available on platforms or as contractors?

Work design: Three phases of action

Work can be redesigned through the following process:
  1. Deconstruct jobs
    In today’s typical organisation, work is “constructed” into job descriptions. By breaking down jobs into component tasks or projects, organisations can gain a better understanding of the work itself — what it is, why it’s needed, how it’s delivered, and who does the work and why. This process provides a clearer picture of the capabilities and skills needed to perform work and allows companies to explore how work and its underlying tasks and skills will change in the future.
  2. Redeploy tasks
    Once jobs and processes are broken down into their basic building blocks, organisations can think through how they can best be completed. By starting with the work, it’s easier to analyse and identify which tasks can be substituted or enhanced by automation and which can be performed by alternative work arrangements. Such arrangements can include gig work, internal talent marketplaces, outsourcing and shared services. This approach also provides a better understanding of the implications for cost, capability and productivity.
  3. Reconstruct work
    This requires exploring how to reorganise the work strategically, creating new and fundamentally different jobs and workflows that optimise the work options and talent available now. This rethinking enables continual reinvention of how work is done as automation options and people’s preferences change well into the future. It also enables you to understand the skills you need for a more efficient and sustainable operation.

Act now to become skills focused and future ready

Traditional jobs won’t disappear anytime soon, but they will diminish in prevalence over time — so organisations that invest in work design now position themselves to reap significant returns for years to come. Modern work design has many benefits. It boosts agility, efficiency, productivity, attraction and retention, talent visibility, optimal adoption of technology, and organisation performance. The right work operating system, combined with clarity on current and future skills needed, can make a significant difference. It can reduce time-to-fill, offer insights into emerging and declining work, and establish a flexible, scalable structure that can adapt to evolving talent trends and the many changes in the world around us.

 

1 All statistics from Mercer’s Global Talent Trends 2022–23 Study unless otherwise noted.

About the author(s)
Helen McCarthy

Principal and Global Solution Leader for Work Design, Mercer

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