Is poorly designed work reducing your workers’ productivity?

Posted on Jul 10, 2019

36% of millennials/Gen Z spend at least two hours of their working day on their phones, carrying out personal activities.

It’s the height of the summer and staff members are taking holidays. It may be September, or even October, before your entire team or workforce is back under the one roof.

Summer is often the time when staff members’ level of distraction is at its most obvious – but it is also the perfect time for management to tackle distraction and boredom in the workplace head-on. You can implement strategies that will stand to you for years to come.

Engagement levels

According to the Harvard Business Review (HBR) levels of engagement at work are continually low and actually declining in some parts of the world. Elite consulting roles have been labelled as “tedious” and “uninspiring”, where people are told “exactly how to do things”.

The HBR doesn’t blame staff for falling levels of engagement and rising levels of distraction. It puts it down to “poorly designed work”.

This year, the Guardian newspaper carried out an investigation into manual operations at Amazon’s warehouse. It reported that workers were being treated “worse than robots”.

Designing work

Good job design includes interesting tasks, autonomy, a decent degree of social contact with others and a tolerable level of demand on your employees’ capabilities. Without these components, especially autonomy (which is the strongest driver of employee creativity), disengagement creeps in and distraction, in the form of personal digital devices, is plentiful.

According to a survey by Udemy last year, 36% of millennials/Gen Z spend at least two hours of their working day on their phones, carrying out personal activities.

Steps to consider

In terms of meaningful action, there are several steps a manager can consider. The first one being: “don’t make the job more boring than it needs to be”.

In one study, management students in a university tended to create roles with highly repetitive and boring work, believing that such work is more efficient. This belief and action creeps into the workplace.

Make it meaningful

The goal is to add meaningful and interesting tasks to your employees’ day – from greeting visitors or helping with a quality improvement project – to increase levels of engagement. A second pitfall is the trend of managers wanting to fix the employee rather than change the job design.

Research into this phenomenon gave a scenario to participants in which a warehouse worker was failing to meet her targets. The worker ran from line to line and generally moved quickly. However, participants still chose to “blame” the employee rather than change the work design.

More than 66% of people said they would “send the worker on training”, almost 33% chose to “advise the worker to improve her physical fitness” and nearly 25% opted to “threaten to reduce her pay if she doesn’t improve her times”.

Involve workers

One way to tackle managers’ penchant for fixing the worker and not the job design is to include the latter in performance review discussions. Ask your staff about their role. What is working? What isn’t? What interests them? Where do they feel mistrusted or undervalued?

For example, if you feel an employee isn’t being innovative enough,ask them if their role offers them enough autonomy to motivate them towards creativity.

If you really want to take this seriously, you can bring in the experts. Organisational psychology is one of the fastest-growing professions in the US.

For a general introduction to design thinking, take a look at the work of Bill Burnett and Dave Evans or log on to the website of Stanford University’s and visit their d.school.

Improve well-being

It has been proven that well-designed work pays off, not just socially but economically too. With the ever-increasing role of technology in our daily lives (often being used for bad, where employees’ movements are excessively monitored), redesigning your workplace will lead to a reduction in digital distraction and an increase in engagement.

Lastly, there is a big body of evidence that well-designed work helps prevent the emergence of mental health issues.

A happy, healthy and engaged workforce is a win-win situation for both managers and their employees – and it’s never too late to start making those changes that will benefit everyone.

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