The future of job design

Automation promises to eliminate mundane, repetitive labor. What will we do with the extra time?

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For nearly two centuries, managers have been conspiring to make work dull. The trend began during the Industrial Revolution, when repetitive work in mechanized factories started to replace artisanal labor in craft-based workshops. Starting in the late 1800s, Frederick Taylor became the world’s most influential management theorist by showing that companies could boost productivity in a big way if they broke down work into a set of standardized, repeatable processes.

Time and motion studies pushed Taylor’s scientific management principles even further, allowing managers to optimize work processes by dividing them into ever-smaller increments. And in 1913, Henry Ford opened the world’s first moving assembly line at his Model T factory in Highland Park, Michigan. Instead of moving around a workshop, performing varied tasks, workers stood still and did the same thing over and over.

From a productivity standpoint, this was a genius move: The time needed to assemble a Model T shrank from more than 12 hours to two hours and 30 minutes. Mass production created many good-paying jobs for semi-skilled workers. It also pushed down the cost of goods, allowing those workers to provide middle class lifestyles for their families. The price of this prosperity was that work became synonymous with mindless drudgery.

Man meets machine

In 1917, the American psychologist G.G. McChesney published a seminal article titled “The psychology of efficiency.” He argued that treating workers like machines was fundamentally inhumane, and called for a more human-centered approach to job design: “Is there no inspiration in labor? Must the man who works go on forever in a deadly routine, fall into the habit of mechanical nothingness, and reap the reward of only so much drudgery and so much pay? I think not. The times demand an industrial prophet who will lift industry off from its rusted, medieval hinges and put pure human interest, and simple, free-spirited life into modern workmanship.”

Since then we’ve seen many efforts to bring humanity back into job design. In 1933, the Australian psychologist and management theorist Elton Mayo published The Human Problems of an Industrialized Civilization, a critique of Taylor’s scientific management that stressed the importance of human relationships in organizations. Mayo’s work inspired the discipline of human relations, which argued that managers should help workers adapt to industrial production by taking emotional and cultural factors into account.

From a psychological perspective, “good” jobs generally feature autonomy and creativity, while “bad” jobs are more about repetitive labor. All over the world, companies are investing billions in digital transformation projects designed to make workers more productive by eliminating rote, repetitive tasks. In theory, reducing mundane work should free up time for all of us to do more strategic work that creates value for companies and meaning for employees.

Wanted: good job designers

Many companies don’t know how to design engaging jobs. Although employment in the United States is at record lows, only 33% of American workers are engaged at work, according to Gallup’s most recent State of the American Workplace report. A recent study in the Journal of Applied Psychology (JAP) found that 45% of HR managers, when asked to write ideal job descriptions for new full-time roles, designed the job to be even more boring by packing the description with tedious, repetitive chores.

In an era of increasingly intelligent machines, companies will need to design jobs that play to human strengths like creativity, sociability, and leadership. In their study of HR and safety professionals, the JAP researchers found people were far more likely to design enriching jobs if they had open life values, expertise in work design, and high autonomy in their own jobs. McChesney’s industrial prophet could already be among us.