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Are You Designing Work to Be Motivating and Productive?

What can organizations and leaders do to create work that is intrinsically meaningful, in such a way that people genuinely want to do the work, and become more effective and engaged in the process? Motivational Work Design offers a framework for creating a truly competitive work product.

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Jan 17, 2024
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Last updated on Dec 03, 2021

“If you want someone to do a good job, give them a good job to do.”
                                                                               ~Frederick Herzberg

What can organizations and leaders do to create work that is intrinsically meaningful, in such a way that people genuinely want to do the work, and become more effective and engaged in the process? Motivational Work Design offers a framework for creating a truly competitive work product.


A lot has happened over the last two years: The pandemic has emptied out offices and changed where and how work gets done. When employees return to the office, companies must figure out what the new normal should look like, and factor in the altered expectations of their workforce. The pandemic has also prompted many employees to ask themselves what they want and what they get from work, and those seeing a significant gap are looking for greener pastures elsewhere. It is no secret that people want more meaning in their lives, yet we often fail to include work life as part of this consideration.


The pandemic is also amplifying long running trends in the workplace: employee engagement has remained stubbornly low for the last fifteen years: according to Gallup no more than a third of the workforce is seen as engaged. And the younger generations entering the workforce seem to have a different set of expectations: they are looking for purpose and meaning; expect technology to work; demand opportunities to grow; and are quicker to change jobs if those expectations are not met.


In a tight labor market with fierce competition for top talent, the question of how we retain and attract talent has become a topic every leader struggles with – especially those in knowledge-intensive industries. In response, many are developing policies for hybrid work, revamping compensation and benefits offerings, and investing in employer branding and purpose statements. But in most cases, the response to the talent challenge fails to consider the most important variable: the design of the work itself.


When employers struggle to attract and retain talent for the jobs they are trying to fill, the underlying issue is that their offering is not competitive. Besides compensation, the biggest factor is the design of the job – the product they are trying to sell to their customer, the employee or candidate. And how we typically go about defining jobs is at the heart of the problem.

Leaders copy and paste job descriptions, organizational structures, and process designs, which is one of the reasons that the job descriptions within a certain industry or function tend to be very similar. We make design decisions based on the models that worked well in the industrial era, with specialized roles and elaborate hierarchies to manage and control how work gets done. What we fail to consider is that industrial models are ill-suited for the design of knowledge work and fail to address the fundamental psychological needs of those we want to do the job.


As humans, we want work we perceive as meaningful, autonomy to decide when and how to do it, technology and tools that enable us, and knowledge of the result – how well did we do. If these needs are addressed, we experience work as motivating, and when they are not met, it often leads to disengagement and turnover. Extensive research over the last five decades has proven this point again and again.


Identifying Opportunities

The starting point for any work design effort is to identify parts of the organization where work design could make a difference. Various survey-based tools can be used to identify specific jobs that could be improved (the tool we use can be found at www.mymojo.works) – and where these jobs are lacking in regard to the underlying drivers:


§  Autonomy: The ability to use judgment and discretion

§  Feedback: Doing the work provides feedback

§  Purpose: The outcome is very important to others

§  Entirety: Being responsible for the entire work product

§  Variety: Being able to apply a broad range of skills

§  Tech: The technology used is fit for purpose


Armed with that data, leaders can zero in on where work is broken and what is missing - and start to build the necessary leadership commitment to act.


How To Redesign Work for Impact

A work design effort requires an integrated approach that is tied to the organization’s goals and culture. Deliberately designing jobs to be intrinsically motivating is surprisingly straightforward. There are five basic principles behind a work design effort:

  1. Analyze the content of the particular job - what is done that needs to be done, and what is being done that is not. For instance, you may need to determine how to eliminate reports that no one uses.
  2. Combine tasks that fit together, creating natural work units or clusters, to create a functional work design.
  3. Create direct client relationships to generate direct feedback and increase accountability.
  4. Increase autonomy - if you give people the necessary knowledge, tools, and training to be accountable for work, then you can ‘vertically load’ some of the management responsibilities as well as tasks.
  5. Provide direct and immediate feedback. If you can get immediate feedback from doing the work itself or directly from your customers, you are much more likely to feel engaged and empowered in your role.

As work design expert John Uzzi puts it: “Drop the carrot, drop the stick. Bring meaning.”


Implementing the Design

How should you begin to implement a motivational work design model? Should it be directed from the top, or should it be a more incremental approach from the bottom up?

The answer is: The more you can engage people in developing their own design, the better. Yes, leadership needs to be involved - without buy-in, nothing will happen. But those actually doing the work must be involved and encouraged to offer their ideas and suggestions for how to redesign the work.


Cross-functional teams are useful if your organization is grouped functionally. One of the major advantages of using Work Design is that it fosters lasting institutional knowledge by engaging people in their work. As John Uzzi, a leading expert on motivation work design notes: “The more you can engage people in and the more you get them to design their own work the better. They are the people who know it. And if they don’t know they will know that. And they will tell you that and then figure out who does know it.” By doing so, people will take more responsibility for their work and stick with it longer than if it’s imposed on them. The effort becomes much more sustainable.


What Are the Benefits? 

The benefits of redesigning work to be fit for humans extends far beyond having a more engaged workforce. Direct feedback from the customer, a streamlined process, and start-to-finish ownership and accountability for the work product reduces the need for layers and layers of supervisors to coordinate work and manage performance. It also results in a better customer experience, which is especially important for service businesses.


Work design presents a unique opportunity for leaders to develop a competitive work product: jobs that are intrinsically motivating and productive. Companies that embrace work design often achieve remarkable results: Reduced turnover, improved customer satisfaction, higher productivity, and lower cost.


How Do You Know if Work Design is Right for You?

Two obvious indicators are employee turnover and customer satisfaction. Don’t start an effort like this simply to save money - do it because you want to create a better workplace and offer a higher service or product for your customers. You will probably save money along the way, but it should not be the driver.


Using a work design approach is certainly not the same for every organization. It should be tailored to its context and culture. And in many cases, it might not be appropriate, for example when the work itself is distasteful, technology drives everything, or the organization is too small.



If companies are fighting over talent, an effective work design can be a powerful weapon in their toolbox to prevent turnover. Often, the approach can help people grow into larger roles in the workplace. If done well, a work design effort can have a dramatic positive impact on people’s lives.


Meaningfulness in all aspects of our lives, doing things right, doing the right things is becoming more and more important, especially post the pandemic. Motivational Work Design provides a perfect opportunity to foster increased meaning and engagement. As many companies are questioning whether and how to bring people back to the office, the potential impact on their work and how to manage that, work design can offer a powerful framework to allow people to work more independently, foster engagement, reduce turnover, and create scalability.

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