What coal mining can teach you about job design

RSA chief executive Matthew Taylor says we ignore the social element of work at our peril.

by Matthew Taylor
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2019

Managers need to think more deeply about job design. In doing so they can learn from when the UK led the world.

A recent Carnegie Trust report on measuring job quality identifies seven dimensions of good work. Among predictable factors, including pay and benefits and work-life balance, is job design and nature of work, a category that includes use of skills, control and opportunities for progression and sense of purpose.

Improving the design of jobs is becoming an important issue for many organisations and managers. I like to think this reflects the greater awareness of work quality, which has developed since my own Good Work report to the government.

But there are more concrete reasons. In areas like law and management consultancy, firms report that new recruits have higher demands and higher expectations of work quality. The idea that employees should sacrifice their values and well-being in their 20s and 30s to reach the safe harbour of senior management or partner status by early middle-age seems less compelling to late millennials than it was to their parents.

Another factor is technology. Among the more thoughtful analyses of the impact of big data, AI and robotics, it is recognised that, while many jobs may ultimately be lost, a larger number will remain but change: after all, most jobs involve multiple tasks with varying scope for automation. RSA research on economic insecurity found that, among workers, a bigger worry than redundancy was work intensification and loss of control.

This is not only an issue for workers. The RSA has also explored public attitudes to AI and automated decision systems. Citizens have major misgivings about these. They want to know there are humans in the loop, that someone can be held accountable and that their data is being used responsibly.

Taking job design more seriously is an important step. But good design involves a range of factors, not all of which necessarily align. There is, for example, a growing body of research which suggests that, in comparison to the general workforce, gig workers enjoy high job satisfaction and well-being. This reflects the greater control offered by platforms that allow people to choose their working hours and, to an extent, location.

However, the scope for skill development and progression – other important dimensions of good job design – are very limited for platform workers. As this suggests, people want different things from their jobs so, while we can identify the factors that are most important at an aggregate level, employers need to be sensitive to employees’ different expectations and priorities.

Lessons from the pit

If the debate about job design does grow, we should learn from our important but largely forgotten heritage in the field. There was a time when the UK was a world leader. Based on work undertaken with the National Coal Board during and after the Second World War, researchers at London’s Tavistock Institute developed the concept of "socio-technical systems".

Their work was a response to the fact that modernisation in the mines often led to a drop in productivity and increased absenteeism. Researchers including Fred Emery, a pioneer in organisational development, identified the decline of worker engagement and satisfaction among the explanatory factors.

The Tavistock approach encouraged managers to think of the social and technical aspects of work together, a strategy of "joint optimisation". Key principles for productive job design included the right levels of teamwork and autonomy, the satisfaction that comes from undertaking a whole task and the meaningfulness of tasks. The socio-technical approach was influential in the UK but more so in Scandinavia.

The movement ran out of steam partly because the impressive outcomes of socio-technical design experiments were rarely sustained. But in an age of widespread collective bargaining, it also reflected the ambivalence of managers and trade unions; was the approach about improving the lot of workers or making management more efficient?

Tavistock’s approach was, in some ways, corrective to the time-and-motion approach developed earlier in the US. But in the 1970s and 80s the rise of neo-liberalism brought a narrower focus on efficiency and the assumption that the most powerful managerial incentives were financial.

As technology transforms the labour market and workplace, we could do a lot worse than learn from the thoughtful and humanistic socio-technical approach. Different attitudes among employers and staff may offer a more conducive environment than the often adversarial workplaces of the 1950s and 60s.

Rather than job design being a distraction from the bottom line, it can be part of how organisations make themselves fit for purpose in the modern world. After all, in a phrase that reflects some of the principles of the Tavistock researchers, the futurist and designer Charles Leadbeater describes some of the world’s most innovative organisations as "creative communities with a cause".

Another important lesson from a movement that began by observing coal miners is that good job design is not just about recruiting and retaining talent; it can make an even bigger difference to the experience and productivity of lower-skilled and lower-paid workers.

Image credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

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