How to harness human potential at work

Job crafting and agile principles can fix work

Work is broken. The sad reality is that many people – perhaps a majority – are not fully engaged with or energized by the work they do. Our collective search history starkly shows our dissatisfaction with work. Type “My job is…” into Google, and the autocomplete suggestions make dismal reading. The top three suggestions are that work is “making me ill”, “boring”, and “killing me”.

If we think of employees as being powered by batteries, many organizations are filled with people who have a ‘recharge’ sign flashing constantly above their heads. Intentionally or not, many leaders are designing and creating work in a way that gives people the minimum jolt needed to stop them running out, rather than exploring how they could fully charge people.

What are we getting wrong?

What are we getting so wrong in how we work and how can we course-correct? There are a number of factors which stop people from fully coming alive at work. We want to draw attention to three.

An over-reliance on control and command Many leaders continue to operate on the belief that the best results are delivered when they give clear instructions or targets to employees, and offer little latitude in terms of how employees carry out their work. This autonomy-squashing style of leadership has been persistent in organizations for over a hundred years, despite there being little evidence to suggest that it works in the long-term.

An ‘off-the-peg’ mindset

Off-the-peg is a term that commonly relates to the standardized sizing of garments in fashion retail, but it can easily be applied to jobs. When people are given jobs or tasks to do at work, they usually have little choice to personalize or shape these activities to suit them. It is the equivalent of being given a generic suit or dress to wear and simply hoping that it fits. A standardized approach doesn’t recognize or tap into individuals’ diverse strengths, experiences and backgrounds.

A focus on the thoughts of the few rather than the many

People want to work in groups, contribute and collaborate, and demonstrate their worth and value to others, but are too often denied the opportunity to do so. Most working practices assume the best ideas and the key decisions only flow downhill from senior leaders and managers.

What can we do?

All leaders can take practical steps and adopt a more human-led approach which taps into, rather than ignores, our innate desire to have our personal contribution, skills and strengths recognized at work, and which supports our need to communicate, collaborate and create. Building on research and ideas from positive psychology, positive organizational scholarship, and design-thinking, we have developed two ideas that leaders can experiment with immediately. They focus on creating a more personalized people experience, and being more agile, creative and collaborative by design.

1. Bring the personal touch to work

When people have the opportunity to personalize a product, service or experience they tend to value it more. Individuals enjoy having their own preferences, styles and personality reflected in the items they use and the things they do. Studies have shown that people also perform better when they use equipment or clothing that has been personalized.

Whilst opportunities to personalize the world around us are prevalent in much of our day-to-day lives, they are often absent in the workplace. This doesn’t have to be the case. Research indicates that a personal touch can be brought to work through the concept of ‘job crafting’. Leaders can help people craft their work by enabling and encouraging small changes in how they approach their work. These small changes can be made in five distinct, although often overlapping, areas: tasks, relationships, skills, purpose, and wellbeing.

The advantage of job crafting is that it allows people to spend more time doing work which makes the most of their talents and strengths. Research published in over 130 peer-reviewed studies indicates that job crafting is linked to a number of positive outcomes. These include a positive relationship with increased performance (individual, team and organizational), growth and development (both personal and professional) and wellbeing (in terms of health, happiness and resilience).

From a talent attraction and retention perspective, a personalized people experience can be compelling. Traditionally, many organizations have relied or focused on rewards to try to entice people to join or stay at their company; today, there is a trend for perks such as snacks and barista-style coffee on tap. But the truth is that these types of benefits only fuel internal motivation in the short-term. We quickly become accustomed to a new status quo and consequently any benefits or salaries that remain static, however high, start to diminish in value over time.

By enabling and encouraging people to personalize their work and make small iterative and continuous changes, job crafting allows people to create work that they see as an extension of who they are and the values they hold. People are less likely to give up a job that they have crafted to be better aligned with their preferences, strengths and passions. You may have experienced this yourself when you are having a clear-out at home or in the office: we tend to hold onto items and belongings that have personal significance or resonance. The same applies to our jobs.

Many leaders are suspicious about job crafting and ceding control to employees. They imagine anarchy as people tear up job roles and objectives. In reality, this is not what happens. When given the opportunity, people tend to craft their roles in small increments. Organizations can provide frameworks and guidance to encourage employees to craft their work in ways that benefit themselves individually, their colleagues and the organization as a whole.

Another way to minimize mistrust about a more personalized approach to work is to test it. Encourage colleagues to actively job craft for a month and track the results. In our experience, leaders are often surprised about the results of such experiments, in terms of both employee experience and performance.

2. Reinvent togetherness

‘Collaboration’ is one of those terms that is much bandied about by leaders, but often rings hollow – except, that is, when used as part of agile approaches to work. It is here that collective endeavours are being reinvented, giving people a vital sense of togetherness. It is the flip side of the coin to a more personalized approach to our work.

Self-directed teams of people with light-touch leadership and individual accountability can bring new life to company processes. Creative thinking can be done together, but combined with an individual desire to achieve. Agile, autonomous ‘squads’ can lift people’s endeavours beyond their previously-known capabilities.

Some leaders dismiss talk of agile working as clichéd, but de-bureaucratized work is here to stay. Agile – both as a principle and as a method of working – is making a critical difference to many organizations, and it is not only the preserve of technology firms. Especially in the unpredictable times we are now in, the goal has to be agile by design, digital by default, creative by demand, and fair by decree.

Time for change

We’ve known for some time that work was broken, but the Covid-19 crisis has brought the problem sharply into focus. For some people, jobs and work are being recalibrated in front of our eyes. Both individual endeavour and collaborative togetherness are evident among those keeping the world turning whilst so many of us are sitting still, and their efforts are to be saluted.

For the rest of us, hurriedly adapting to a much-changed world, it’s surely time to reinvent the design of work. Traditional thinking about employee commitment to work hinges largely on equations that are linked to measures of value in a financial sense; yet, as we see time and again, out-performance is actually achieved because of personal dedication and commitment, and in spite of financial considerations. When we design our work we are committed to it in ways that money simply cannot buy. The measurements we use today are under-sophisticated and do not count this type of value creation. It could be called human kilojoules; more fundamentally, we call it a sustainable source of high achievement built on individual terms.

Fuse individual enagement with the collective togetherness that comes from adopting agile principles, and it’s the perfect recipe for collective gain and organizational performance. Agile is too good to be left to the technologists: it’s the drumbeat we march to, together, in low-friction, managerless times; where experience is trumped by energy, and where procedures are rewritten for adaptive times.

Job crafting and rapidly assembled agile squads operating autonomously, aligned to bigger strategic goals, may sound like a fantasy. Yet it’s a fully realistic recipe – and it’s winning the battle for the operating system of work in the 21st century.

— Rob Baker is founder and chief positive deviant of Tailored Thinking, and author of Personalization at Work. Perry Timms is founder and chief energy officer of People and Transformational HR, and author of The Energized Workplace (both books Kogan Page, 2020)