Simplifying Jobs Can Complicate Results

By Kathy Gurchiek Oct 3, 2007

Simple is not always better.

A new study suggests that trying to increase efficiency by simplifying job responsibilities might lead to lower job satisfaction and, ultimately, lower productivity.

Work design has a large impact on worker attitudes and behaviors, and decreased productivity and increased turnover might offset many of the cost savings corporate America hopes to achieve, says Stephen E. Humphrey, assistant professor of management in the College of Business at Florida State University.

Humphrey specializes in organizational behavior and HR management; he collaborated on the study, which appeared in the September 2007 issue of Journal of Applied Psychology.

People need to pay attention, he says, to the potential long-term negative outcomes for their organization.

“While we can get efficient today … in a year if you simplify these jobs too much, you’re going to have too much turnover and productivity losses … that you will not have gained anything” and perhaps will suffer from it, he said.

Taking a complex job and breaking it down into individual components is not limited to manufacturing-type jobs.

“You’re doing that now in white-collar jobs, too. … You’re not doing the full range of jobs and tasks you used to do,” he told SHRM Online.

“When you really compartmentalize a job … you may not have a lot of interaction in a meaningful way with other people, [and those employees] probably don’t see connections to find ways” to improve how they work, he said.

The study by Humphrey, Michigan State University (MSU) professor Frederick P. Morgeson and MSU doctoral student Jennifer D. Nahrgang analyzed the effects that work design has on employee attitudes and productivity.

“In a globally competitive marketplace, companies are trying to introduce efficiencies wherever they can to improve their financial performance for stockholders,” Humphrey said in a press release.

“One way they do that is by designing, or redesigning, jobs to make them more narrowly focused on specific tasks. While this may improve productivity in the short term, it appears to create a new set of problems in the longer term,” such as dissatisfied employees. Over time, the researchers say, workers will perform at a lower level and have higher stress levels.

The study summarizes the results of more than 40 years of earlier research, made up of 259 studies and nearly 220,000 workers in analyzing the effects work design has on employee attitudes and productivity.

The researchers focused on how individuals, not teams, react to how their work is designed, and looked at four social characteristics of work:

  • Interdependence, or dealing with others on a task.
  • Availability of feedback from organizational members providing performance information.
  • Social support, or the extent to which a job provides opportunities to receive assistance and advice from supervisors or co-workers.
  • The extent to which a job requires workers to communicate with people, such as suppliers or customers, outside the organization.

Among key findings:

  • Simplifying tasks usually led to lower performance ratings and reduced worker satisfaction.
  • More autonomy on the job was linked to better performance, higher satisfaction and less exhaustion.
  • People who work interdependently had better performance ratings, greater work and organizational satisfaction, lower stress, and lower turnover intentions.
  • Frequent feedback from others increased employee job satisfaction, increased performance, reduced stress and reduced intentions to leave the employer.
  • A socially supportive workplace was related to greater job satisfaction and lower feelings of exhaustion, and it strongly reduced the likelihood of workers wanting to leave the job.

There is clear evidence, the study says, that “there are multiple options for redesigning work to achieve certain work outcomes.”

Humphrey pointed to computer programming, data entry and call center operations as examples of job functions that many U.S. workers used to perform that now are sent overseas or contracted out to other U.S. companies specializing in those areas.

“The employees who used to perform these tasks often find themselves either out of a job or in one that is less challenging and less fulfilling,” he said in a press release.

However, organizations that focus on providing job flexibility, opportunities for social interaction and feedback on performance “can produce highly performing, highly satisfied workers who have low levels of stress, anxiety and burnout, and who are uninterested in searching for greener pastures.”

Autonomy and social support were the two best predictors of job satisfaction, according to the paper.

While more autonomy might not always be feasible—it can increase training requirements and compensation—“increasing social support does not have these negative trade-offs,” the study says.

“The most important thing is that [workers] find ways to interact. Fun ways are a plus,” Humphrey said.

He also emphasized the importance of teamwork.

“I can’t advocate that enough. Do teamwork in a smart way. … Instruct them in a way that members want to be in that team,” and be thoughtful in assembling it.

Telecommuting’s effect on the social aspects of work, though, concerns Humphrey. He urges employers to use caution, and employ creativity, when implementing it.

“What [our research] suggests to me [is that] if you work a lot from home, you are going to be less satisfied with your job” because of a lack of social interaction.

“You lose a lot of the other aspects of work, the informal socialization. Those social aspects of work are a better predictor of work satisfaction than autonomy, job complexity, the variety of tasks you perform,” he told SHRM Online.

“I think it’s going to be really important for organizations to view this, to monitor this, to make sure people are not getting lost by working from home,” he said of telecommuting.

He suggests setting up co-working situations where there is a shared workspace, such as satellite offices, instead of working from home, for employees who telecommute a great deal.

Ultimately, pay attention, he tells employers, “to the long-term outcomes of your decisions.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News . She can be reached at

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