Reprinted with permission from the BC Human Resources Management Association's PeopleTalk magazine, Winter Issue, 2003

Work design methods: Think balloons, not boxes

Today’s jobs need room to expand and change, not stay rigidly defined (balloons, not boxes). Find out how new work design methods can transform your workplace.


After his company restructured, operations manager Dave Green (fictional name) needed to re-think the jobs in his department to reflect new duties. However, he dreaded having to rewrite outdated, seven-page job descriptions. With so many rapid work changes ahead, he knew that he'd probably be back at the drawing board in a few months, addressing further job redefinitions.

Imagine Green's relief when he learned that his company was introducing new, streamlined role profiles that would provide increased flexibility for managers. He just needed to articulate his new business needs, and an HR advisor would help design the work and translate those needs into the role profile model. Dave quickly established role clarity for his staff and enjoyed partnering with human resources staff on this work design process.

Role clarity has emerged as a key factor in helping people understand how individual efforts contribute to company success. An organization can also design its work to support business strategies, optimize the use of resources, and provide a consistent platform from which to launch other HR activities.

Today’s dynamic businesses require a fresh work design approach that ensures flexibility in an environment of constant change. In recent years, delivering both role clarity and flexibility has generated a challenge for human resource professionals as strategic business partners. Do your existing work design methods position you to support current business and people strategies?

Today’s businesses need flexible models

In the new business age, organizations must evolve to address a constant stream of change resulting from mergers, acquisitions, growth, service expansion, restructuring and more. To that end, many organizations have redesigned their structures to reflect flatter, de-layered models that facilitate flexibility. After all, with less bureaucracy and fewer management layers, workers are closer to the decision-makers. That way, an organization can address shifting customer demands and competitive pressures with greater responsiveness.

Yet, many companies still try to apply traditional job design methods to today’s business reality. Guess what? It won’t work. The two worlds don’t fit. Conventional job descriptions capture details of every task and how to perform them, producing an unwieldy, manual-like document. During an era of stability and long-term continuity, this approach proved acceptable; such a document might have stayed useful for five years or more.

Today, however, this outmoded approach works against business strategies built around organizational flexibility. Due to today’s fast-evolving work, a traditional job description will likely prove redundant after only a few months. Meanwhile, since constant changes affect the details of these job descriptions, more employees want their jobs re-evaluated.

Clearly defined roles essential in performance-based cultures

Some organizations have grown frustrated with the whole notion of job descriptions and have placed their upkeep on the back burner. Yet, without an effective work design solution, roles and responsibilities can remain fuzzy and undefined. This proves unacceptable at a time when many organizations are strategizing to move to a more performance-based culture -- clearly defined roles are essential. A role profile can extend an employee’s line of sight; it allows individuals to see how their daily work supports business goals and contributes to an organization’s success.

A first strategy to improve performance is to clearly outline the role and expectations with employees, says Mark Alexander of the MacB Group in a recent Canadian HR Reporter article. In the book Designing Dynamic Organizations, authors Galbraith, Downey and Kates say, “Probably no other design activity is as important to the employees in an organization [as work design]. Most assessments find some level of confusion over roles, responsibilities, and work. Time spent on clarifying roles early on will pay off exponentially later.”

New jobs, like balloons, can expand or contract

Today’s dynamic business environment requires a streamlined job-profile model that captures the essence of a role, but doesn’t limit the document’s shelf life with unnecessary detail. “The traditional job can be compared to a box that defined what a person did and how he or she did it,” says Sandra Weeks of Human Resources Partners Inc. in WorldatWork Journal (vol. 11, no. 4). “The shape of the new job is like a balloon. It can expand and grow or contract. Like the balloon, the new job has a core list of accountabilities that must be done, but not a prescribed task list on how to achieve the accountabilities.”

Unlike traditional job descriptions, role profiles are refined to target the essence of why a role exists. “Organizational roles are defined by two dimensions: outcomes and responsibilities,” according to Galbraith, Downey and Kates. “The role description is not intended to list every task and activity. Rather, it defines what is unique and different in each role and the value it is expected to provide the organization.”

Role profiles can allow an opportunity to merge functions previously described as separate jobs. With detailed tasks and activities removed, distinct jobs often share common ground and can be blended into a single profile. This can increase flexibility and better use of resources through lateral opportunities: managers can more easily move people around within a broader role without having to formally appoint them to different jobs.

Tips on what HR can do

What can HR practitioners do to support current business and people strategies through work design methods? Play an active role. Develop an up-to-date work design program that will ease the burden traditionally placed on line managers. Follow these key recommendations:

  • Develop a work design process that positions HR in a consulting role with the opportunity for early intervention. Human resources staff need to be proactive advisors at the front end of work design activities.

  • Design a data collection questionnaire to gather role-based information from managers and job incumbents. A well-designed questionnaire can typically capture the necessary information, both for role profiles and the work valuing process, in a few pages. The questionnaire relieves managers and incumbents of trying to write the “perfect” job description and allows them to concentrate on articulating the business need instead.

  • Design a role profile model that HR practitioners can apply as a guideline for the consistent development of flexible, streamlined work definitions. The profile should state why the role exists (i.e. what contribution it makes to the organization). You can capture accountabilities/outcomes in single statements.

  • Highlight only the unique requirements needed to perform the work competently. If a profile exceeds more than one or two pages, you’ve got too much detail. Go back and edit, consolidate and refine. Some organizations are applying an aggressive model that captures the essence of the role in only a few paragraphs.

  • Let the profile serve as a cornerstone for other HR activities. The profile is not a performance plan, learning and development plan, or a recruitment strategy. It will, however, serve as a consistent platform from which to develop these plans and strategies.

  • Focus on the business need. Human resources staff have a tremendous opportunity to translate the business need into a profile model that applies company wide and fits the organization’s “big picture.”

  • Perform work design in context. Design each role to reflect its contribution and alignment with overall organizational goals.