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Good Work Design

Good work requires conditions in which creativity may flourish and innovation is encouraged. A tolerance for experimentation is required because novel ideas need to be tested. For ideas to flow, those who submit the ideas must feel protected and, thus, permitted to stumble before they walk or fly. The approach is one of positive psychology because it requires teams to believe in a realm of possibility with a degree of optimism that positive change and superior performance is achievable.

This situation presents a conundrum to organisations with traditional risk-based work approaches. Looking at what to prevent (“don’t step in the puddle, Johnnie!”) is not enough to provide the stimulus to look at what can be achieved (“have fun, play, and stay dry!”), especially when considering the likelihood of nominating meaningful tasks for work improvement[1]. When I work with field staff, I find that, if encouraged, they are vested in determining efficient work methods through effective work design; injury prevention is rarely their primary motivation. The conditions that support problem-solving include jovial, high-spirited times; an urge to achieve efficiency; the need to create ease and adapt to conditions when a solution is not ready-made; or the push to formalise a “work-around” already adopted to support these drivers (and for which organisations may track “near rights” versus “near misses”[2]). Human-centred work design is a practice of invention (think engagement and inspiration) rather than just a model of prevention (even though the practice does reduce the risk for critical events – catastrophes, fatalities, disablement; and acute and cumulative injury or discomforts). It is not enough to stop at prevention. Design concepts and features should continually encourage strategic improvement across several aspects and the methods of supportive co-design are as important as the outcomes.

In my thesis, I defined good work design as[3],

“The process of identifying human opportunities and problems through inquiry and bringing people & teams together to create solutions that can be empirically demonstrated to provide robust, positive outcomes; a method of achieving prosperous human conditions” (adapted from Spirovski, 2018)[4]

Helping organisations to adopt design-thinking is a highly strategic approach to competitive trade. Design (e.g. office space, a vehicle or physical plant, or a communication and training method) should not stop with a single project submission; it should be applied continually to the tasks being performed, the equipment or systems, and with questions asked, “by whom, when, how often, and under what conditions”? This requires adaptive and agile responses but how can that occur if an organisation does not foster the sense of efficacy required to affect change in a profound manner among its people? This means that all persons involved in and with the organisation must be invited to participate at some time and in some capacity. Their voice should be deemed important because (supported) involvement equates to engagement.

I have had a state contracting manager reveal to me his absolute truth when he said, “Luv (Australian vernacular for the equivalent of “Darling”), if there were anything remaining in the world to invent, why hasn’t it been invented yet?”. That, to me, was a statement of a great divide. My jaw was slack with a realisation that a) I would not know how to get out of bed in the morning if I did not think optimistically and believe that design of good things was possible, knowing that a new idea may keep me buoyant and dancing on my toes; and b) what I am communicating about good work (or product) design may have to be digested in very small bite-sized pieces among key decision makers: we are not all singing from the same hymn sheet and education is required.

Even if the adoption of design-thinking and a generalised approach to good work sounds reasonable among work teams, I am often asked, “but how is it enacted”? With so much “traffic” about the next-best programs that optimise performance in organisations (and the organic nature of organisations is highly complex), I encourage the concept of simplification via a three-pronged, human-centred approach:

1)  Identification and analysis of the hierarchical nature of tasks – related tools, equipment, and human interface; temporal aspects (seasonal flow or episodic task performance), and conditions in which the tasks occur (environmental or organisational requirements). The analysis should include the physical and cognitive aspects and the human factors approach required of the work;

2)  Identification and analysis of capital equipment and plant that has a lifecycle of significance in the business, with a view to considering the human interface with such equipment or facilities;

3)  Identification of the touch-points associated with the lifecycle of the worker, from hire to retire and every structural event affecting employee engagement via their experience with fundamental work requirements (induction, training, mentoring, supervision, communication, meeting requirements, promotion, secondment, injury experience, remuneration and industrial support, termination or departure, or similar).

Once this knowledge bank is developed via a detailed task-based case library that is relevant to the employee-lifecycle, then design concepts and features can be applied. Importantly, this approach can unify business strategy. In this model, every business unit should have access to the case-based task library and understand the opportunities for improvement (from their vantage point) as well as the risks associated with current practice. Through an integrated and concerted approach, efforts should be made to continually improve task performance with business targets established around this. Through task re-design, the wellbeing manager can provide the psychological measures to evaluate the levels of engagement associated with participatory, co-design approaches; the safety managers can provide the measures of risk reduction for adverse events; the finance teams can contribute to calculations of return on investment and cost-benefit; and the workforce strategists, for example, can track how a task has been developed to provide for greater participation among women and older workers (a “design for diversity” strategy to enact inclusivity practices). For example, I introduced the Occupational Perspective of Health in my thesis[5] to provide a framework for design concepts in organisations. Refer to the scenario provided below about the design (or re-design) of just one task that satisfies several conditions along this spectrum.

Sample design effort to improve ease (reduce exertion and exposure) required of a task such as industrial field-based lab sampling soil tests (An ergonomist is a good candidate to champion these efforts)

CONCEPT: Risk reduction (e.g. through less exposure in high-risk, heavily trafficked environments, isolated from heavy mobile plant)

ELEMENTS: Catastrophe – fatality – disablement – injury (cumulative and acute) – and discomfort

TEAMS: Safety, including critical control focus teams; operations; procurement (through equipment specification); engineering (e.g. mechanical and resilience engineers); capital expenditure managers

CONCEPT: Personal Improvement (e.g. through opportunities to sit/stand/walk and solve manageable problems)

ELEMENTS: Comfort and conditioning (physical and cognitive/neurophysiological)

TEAMS: Wellness teams, and health and safety

CONCEPT: Value (by reducing time involvement or the number of staff required to complete a task, or producing more output)

ELEMENTS: Profitability and efficiency

TEAMS: Continuous quality/business improvement, finance teams, operations

CONCEPT: Togetherness

ELEMENTS: Social inclusion – engagement and participation – business unit integration – industry liaison

TEAMS: Workforce strategy, training, continuous quality improvement


ELEMENTS: Sustainability (business practice and environment)

TEAMS: Environment and quality teams

Imagine shedding layers of complexity among business units and sharing a level of focus – effective task design and redesign throughout the lifecycle of workers (operators, maintainers, administrators, support teams, and leadership). Each business unit states design concepts and features of importance and commits to these through positive performance targets; a design champion (or a team of champions) facilitates the design processes; decision-analytics are transparent and reflect design targets; and design outcomes are measured,