Design Work to Help Employees Be Responsive

October 06, 2020

Contributor: Jackie Wiles

Today’s business conditions demand responsiveness, but employees increasingly have to “hack” their work to get it done. Work design must change to build resilience.

Adaptive strategy-setting has become the norm for today’s fast-changing times, but organizations can’t capture its benefits without equally responsive execution. It’s a problem, then, that many of today’s organizational structures, workflows, role designs and networks can’t flex with rapidly evolving conditions, because work design has for years focused primarily on efficiency, not resilience. 

Future-forward work design is what’s needed to ensure employees can be responsive — that is, in sync with customer needs, in a position to anticipate changes in those needs, and able to adapt their approach and activities accordingly. It’s up to HR leaders to rethink work design strategies to unlock responsiveness at scale across the workforce and build organizational resilience.

“ Two-thirds of employees are hacking their work to get around work friction”

Why work design matters

Why does employee responsiveness matter so much? Because senior leaders have learned from COVID-19 experience that adaptability is key. Organizations must be able to flex with whatever disruption comes along — from sudden shocks like the pandemic to transformative business strategies, such as accelerated digital initiatives

“Gartner research shows many employees want to be responsive, and believe they know how to be, but a huge amount of work ‘friction’ stands in the way,” says Cian O Morain, Director, Gartner. “We found that two-thirds of employees are hacking their work to get around these obstacles, and that’s costing organizations time, money and energy.”

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Workarounds grow common for routine tasks

Work friction — which results from misaligned work design, overwhelmed teams, trapped resources and rigid processes — accounts for two-thirds of unrealized workforce responsiveness.

Employees exert significant effort working around rigid work design, in ways that add risk, waste time and harm retention. Gartner research shows that these employee hacks generate 3.1 million wasted hours every year for the average 10,000-employee organization.

Gartner research shows two-thirds of employees are hacking their work to get around poor work design.

Align work design with how work gets done

Gartner research shows that responsive teams are more engaged and overperform when it comes to customer satisfaction, profit, productivity and innovation. A key driver of their responsiveness is alignment between the way work is designed and the way work happens.

“ In fast-changing conditions, work design can quickly become highly misaligned with the way work really happens”

When the two diverge, employees describe the disconnect with complaints like “I’ve had to create processes for my job where none existed,” or “I don’t understand why my business unit is structured in the way that it is.”

Most organizations overhaul work design episodically, but in fast-changing conditions, work design can quickly become highly misaligned with the way work really happens. To close that gap, it’s more effective to make smaller ongoing adjustments to work design. 

Gartner research shows ongoing adjustments lead to an 11% increase in workforce responsiveness and drive 11% more employees to exert high discretionary effort. The best way for HR to ensure that regular adjustments take place is to embed them into broader ongoing talent activities for which they’re already the advocates. 

Help employees be as responsive as they want to be

Gartner research also shows that while about 90% of employees report having the skills and mindset needed to adopt agile ways of working, less than 40% are actually working responsively. 

To unlock responsiveness, HR needs to remove current sources of friction from work design. 

Gartner offers solutions for three major work design problems that keep employees from being responsive and productive.

When teams are overwhelmed

Clarify work design boundaries to prioritize effort by defining impact based on outcomes, not inputs.

Most organizations are designed to maximize the capacity of their workforce. They ensure that employees master their skills by creating specialized roles and grouping people together by tasks. They then push more and more specialized information, connections and tasks to these employees. Overwhelmed by those demands, employees become less connected and responsive to the needs and wants of customers.   

“ Design work to prioritize the effort of employees toward the highest-value tasks”

Instead, focus on outcomes so that you can design work to prioritize the effort of employees toward the highest-value tasks, connections and information. Be sure to clarify the desired outcomes, not the inputs, and define the minimum inputs needed to make a decision. This approach prevents misplaced effort on high-input, low-output work and ensures that talent is aligned with the most critical business deliverables.

Some progressive organizations even clarify the boundaries of organizational structures around value outcomes. For example, they define product management structures by how the products are consumed, not how they are produced or the functionality they offer.

When resources are trapped

Move resource decisions closer to the end user by devolving decision making and unbundling resources. This prevents managers from defaulting to what they’re familiar with and provides frontline employees with more sense of ownership over resources. It also makes resources more mobile — assuming you also unbundle existing buckets of resources to give employees a real choice over how they’re used.

When processes are too rigid

Formalize how processes can flex to enable employees to work more autonomously. Proceed with consent rather than waiting for consensus to speed up decision making and ensure risky or innovative ideas don’t get diluted by a risk-averse consensus. You can also offer a third decision option — “safe to try” — which allows wary stakeholders to greenlight a trial. 

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