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Tuesday 16 January 2018

First published in The Public Professional, Issue 2, July 2016

Dr Sarah-Jane Cullinane is an Assistant Professor in HRM and Organisational Behaviour in Trinity Business School in Trinity College Dublin. She completed her PhD in Dublin City University Business School and holds a BA in Sociology and Psychology from University College Cork and a MBS in Human Resource Management from Dublin City University. Her research interests lie primarily in the area of employee well-being at work (e.g. work engagement, burnout and workaholism), and her research explores how jobs are designed by managers and crafted by employees to promote the quality of working life across both the public and private sectors. Find out more about Sarah-Jane here.

The idea of a job description that is set in stone and designed by management is quickly becoming a thing of the past. As people’s expectations of what they want to get from their work or career are changing, so too are the ways they think about their job. Traditionally, when people became unhappy at work they tended to consider two options: to grimly stick it out – an option that often leads to burnout – or to move job or organisation in search of a better fit. Rarely would an alternative third option have been considered, which involves making significant changes to their current job to make it more personally meaningful, what is now known as “job crafting”. People often tend to disregard this option as they are unable to see any opportunity for change or they are concerned about resistance from their manager, or potential repercussions such as being seen as a “trouble-maker” or “rocking the boat”. However, as the labour market continues to recover and job mobility is back on the rise, it is in the interests of employers who wish to retain their staff to facilitate and encourage their employees to mould their job to best suit their needs. Research now tells us that when people can “craft” their job, they are happier, more engaged and more productive. It is therefore important for managers to understand what job crafting entails, what the advantages of job crafting are, how it can be encouraged by managers, and any potential downsides it might bring to the team or organisation.

What is job crafting?

Job crafting is a proactive behaviour where individuals change the task, relational or cognitive boundaries of their work (Wrzesniewski & Dutton, 2001). It includes activities such as redefining the scope of work responsibilities, altering work procedures, and seeking out new work relationships. The interesting and surprising thing about job crafting is that it is not limited to specific job types or professional roles. Research on job crafting began with a study in 2001 by researchers from University of Michigan and Yale which looked at how hospital janitors adapted their work to make it more meaningful and interesting. The study’s respondents saw themselves as a member of the professional healing team and, as a result, took it upon themselves to get to know patients and families, to rearrange furniture or room décor to help support patient’s recovery or to work their schedules to complement the schedules of the health care teams. Since then, interest in job crafting research has expanded to various types of jobs and sectors including business and financial, industry, health and welfare and governmental organisations, showing that it is relevant to all organisational contexts. Another interesting feature of job crafting is that it is not a once-off phenomenon that people enact in an attempt to make their job better. Rather, it is a dynamic and ongoing process that evolves on a daily basis, where people continuously play with the boundaries of their job. To reflect this, much of the research on job crafting is conducted using daily diary studies where employees rate their job crafting activities, their work engagement and other features of their job for that day.

What makes job crafting different to other types of work-related proactive behaviours, like initiative or citizenship behaviour, is that it is self-oriented. By crafting their job, people try to revise the meaning of their work and to change their work identity regardless of its usefulness for the team or organisation. So, although it has proven benefits for the team and company, the purpose of job crafting is not about problem-solving, improving efficiency or serving organisational goals but instead serving one’s own individual needs and preferences. This dialogue however is not one which always sits comfortably with managers, as encouraging employees to care for their own needs before the needs of the team or company might be considered as counterproductive and unsustainable. However, extensive research on these activities shows that there is no trade-off between the personal well-being gained through job crafting and work productivity. In fact, a number of recent studies have shown how job crafting activities, including asking for feedback and advice or looking for learning opportunities in the job, leads to higher engagement and higher performance in the form of helping others in the team and coming up with creative ideas (Demerouti, Bakker & Halbesleben, 2015; Demerouti, Bakker & Gevers, 2015). However, despite these benefits, not all job crafting activities are considered to be beneficial or productive. A group of researchers in the Netherlands who created valid tools to measure job crafting have examined three specific types of crafting activities that employees might engage in at work. These are: seeking resources (e.g. feedback, learning opportunities, or new relationships), seeking challenges (e.g. additional responsibility or tasks), and reducing hindrances (e.g. emotional or physical intensity of work) (Tims, Bakker & Derks, 2012). As previously mentioned, activities where employees seek resources and challenges have positive consequences, both personally, in terms of improved well-being, and for the team. However, studies have found that when people try to reduce the hindrances and demands in their job, this can lead to lower engagement, lower productivity and less creativity (Demerouti, Bakker & Halbesleben, 2015; Demerouti, Bakker & Gevers, 2015). Examples of reducing hindrances could involve avoiding the physically demanding tasks in their jobs such as heavy lifting, or emotionally demanding tasks such as dealing with difficult customers or clients. By reducing these demands, this can create new work for colleagues in the team, which can often lead to group conflict, particularly when members of a group work very closely together. It is therefore important for managers to understand the difference between productive and counterproductive job crafting activities so they can encourage those through which employees can thrive.

How is it done?

So how can managers encourage employees to engage in “productive” forms of job crafting? Although research on how to facilitate job crafting is still emerging, a number of studies have had interesting findings to help us understand what type of work environment is conducive to crafting and what types of people tend to craft more. For example, a recent study by researchers in Germany found that employees were more likely to craft their job if they had substantial work experience and felt the need to create or maintain a positive self-image (Niessen, Weseler & Kostova, 2016). This means that those who have worked longer for the organisation are more socially integrated and accepted and therefore have the confidence to change their tasks. Therefore managers should be mindful of this for newer employees who may feel restricted in their opportunities for job crafting and might need some encouragement or coaching. Other research has shown that when employees have higher levels of control over how they do their work, they are more likely to implement changes to their job (Leana, Appelbaum & Shevchuk, 2009; Petrou, Demerouti, Peeters, Schaufeli, & Hetland, 2012). This often goes hand-in-hand with the skill level of the role, whereby, unfortunately only those in highly-skilled, highly-paid jobs are given the opportunity to craft their job. This is a restriction that can however be addressed by managers. For example, a recently published study in Norway found that when employees have a heavy workload, they will only take the opportunity to craft their job if they feel competent in their ability to adapt to difficult situations at work and if they have a leader who is flexible and comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty (Solberg & Wong, 2016). Related to this, recent research also shows that employees imitate each other’s job crafting behaviour. A study across a number of European countries looking at pairs of employees working in the same team found that employees are more likely to craft their job and feel engaged at work when their colleagues also job craft (Bakker, Rodriguez-Munoz, & Sanz Vergel, 2016).

In conclusion, it is important to acknowledge that job holders are neither completely passive nor solely individually instrumental in designing the job, and that the various local actors (i.e. the job holder, their supervisor and peers) are all active agents in the process of job design. As job crafting is not an activity that can be done under the instruction of a manager, managers should instead create more flexible jobs and roles that allow employees to negotiate the opportunity to change their job content. For example, this can be done by involving employees in creating their own job descriptions and maintaining ongoing open dialogues about the nature of their work (i.e. responsibilities, learning opportunities, building relationships etc.). Such opportunity to actively mould their job allows employees to experience greater meaning and purpose in their work resulting in higher job commitment and therefore reducing turnover for managers.

PAI’s Annual HR Conference:
Leadership through challenge and change in the public sector – supporting cultural change with effective Human Resource Management

At the PAI Annual HR Conference in Dublin on Wednesday 31 January, Dr Cullinane will discuss creating a culture of continuous growth in your organisation.

For more information about the conference, or to book, visit our dedicated webpage, HRCon.pai.ie

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