The end of jobs? Unveiling the paradoxes of job deconstruction

Companies are experimenting with job deconstruction, breaking down traditional roles into tasks that can be flexibly aligned with employees’ talents. But there is a risk of increasing worker alienation and eroding engagement.

Philip Rogiers

Job deconstruction has been heralded as the future of work, with benefits for employees and organizations alike. Breaking down jobs into tasks and projects and matching them with the knowledge, skills, and abilities of workers has been praised as both individually rewarding and business-boosting. 

But research from Esade’s Philip Rogiers and David G. Collings from Trinity Business School suggests that job deconstruction can sometimes increase worker alienation and reduce their engagement with the work at hand. 

The research, published in the Academy of Management Perspectives, identifies three key paradoxes prevalent in deconstructed jobs. However, the authors say that the system can provide multiple benefits to workers if it is developed with appropriate protections.  

Employee marketplace 

Changing labor market conditions and the Covid-19 pandemic have seen a rise in on-demand work arrangements. Gig work, in which the worker is paid per task and assumes responsibility for its completion, can provide individuals with flexibility and autonomy over their workload. 

Organizations are applying lessons learned from gig work to create their own internal marketplaces

However, these arrangements can also leave workers vulnerable to labor violations and work insecurity. But despite research reporting increasing levels of loneliness and precariousness among gig workers, it continues to gain popularity. Organizations are increasingly borrowing from this system to create their own internal marketplaces, with employees taking on tasks according to their skillset.  

Some organizations, including Google, operate internal marketplaces where workers can take on tasks or projects in addition to their usual roles to widen their experience. Others, such as online shoe retailer Zappos, operate within a structure that does away with traditional roles altogether.  

More than the sum of their tasks

The traditional work model dictates that to be meaningful, jobs should offer variety and complexity. Work groups, boundaries and hierarchies all contribute to the lived experience of work and create an identity associated with the job. Individuals understand their contribution to the success of an organization, providing motivation and driving productivity. 

Reducing jobs to specific tasks – particularly if deconstruction initiatives are poorly designed – can create a culture in which individuals are seen as little more than a tool to complete a task. According to Rogiers and Collings, this can result in downsides for workers that outnumber the benefits of job deconstruction. 

Job deconstruction risks creating a culture in which individuals are seen as little more than tools

The researchers have grouped these clashes into three groups that highlight the thin line between empowerment and displacement. As well as identifying these paradoxes, Rogiers and Collings have suggested appropriate guardrails that will protect workers’ interests and benefit both employer and employee. 

Fighting for control

The first paradox relates to agency and control. Workers in deconstructed roles have choice over their activities and can select aspects of work they enjoy while avoiding others. However, tension is created when managers attempt to retain control with rigid rules, procedures and timelines – leaving less work discretion for employees in a deconstructed job system. 

A marketplace structure, in which employees are encouraged to apply for as many jobs as they like, can normalize a culture of overwork and blur the lines between routine jobs and optional extras.  

For work that relies on a knowledge or understanding of others, such as a sales role, reducing relationships to modular units can result in a lack of motivation. This can be exacerbated when contracts include detailed specifications for task duties and expected behavior, and tie pay to tracked outputs. 

The solution to this agency-control paradox, say Rogiers and Collings, is to manage local power dynamics, practice positive leadership interventions and operate a transparent work environment. Avoiding a narrow focus on individual tasks in favor of adopting a portfolio approach to worker engagement that outlines goals, resources and partners will enable more personalized support and evaluation. 

Detach from discrimination

The second paradox is one of detachment and inclusion. Job deconstruction encourages individuals to detach from a structured, specialized job role and seek out new opportunities. In theory, this leads to new networks, broadened experiences and enhanced prospects. 

However, this approach overlooks how people are traditionally valued and rewarded in organizations. By removing the norms within a role, the associated evaluation methods are also rendered redundant. Co-workers in traditional roles may perceive unfairness and special treatment, and the worker in the deconstructed role can feel like an outsider. They could also be excluded from equal access to opportunities and rewards. 

Co-workers in traditional roles may perceive unfairness, while their colleagues in deconstructed roles can feel like outsiders

Addressing this paradox requires an organizational shift from pre-defined jobs and rigid categories. This should be supported by a strong cultural framework of diversity, inclusivity and belonging, with proactive measures for prevention and intervention

Support stable growth 

Undertaking work that stretches abilities, engaging in new work experiences and experimenting with new ideas provides the final paradox for workers. How can they successfully engage in all these aspects of a deconstructed role while simultaneously enjoying job stability?  

Pushing workers into new experiences, whether alongside their traditional roles or within a wholly deconstructed system, can cause anxiety and self-doubt, and result in burnout. Faced with such uncertainty, some workers could prefer the stability of familiar colleagues and practices.  

If job deconstruction paradoxes are managed properly, they can shape more resilient and adaptable organizations

This creates a dual internal market of workers either able or unable to embrace change. In a deconstructed job setting, the gaps between the career trajectories of these different employee types are exacerbated. 

To avoid this scenario, Rogiers and Collings stress the importance of accessible career and emotional support systems. Employers should offer the resources, skills, knowledge, mentorship, guidance and social connections employees need to thrive on an equal footing. 

Rogiers and Collings acknowledge that deconstructed jobs are here to stay, and stress they are not arguing for a return to static structures. But, they say, by implementing appropriate protections that are based on a deep and nuanced understanding of the nature and experience of work, deconstructed jobs can shape more resilient and adaptable organizations

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