Work System and People

There are two basic ways in which work is organized. The first relates to the flow of authority and is known as organizational structure of merely organization. The second relates to the flow of work itself from one operation to another and is known as procedure. Other names are “method,” “system,” and “work flow.” People usually recognize the human side or organizational structure because of the superior-subordinate relationship that it establishes, but more often than not they ignore or overlook the human side of work flow. They see work flow as an engineering factor that is separate from human factors. In the usual case, however, work flow has many behavioral effects because it sets people in interaction as they perform their work.

Initiation of Action:

One important point about a work system is that it determines who will “initiate” an activity and who will “receive” it. At each step in the flow of work one person sends material to the next person who will work on it. Along the way, staff experts give instructions. This process of sending work and/or instructions to another is an initiation of action on another person. Receivers of an initiation often feel psychologically inferior, because they may receive it from someone who “just shouldn’t be pushing them around.” Further problems tend to arise when an initiation affects “sensitive” areas such as how much work employees do (as in time study) and their rates of pay (as in job evaluation). In general we can conclude that initiations of action that place job or personal pressures on a receiver tend to be trouble spots.

System Design for Better Teamwork:

Another point about procedure is that it requires people to work together as a team. Teamwork can be engineered out of a work situation by means of layouts and job assignments that separate people so that it is impractical for them to work together, even though the work flow requires teamwork. In one instance two interdependent employees were unnecessarily assigned to separate shifts, which prevented them from coordinating their work. In another instance, one operator fed parts to two separate lines that were in competition, and each line regularly claimed that the operator favored the other. Integration of the technology, structure, and human factors was needed to create a productive system in the textile mill. When just one element is changed, a mismatch is likely to emerge. Management needs to stay in close touch with the workers to understand their needs and avoid making costly changes that have negative side effects.

Communication Patterns:

It is well known that plant layout and work flow have much to do with the opportunities that people have to talk with one another. In an insurance office, for example, the layout of desks was such that people who needed to talk to coordinate their work were separated by a broad aisle. Employees met the problem by loudly calling across the aisle, but this eventually had to be stopped because of the disturbance. The result was poor communication. In another company, sewing machines were located so that talking was discouraged, but management soon discovered that another layout that permitted talking led to higher productivity. Apparently, talking relieved the monotony of routine work.


Alienation may result from poor design of socio-technical systems. Since work systems are planned by someone other than the operators, often the operators do not understand why the system operates the sway it does. In addition, since the division of labor lets each operator perform only a small portion of the total work to be done, jobs begin to lose their social significance and appear meaningless. Workers no longer see where they fit in the scheme of things; no longer do they see the value of their efforts. When these feelings become substantial, an employee may develop alienation, which is a feeling of powerlessness, lack of meaning, loneliness, disorientation, and lack of attachment to the job, work group, or organization. When workers are performing an insignificant task, frustrated by red tape, isolated from communication with others, prevented from engaging in teamwork, and controlled by initiation of action from others, then alienation is bound to develop. The relationship of alienation to technology is only a general one. In some instances mass production may be welcomed by employees because it reduces their physical labor, improves working conditions, and provides them with new equipment. In other instances even professional workers may find satisfaction in formal work patterns. The relationship between organizational formalization (standard practices, job description, and policies) and alienation was explored in a study of both professional and nonprofessional employees. Somewhat surprisingly, higher formalization actual seemed to reduce alienation among the employees. Apparently, increased rules at procedures decreased role ambiguity and increased the employee’s level of organizational commitment. When alienation threatens to become serious, management needs to take corrective action, but it should act carefully, since alienation has may causes.

Effects of Work System:

The evidence is clear that work systems have a substantial effect on human behavior. They do this by

  • Determining who initiates action on whom, and some of the conditions in which the initiation occurs.
  • Influencing the degree to which the employees performing interdependent activities can work together as a team.
  • Affecting the communication patterns of employees.
  • Creating possibilities for unnecessary procedures, generally called red tape
  • Providing tasks that seem insignificant and weak in power, thereby contributing to alienation.

The general conclusion is that relationships among workers in a system can be just as important as relationships of the work in that system. In the design of any system it is folly to spend all one’s time planning work relationships but ignoring worker relationships.

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