The Socio-Technical Model of Enriched Work Systems
The classical design of jobs was to construct them according to the technological imperative, that so, to design them according to the needs of technology and efficiency and give little attention to other criteria. Job enrichment went a large step toward emphasizing the human (social) side by exploring how jobs could be redesigned to make them more motivating and satisfying. An even more comprehensive approach is to provide a careful balance of the human imperative and the technological imperative. Work environments, and the jobs within them, are required to fit people as well as technology. The socio-technical systems approach considers not only how inputs are transformed into outputs, but also how employees and the organization can develop interpersonal and social relationships for mutual gain. Both technical and social systems receive high priority, and they are simultaneously managed for the best possible integration. This is a new set of values and a new way of thinking that goes beyond the concern for a high quality of work life.
The basic assumptions of enriched socio-technical work systems include the following:
- Employees are resources that can and should be developed.
- Self-control and self-regulation by employees is desirable and possible.
- Collaborative relationships are easiest when organizational levels and status differences are minimized.
- Related tasks should be grouped and individuals should be given multiple tasks and broad responsibilities.
- Employee input is invited, expected, and reinforced.
- The organization and its jobs are subject to continual evaluation and change.
Socio-technically designed organizations seek to find a “best fit” among workers, jobs, technology, and the environment. Accordingly, the best design will be different to fit different arrangements of these variables. Since the design must fit the present situation, socio-technical systems must be regularly readjusted among the factors in order to maintain the best fit. Consequently, socio-technical organizations often seem to be in a constant stage of change.
Two specific approaches to finding a better socio-technical fit are the use of natural work teams and flexible work schedules.
Natural Work Teams
The next step above enriched jobs is to focus on work teams. When jobs have been designed so that a person performs an entire sequence of tasks to make a whole product or a subunit of it, then that person is performing a natural work module. The work flows naturally from start to finish and gives an individual a sense of skill variety, task identity, and task significance. In a similar manner several employees may be arranged into a natural work team that performs an entire unit of work with considerable autonomy. In this way employees whose task requires them to work together are better able to learn one another’s needs and to develop team work. Natural work teams even allow those who are performing routine work to develop a greater feeling of task significance, because they are attached to a larger team that performs a major task. It is surprising how our desire to develop specialization often leads to separation of people who are needed to make natural work teams.
Consider experience of a telephone company with its service-order department. Originally the service representatives and typists who prepared service orders were in separate areas of the office, and each took orders in rotation as they were received. Then different teams of representatives were assigned their own geographical region and a few typists were moved to be with them, working only on their service orders. The employees now became a natural work team that could cooperative in performing a whole task. The result was that orders typed on time increased from 27 percent to between 90 and 100 percent, and service-order accuracy exceeded the expected standard.
The next step above enriched jobs and natural work teams is enriched socio-technical work systems in which a whole organization or a major portion of it is built into a balanced human-technical system. The objective is to develop complete employment enrichment. This requires changes of a major magnitude, particularly in manufacturing that has been designed along specialized lines. The entire production process may require reengineering in order to integrate human needs, and layouts may require changes to permit teamwork. The fundamental objective is to design a whole work system that serves the needs of people as well as production requirements.
Flexible Work Schedules
Flexible working time, also known as “flexitime,” or “flextime,” is an example of employment enrichment. It gives workers more autonomy but in a manner different from job enrichment. With flextime employees gain some latitude for the control of their work environment – a factor beyond the design of the job itself – to fit his or her own lifestyle or to meet unusual needs, such as a visit to a physician. The idea is that, regardless of starting and stopping times, employees will work their full number of hours each day. Employees always work within the restraints of the organization’s business hours, and if a job requires teamwork, all employees on a team must flex their work together.
An advantage to the employer is that tardiness is eliminated, since the employee works a full number of hours regardless of arrival time. Since employees are able to schedule outside activities such as appointments during their working day, they tend to have fewer one-day absences for these purpose. Perhaps the main benefit is that greater autonomy leads to greater job satisfaction, and sometimes productivity improves as well.