Approaches to work design
Ernst Koningsveld, Michiel de Looze, TNO, the Netherlands
- 1 Introduction
- 2 System ergonomics
- 3 Participatory ergonomics
- 4 Job design and task allocation
- 5 Teamwork, task rotation
- 6 Work schedules, shift work
- 7 4. Conclusions
- 8 References
- 9 Links for further reading
Organizational ergonomics is concerned with the optimization of socio-technical systems, including their organizational structures, policies, and processes. Relevant topics include: communication, crew resource management, work design, work systems, design of working times, teamwork, participatory design, community ergonomics, cooperative work, new work programs, virtual organizations, telework, and quality management) . This article concentrates on: system ergonomics, participatory ergonomics, job design and task allocation, teamwork, task rotation and work schedules and shift work.
Ergonomics (or human factors) is the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of the interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theoretical principles, data and methods to design in order to optimize human well-being and overall system performance (definition International Ergonomics Association (IEA). Within this discipline or profession, physical ergonomics is regarded as one of the domains of specialization, beside organizational ergonomics and cognitive ergonomics.
The words system ergonomics implicate that a systematic approach is chosen for the design or redesign of work situations. Step by step the next items are considered (after:) .
- What is the starting point? What is the question in headlines? Who will be involved? Who is the owner? What will be the project structure? Are there limiting conditions?
- System analysis: what is the goal of the activities: what must be performed, both in quantities and in quality?
- Task analysis: which tasks are required to achieve the goals? In this analysis an analysis of bottlenecks is done as well.
- Determine a program of requirements.
- Task allocation: which tasks can best be allocated to technology (machines, ICT), and which to humans? Both have different capacities and limitations. Consider alternatives, and choose the best solution.
- Design of tasks and jobs, including organisational aspects (e.g. level of education, training; teamwork; work schedules; flexible solutions).
- Testing in a virtual environment using simulations (many kinds possible), mock ups, models.
- Design of interfaces between humans and technology, and of communication.
- Adaptation of the designs
Two major stages can be distinguished: the global design, followed by the detailed design.
- Realisation: building, implementation. If required training of staff.
- Evaluation: how well does the system do what it should? If necessary adaptations are considered.
It is essential that the questions of the owner are as specific as can be. Covers the question all the aspects? Will the objective be achieved with these questions? Would there be an alternative? Ergonomists are excellent in questioning and in thinking ahead. Each question of the ergonomists is in fact already a consult. Limiting conditions must get attention; anyway these include budget, timeline available staff.
The goal of the activities and the system must be well defined in specifications for input (raw materials, information, parts) and output (products, texts, task performance e.g. in control rooms). Both quantitative (quantities, numbers, measurable quality) and qualitative aspects (e.g. non-measurable quality, image, growth of experience) need to get attention. The next step is the task analysis. In an existing situation the actual tasks are described into detail. Typical questions begin with ‘how’ or ‘why’. Many a time already the task analysis leads to the questions why, and the insight that things can be done differently. Usually the analysis has four levels, but in complex situations there may be more. The four levels are: goal; sub goal; tasks; manoeuvres . For instance: the goals of a traffic control room are efficient flow of traffic, a sub-goal can be minimizing exhaust gases, observing screens, communication, are examples of tasks, while taking action with traffic signs, blocking lanes are manoeuvres. The inventory of bottlenecks is another part of the analysis. Here one needs to be as specific as possible in order to determine the real bottleneck. E.g. what is the cause of physical work strain? The loads can be too heavy for manual handling by one person. But what is the real cause? Is it that lifting is inefficient as it should be done by two employees, while all other tasks are performed individually (organisational bottleneck). Or is there not enough space to lift together? Principles of solutions can be determined in the analysis. If the bottlenecks are clear, solutions can be pictured. There may be a risk of that a solution is selected to easily. For instance to improve the situation employees will be trained, while by redesigning the task the problems will be solved basically.
Based on the orientation and the analyses, the program requirements can be fixed. These are the specifications that the system must meet, like system performance, costs, the level of education of staf. Then the task allocation follows, in which tasks are allocated to technology (machines, ICT), or humans. Both have different capacities and limitations, and different costs. Consider what the consequences are for human tasks and jobs: are these complete, not too complex, can these be performed for a whole working day, during a whole working life? Are there alternatives? Is the technology available, or shall it be developed? Do choose the best solution for humans and the system. Then tasks and jobs are designed into detail. Organisational aspects like the required level of education and training. Aspects of teamwork are considered as well as work schedules and flexible solutions. The basic design can be tested in any stage. Simulations can be done at all levels, varying from a discussion using only paper or white board to virtual environments (software, mock ups, models). If all is expected to work well, the design of interfaces between humans and technology and of communication can be detailed. A new testing phase will follow in order to check if the interfaces work as objected. Adaptation must be done is problems are met. Ergonomists play a consultancy role in the design process, where designers have the lead.
In this stage the design is built, installed, and implemented. Staff is trained where necessary. The ergonomist shall be close at hand; during the realisation and in pilots many smaller questions will arise. For example: the project team designed a ergonomics cabin for a new tram; the cabin is relatively large, allowing space for an instructor. In the first pilots it turns out that passengers tend to enter the instructor’s space. The drivers are complaining to be distracted by those passengers. The choice is made to place a door as the optimal solution. It is important that such solutions are in line with the basics of the design. Minor changes are carried through as well in this stage.
Participatory ergonomics programs seeks to maximize the involvement of the workers in this process, based on the simple fact that a worker is an expert on his or her job. The participatory approach to ergonomics relies on actively involving workers in implementing ergonomic knowledge, procedures and changes with the intention of improving working conditions, safety, productivity, quality, morale and/or comfort . One basis for participatory ergonomics is the fact that many proposed changes are not successfully implemented. Reasons are for instance:
- Workers question why the proposed change will be feasible, as previous changes were obstructed.
- No need for change is felt, no sense of urgency.
- Previous changes had little effect.
- Proposed changes are simplified, for instance because of budget.
By participation of workers they will be involved in all steps of the change process, which provides a sound base for acceptation and successful implementation.
A participatory process consists of 9 steps :
- Generation of ideas
- Selection of best ideas
A successful participatory ergonomics program requires initial and continuing resources and support from the top levels of management within the organization. The resources required include:
- time for the program to develop
- time to develop and implement solutions
- financial resources to make meaningful changes in the workplace
- Management support for the individuals on the ergonomics team.
- An appointed group is responsible for the process
- Let all employees have their input in the inventory of bottlenecks, in the generation of ideas and for the implementation. , 
Job design and task allocation
Job design aims to specify the contents, methods and relationships of jobs to satisfy the technological and organisational requirements as well as the personal needs of job holders. It meets the needs of both employer and employees. Both individual human characteristics as group characteristics are considered. A good job design is in line with the best option in the Hierarchy of control, as it will basically eliminate risk. Jobs need to be complete, in order to meet human’s needs. Key elements are :
- Autonomy: the worker himself has influence on tha way the tasks are performed;
- Feedback: the worker gets information about the individual performance and the system performance, including aspects like client satisfaction;
- Significance of the task within the extend of the whole company or organisation;
- Completeness: a position must consist of preparatory tasks, executive functions, and supportive tasks;
- Variation in competencies and demands. A task can be best defined as a piece of assigned work expected to be done within a certain time. It is important to strictly and thoroughly identify tasks that need completion. Motivation describes forces within the individual that account for the level, direction, and persistence of effort expended at work. The bast jobs are those in which individuals are compelled, excited, and passionate to do their work. Anyway, it is essential to design jobs that motivate employees. Resource allocation occurs when organizations decide to appropriate or allocate certain resources to specific jobs, tasks, or dilemmas facing the organization. Jobs need to be constructed so that efficiency of the worker or department is maximized, while the health, safety and well-being of staff are secured. Organizations need to use the resources and creativity of their employees effectively and efficiently. In job design it is necessary to identify and structure jobs in a way that the company’s resources are being efficiently used. Appropriate resource allocation allows large organizations to foster and develop innovation in their workforce. Reward systems also play a role in job design. Reward systems include compensation, bonuses, raises, job security, benefits, and various other methods of reward for employees. An outline or description of reward packages needs to be established while constructing jobs.
Five important job elements that motivate workers and stimulate performance are: skill variety, task identity, task significance, autonomy, and job feedback. Three different psychological states determine how an employee reacts to job characteristics: experienced meaningfulness, experienced responsibility for outcomes, and knowledge of the actual results.
How to design jobs?
It starts with questions like:
- What are the task’s aims and objectives?
- How will the objective be achieved?
- Where will the task take place?
- When will the task be performed (continuously, night time, day time)?
- Who will perform the task (skills, training, and competence)?
- Why the task is required – overall context of the activity?
The ideal task design will identify key task requirements and allocate the task roles between man and technology to optimise strengths and minimise weaknesses. See also the articles on physical ergonomics and cognitive ergonomics. This balance will also be influenced by the criticality of the task, the level of reliability required and the urgency of recovering from errors or malfunctions. A basic procedure for allocating function is given in ISO 11064-1 :
Table: Traditional labour system versus highly involved labour system
|1||Mandatory allocation||For mandatory functions, allocate to machine|
|Allocation to meet safety/regulatory requirements||For mandatory manual functions, allocate to human|
|2||Attempt at preliminary allocation in terms of human traits, abilities and characteristics with a view to ensuring the safety and reliability of the system's performance||Re-design system to avoid tasks wich cannot be carries out satisfactorily by human or machines|
|Allocate functions wich cannot be satisfactorily carries out manually to machines|
|Allocation according to performance characteristics||Allocate functions wich cannot be satisfactorily automated to humans|
|Treat as mandatory automatic functions|
|Initially, allocate machine preference and human preference functions to machines & human respectively|
|Initially, leave without preference functions unallocated|
|3||Allocation according to cognitive and affective support criteria||Consider reallocation of preference functions according to cognitive and affective criteria|
|Complementary or flexible allocation from the viewpoint of ergonomics and system efficiency||Consider complementary or flexible allocation, which gives users the ability to change the allocation|
|4||Ascertain feasibility of automation||Determine whether functions allocated to humans can be implementated effectively using available automation technology|
|5||Ascertain feasibility of human performance. Select tasks which are to be supported by operator support systems to assist with signal detection, information acquisition and decision making||Assess whethet fucntions allocated to humans can be implemented effectivevly assuring the availability of operator support systems. Determine whether such systems can be implemented using the availablel level of technology|
|6||Evaluate allocation. Determine need for iteration and revision||Repeat allocation procedure if the proposed allocation of functions is impratical or requires futher refinement if there are unacceptable technical information|
Checklist for jobs
According to the Dutch WEBA system (well-being at work);  ,the following items need to be for healthy jobs and the prevention of work stress:
- Jobs are complete, and do include:
- Involvement in the planning of work and the order of tasks
- Involvement in how the work is performed:
- End control of own work
- Good division of preparatory, performing, supporting and organising tasks
- If working with machines: adjust, maintain and small repairs
- Involvement in the solution of problems:
- Solve problems in own work as far as the competencies allow
- Tool box meetings to discuss and solve problems
- Direct access to supervisors in case of trouble
- Cycle work:
- Less than 50% of the work consists of tasks with a cycle of <90 seconds
- Degree of difficulty:
- A good variation in difficult work and routine work
- Autonomy and variation:
- Variation of workplaces is feasible
- Short breaks are possible during the execution of tasks
- Leaving the workplace is possible for short breaks
- Workers can influence their work pace
- The help of co-workers can be called in
- Communication with co-workers is possible, also when performing tasks
- Noise levels do allow verbal communication without raising one’s voice
- Employee is informed about the progress and results of work.
Teamwork, task rotation
The socio-technical systems approach is designed around the evolution from individual work to work-groups. This approach has the following guiding principles:
- The design of the organization must fit its goals.
- Employees must be actively involved in designing the structure of the organization.
- Control of variances in production or service must be undertaken as close to their source as possible.
- Subsystems must be designed around relatively self-contained and recognizable units of work.
- Support systems must fit in with the design of the organization.
- The design should allow for a high quality working life.
Changes should continue to be made as necessary to meet the changing environmental pressures.
Today teamwork has become mature: groups bear responsibility. The differences between traditional labour systems and highly involved labour systems can be described as:
Table: Labour system
|Tradiotional labour system||Higly involved labour system|
|Jobs and tasks narrow and precisely defined||Jobs and task defined broadly|
|Task specialism||Task rotation and integration|
|Direct supervision||Peer supervision (by co-workers|
|Focuses on individuals||Focuses on teams|
|Limited responsibility||Team responsibility|
|Position related pay||Competence based pay|
Work schedules, shift work
Though much of the work is yet performed in a five day workweek, several developments, including multinational work, have changed our world to a 7x24 economy. Modern ICT allows many workers to do computer based tasks at any moment. This may allow them to be more flexible in their balance of work and private life. The drawback is that work may never end; e-mails will be pushed to the mobile devices, and many individuals tend to read and answer those at any moment. Real rest remains important to relax from straining work.
Laws on working hours and work schedules have become less strict over the years. As this is a complex matter, with differences over countries, we don’t go into detail here, and restrict us to some general remarks. Working days preferably do not exceed 9 hours. If longer, a decrease in productivity and an increase of unsafe situations are likely . The same counts for prolonged periods of work without rests. However, taking short breaks during a shift reduces fatigue and sleepiness significantly .
Shift work is common in many sectors. The traditional habit to spare elderly workers from night shifts has become impossible with the aging workforce. An alternative criterion for the age in years could be the number of years in full shift work. Self-scheduling by teams is an option to get more support for a schedule.
From a health perspective, night shifts are straining. Sleeping disorders and digestion problems decline significantly when workers’ nightshifts end . It is recommended to limit the number of unbroken night shifts to three . Starting times have an influence on vigilance, and it is recommended that morning shifts do not start before 7:00 a.m.
Work has changed over the ages. Work has become more complex due to the information overload, new technologies and new ways of group work. At one place responsibilities are at a low level in the organisation, while in other situations work is designed in tight procedures. As a consequence, the organisational design of work has become most important to prevent stress and health effects and to get maximum system performance. New trends in work result in new aspects of organisational ergonomics. Flex work, working at distance, virtual meetings, control rooms that are geographically remote from the controlled systems are examples of the complexity of this topic.
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Links for further reading
EU OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Literature review - The human-machine interface as an emerging risk, No date. Available at: 
Haines, H. & Wilson, J.R., ‘Development of a framework for participatory ergonomics’, Contract Research Report 174/1998, HSE Books, Sudbury, Suffolk, 1998. Retrieved 20 September 2013, Available at: 
HSE – Health and Safety Executive (no date). Work related stress - together we can tackle it. Retrieved 20 September 2013, Available at: 
HSE – Health and Safety Executive (no date). Human factors: Managing human failures. Retrieved 20 September 2013, Available at: 
Morris, W., Wilson, J. & Koukoulaki, T., Developing a participatory approach to the design of work equipment: Assimilating lessons from workers’ experience, TUTB, Brussels, 2004. Retrieved 20 September 2013, Available at: