Creative ideas come from “putting new things in old combinations and old things in new combinations,” according to organizational theorist Karl Weick. The concept of job crafting comes from that exact definition: If you take parts of your work and reconfigure it, you’ll end up with a more meaningful job to better suit your talent and interests.
Researchers in the early 2000s wanted to study how people who worked in what might be considered “devalued work” dealt with their tasks day-to-day. University of Michigan professor Jane Dutton and Amy Wrzesniewski, a student at the time, and now a professor at Yale, focused their attention on cleaners at a major Midwestern hospital and found that the workers were crafting their own jobs to change their perspective.
“We got very captivated by how even in a job that was very restrictive, the cleaners had tons of rooms they had to clean in a very short period of time so they have very little discretion over the number of tasks they had to get done,” says Dutton. “To make it more meaningful for themselves, they would do all types of little things to help the patients and the patients’ families.”
So, instead of viewing themselves as cleaners in meaningless jobs, these workers saw themselves as a part of the health care system, working to help patients get well. Dutton and Wrzesniewski’s research was published in 2001 and since, there’s been an explosion of job-crafting exploration and studies. A few years later, another one of Dutton’s students, Justin Berg, now an assistant professor at Stanford, did his thesis on how teachers who missed their calling incorporated their calling into their teaching and in that way, crafted their own jobs.
Berg and Dutton cocreated the Job Crafting Exercise that has now been used by dozens of companies, such as Logitech and VMware, with thousands of employees worldwide. Wharton management professor Adam Grant–also one of Dutton’s former students– teaches about the concept in his management classes and has also worked with Google’s People Analytics Team to help Googlers “customize” their jobs to make them more meaningful. According to Grant, the Googlers who participated in the exercises were rated as happier and more effective by their managers and coworkers just six weeks later.
If our learning curve basically flattens after three years, people who can’t find new meaning in their work will often either leave or just stop creating. The Job Crafting Exercise allows workers to redesign their jobs by creating a visual plan that views the job as “a flexible set of building blocks” instead of a fixed set of duties and tasks. In breaking up their job, workers are able to craft something more ideal based on three key traits: values, strengths, and passion, which are said to be the essence of happiness at work.
To get workers to visualize what a change in their job will look like, the Job Crafting Exercise focuses on three forms of job crafting:
1. Task crafting, which changes your activities and day-to-day tasks.
2. Relational crafting, which revamps your relationship with others to change your perspective on why you do a certain job.
3. Cognitive crafting, which reframes how you view work and the interactions you have with others to unlock new performance opportunities.
For instance, if you’re an engineer who has a passion for teaching, you can create a modified version of your job that fulfills your passion by, for example, starting an internship or mentorship program (task crafting) at your firm, get colleagues involved (relational crafting), and mentally reframe the way you view work (cognitive crafting).
Most people job craft under the radar without knowing it, so why does a Job Crafting Exercise need to exist? Because when you customize your day-to-day tasks on your own, it can sometimes compromise performance, says Dutton, which is one of the biggest challenges to job crafting.
“There are times when crafting the job could be in conflict with what an organization or department or team is trying to accomplish,” warns Dutton. “That’s why having more conversations about how people are doing their work is so useful, because when that problem arises, a sort of job crafting is happening under the radar.”
Instead, job crafting is most effective when done in a team environment with the manager’s support.
If workers on the ground have the best idea of what’s needed in an organization, then why not make job crafting—which happens under the radar anyway—an official exercise that happens between managers and their teams? After all, companies can’t stay innovative if everyone stays in the same jobs and roles while the rest of the industry changes.
“[Job crafting] is a normal part of job innovation and job adaptability,” explains Dutton. “It aligns people more clearly with their talents, interests, and strengths. In the long run, if that happens as a regular part of a workplace, it can make the whole unit or organization run more effectively because people are better allocated. People are assigned in a more adaptable way where they can add the most value.”