Will We Still Need Job Descriptions in the Future of Work?

In the past, companies were like machines. Each employee represented a distinct part of the machine, without which it wouldn’t function properly. And just like a part in a machine, each employee had a distinct role to play, set out in their job description. This worked well, as for the most part, work was stable, and talent requirements were predictable.

Back then, people were employed because of a particular business need – a data entry clerk to enter data, or a call centre operative to take calls – and there was little expectation that that particular need would change.

Today, however, technological disruption, shifting attitudes, and the digitisation of work are changing the way companies function and employees work. To survive in this rapidly changing environment, companies are increasingly forced to move fast and adapt.

Instead of functioning like a machine, modern companies now need to act like living organisms that constantly adapt and evolve to changing market conditions, customer needs, talent gaps, and technological advancements – and all while remaining as stable as possible.

Are job descriptions holding us back?

All of this raises an important question: in a knowledge-based economy, where agility and adaptability are key, how useful are rigid job descriptions?

Job titles and descriptions are naturally self-limiting. They have the effect of pigeon-holing employees from the start, setting out the scope of their work based on the need from a snapshot in time. Yet in reality, people bring a portfolio of skills, many of which overlap into different areas. On top of this, we are constantly learning and developing new skills all the time, both inside and outside of work.

A graphic designer may also have a strong background in app development; a technician could also be an outstanding people manager; and so on. By constraining people to their job descriptions, we limit the potential impact they can have on the organisation.

Companies that unshackle their employees from rigid job descriptions may have a competitive advantage over those that don’t. By unleashing the hidden potential of their workforce, they will not be caught flat-footed as the market changes.

But hold on, don’t we have job descriptions for a reason?

Of course, it’s not as simple as doing away with job descriptions completely – they may hark back to simpler times, but defining roles and assigning responsibilities is still essential, both from an organisational and a personal perspective.

Without job descriptions, how will employees search for a new position? How will companies recruit? How will anyone know who is responsible for what? What’s more, we all have our areas of expertise – graphic designers are graphic designers for a reason.

Instead of scrapping job titles and descriptions completely, perhaps what’s needed is a more expansive, less rigid approach to employment, where companies spend more time understanding the unique skill sets that each employee brings to the table.

What can companies do to maximise their employees’ skill sets?

As long as you focus on the company-as-machine philosophy, your employees will continue to work within predetermined limits – each person being just another cog in the machine. And each time the machine needs a new part, you’ll have to roll out a recruitment campaign – something that can take months to complete.

Chances are, your employees have many skills that they aren’t using every day. They may just be realising a fraction of their potential, due to the narrow band of tasks they are asked to perform as part of their role.

By tapping into your workforce’s true potential, your company can use its existing talent in a more flexible and fluid way. But for this to work, you have to know what skills you already have at your disposal. Here are a few ideas for how to do that.

  • Do extensive skills inventory

This means understanding the skills of each individual beyond that described by their current position. Once you know the extent of the skills at your disposal, you can adopt a more flexible, adaptable approach to talent management.

  • Use software to match skills to projects and organisational objectives.

Once you’ve done a skills inventory, you can dip into your existing workforce to fill talent gaps and build project teams, rather than rolling out time-consuming and expensive recruitment campaigns. Technology can simplify this process by giving you an accurate and up-to-date picture of what you have and what you need.

  • Introduce performance check-ins

Check-ins are an excellent way to discuss how employees can better utilise and develop their skills and to assess whether an employee’s current position and responsibilities are making the most of their abilities.

  • Close skills gaps through ongoing learning and development

Developing your existing talent is an excellent way to futureproof your organisation. And as work changes in ways, we can’t yet predict, new types of skills will be needed, often in areas we can’t yet fully imagine.

  • Focus on project work

One way for companies to respond to rapidly changing business needs is by focussing on project-based employment. This way, employers can meet demand with supply in a rapid, fluid way, and employees can move from project to project, adding to their experience and honing their skills in the process.

  • Allow employees to bid on project roles

You could even replace the job description with a more flexible approach where individuals can bid on upcoming projects, blurring the lines between traditional employment and freelance work.

Final thoughts

Job descriptions may be good from an administrative and organisational perspective, and they are clearly an effective way of outlining expectations and responsibilities, but that doesn’t mean that they describe the limits of an employee’s abilities.

While it may not be feasible to do away with job titles and descriptions completely, the key to maximising the potential of your workforce is to understand the skills, abilities, and potential that each individual has, beyond what you are currently asking them to do.


Nick Edwards - http://www.praguecopywriter.com

Nicholas Edwards is a freelance writer and editor based in Prague, the Czech Republic. When he's not helping local businesses master the English language, he loves writing about the future of work for People First. 

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