Employees Leaving? Let Them Craft a Better Job

Worker shortages, job dissatisfaction, and turnover are all the talk right now. There is little doubt that dissatisfaction in the workplace has increased over the last year, and higher education is no exception. A 2021 report from Transamerica reveals that 35 percent of higher education institutions have experienced higher turnover as a result of the pandemic and the move to online education.

Turnover costs money, time, and valuable institutional knowledge. So, when higher education leaders are faced with the choice of either losing employees or keeping them in low-morale positions, there could be an alternative solution: Let them craft a better job. Job crafting is the idea that giving employees a greater say in designing their work can lead to more productivity and higher job satisfaction. It was first introduced by Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane Dutton in 2001 and has been studied in many business settings. Whereas job design is typically top-down, job crafting is bottom-up by empowering employees to revamp parts of their work to fit their interests and motivations. One study suggested that for-profit organizations that used job crafting saw 29 percent less turnover because employees first tried improving their current job before going elsewhere.

But does job crafting actually work in higher education? Jon McNaughton is a professor of higher education at Texas Tech who has studied the impact of job crafting with international center managersmusic faculty, and other higher education professionals. He has found that, on the whole, there’s a net positive effect. “If there’s ever a place where job crafting would work, it’s in higher education. Faculty and staff wear many different hats. They already have autonomy to make their own decisions. There is a lot of leeway to craft our work in good ways.” New research by McNaughton, other researchers, and myself also suggests that among tenured faculty, commitment to work increases when faculty have the chance to craft important elements of their work.

There are a few things supervisors can do to implement job crafting in higher education. Wrzesniewski and Dutton identified three main ways job crafting occurs. First, task crafting refers to how we choose and rearrange our work tasks. This is the “what” of our work. Relational crafting is about designing the relationships employees create while doing our jobs. This is the “who.” And cognitive crafting deals with how we mentally define our work in meaningful ways. This can be thought of as the “why” behind our work. In each of these areas, opportunities exist for supervisors to let employees craft their work:

Task Crafting: Employers can leave some flexibility in job design for employees to control. While many faculty jobs are already wired for maximum flexibility, staff and administrative jobs can also benefit from more choice. McNaughton encourages supervisors to “Be open to changing tasks that people don’t love. Have that conversation about what they find most meaningful. Then align the work.” In addition, institutions can give a percentage of time or number of hours for free work or for starting their own initiatives that benefit the organization. For example, an employee with a passion for mental health can use the time to create mental health resources for their office.

Relational Crafting: Relationships are a source of great satisfaction in work. Employers can find out which employees enjoy working with outside offices, or contacts, and leverage these relationships for the benefit of the office. For example, if a member of your financial aid team has a good relationship with the admissions office, encourage that relationship to be strengthened. Urge employees to meet and network with colleagues from other offices or parts of campus. Higher education institutions run on relationships.

Cognitive Crafting: Finally,encourage employees to define and describe their work in ways that are meaningful. McNaughton calls this the most inexpensive way to help employees find more value in their work. For instance, the international center managers in McNaughton’s study reported their staff was more committed when they reframed their work in personal terms. Instead of “organizing study abroads,” staff were engaged in “giving students new experiences to change their perspective on the world.” Once they found a higher purpose for their work, booking hotels, flights, and buses became more meaningful. Employees can reflect on their work in a variety of ways such as writing a newsletter article, presenting on their “why” at a staff meeting, or holding lunchtime conversations.

One note of caution: A common misconception is that job crafting allows employees to simply drop their responsibilities in the name of finding happiness on the job. Job crafting is not an open door to avoid responsibility or accountability. It’s an invitation to work with employees to innovate around their job descriptions. The key is to allow employees discretion on how to implement their work and then maintain accountability as a supervisor for seeing that the end goal or mission of the organization is done. When employees have greater say in how that mission is met, they will be more invested for the long term.

How have you successfully seen job crafting occur in your organization? In what other ways should supervisors encourage it in higher education?

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