Fixing Work Design with SMART

6 mins

What do you do when your employees want more work flexibility, are disengaged, burnt out or ...

What do you do when your employees want more work flexibility, are disengaged, burnt out or leaving, or you need to implement a complex AI initiative? Use the SMART model of work design, a new study suggests.


Work design is about the tasks, the activities that people do in their work, the responsibilities that they have and how those are organised and structured. A study published recently in Human Resource Management (HRM) proposed a new, SMART work design model, which consolidates a complex and sometimes confusing array of key characteristics (aspects ) of work into a simple structure that enables us to “see the wood from the trees” when addressing contemporary work design issues.


According to Sharon Parker, the lead author of the study and a John Curtin Distinguished Professor at Curtin University in Australia, work design is a critical topic from multiple angles. “Work design is really important, especially these days where in many countries people have been talking about quiet quitting, we're seeing an epidemic of burnout, people leaving, people wanting more work flexibility, the ability to work from home. Work design is a fundamental predictor of those aspects. We know, when work is designed well, people are less burnt out, they're more engaged, they're more satisfied with their work”, said Parker. 


Good work design is important from a legal, moral and performance perspective: “We are working with many human resource practitioners and sometimes occupational health and safety practitioners, and there's a lot of interest in the topic of work design because the law says that employers should not cause harm to workers. And if employers have badly designed work, that does cause harm”, stated Parker.


There are two changes that are happening in the world that make work design even more important, argues Parker. One of them is AI in the workplace: “The research suggests it's not so much whole jobs that are being replaced by AI but it's the tasks within jobs. That raises questions of, “who does which tasks?”, “What tasks should AI do?”, “What responsibilities and controls should humans have?”  So, work design is a fundamental issue when it comes to AI. We also have an ageing population, which puts a strong imperative, economically, on keeping people in work longer - we need people to stay and work longer to support the ageing people who often have health issues. That again has work design implications, because we need to be asking what sort of work is going to help older, mature workers stay in work and be healthy and productive”, said Parker. 


The topic of work design is not new - it has been the focus of research for more than 100 years, with more than 5000 articles on the topic in the management and applied psychology field alone. However, there is a long checklist of work characteristics as a result of the research so far that poses a danger of losing sight of the big picture, which the SMART model aims to address: “What our study shows is that, if we take all of the different work characteristics that are out there and that have been shown to be important, we can actually cluster them into five what we call “higher order categories”. The study helps to make sense of otherwise a quite confusing array of many different work characteristics”, said Parker.


The acronym SMART stands for these five clusters of key work characteristics that collectively capture aspects of work that are psychologically important for individuals and for the achievement of organisational goals: Stimulating (having varied and intellectually challenging work in terms of task and skill variety and information processing and problem-solving requirements), Mastery (the importance of being clear about what one’s role requires, and of getting feedback from others and the job itself about how one is doing in executing their role and responsibilities), Autonomous (having autonomy or control over what one does in their work, the methods they use, the timing of their work, and generally, being able to influence the important decisions that happen in one’s work), Relational (getting support from one’s supervisor and colleagues, and also the sense that one is making a difference to the lives of other people), and Tolerable (job demands in terms of role overload, work-home conflict, and role conflict). 


“I often refer to the Tolerable cluster as the big one, because certainly in many workplaces around the world we are seeing people having demands in their work that are not tolerable. This puts a lot of pressure on people, and that becomes overwhelming and causes stress. So tolerable demands are about having reasonable workload, it's about making sure that your work is not interfering too much with your life outside work, and it's about making sure that you're not pulled in different directions”, said Parker.


The SMART model draws on well-established theories of work design, but it also takes the work beyond those theories and provides a very comprehensive perspective on work design that aims to guide both academics and practitioners. The model offers a theoretical and evidence-based approach for choosing work characteristics to focus on when conducting a particular study or designing better quality work to address practical challenges such as the implementation of digital technologies and dealing with growing employee burnout, disengagement or stress. 


“If you look at the existing literature, there's been probably 35 different aspects of work design that have been measured and shown to be important. And that can be pretty overwhelming for a practitioner. It's like, “oh, where do I start?” “Which are the most important ones?” So, we find that our model is really helpful to make sense of that complexity. The paper is called “seeing the wood for the trees”, and I think that's a nice metaphor. It really helps focus. If you've got limited space and you want to diagnose your work situation, you want to find out why people are leaving or quitting or why people are burnt out, you've got a fairly simple model that you can apply to find out what are the critical work design issues. So, we find that the model helps reduce complexity and that's important, right? Because human resource practitioners have so many things they've got to be thinking about, it can really help to have an evidence-based way to make sense of complexity. We have also created a website ( that offers practical guidance and a freely available set of resources related to work design, said Parker. 


Parker’s co-author was Caroline Knight, a Senior Lecturer in The University of Queensland Business School, Australia. 

Contact Sharon Parker at  

Written by Jelena Petrovic, Knowledge Transfer Editor of HRM and Associate Professor at the University of Southampton:


HRM is a Financial Times Top 50 Business Journal