Constant pressure to increase efficiency and boost profitability is redefining the nature of work for millions of Americans. But far from improving performance, corporate America is in danger of creating a demoralized, disengaged and far less productive workforce.
Trends such as outsourcing, offshoring and compartmentalizing are far more than just corporate buzzwords. Their ramifications for those who actually do the work can be profound.
Just how profound is a question that Stephen E. Humphrey, an assistant professor of management at Florida State University, explores in a new study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.
His research has led him to argue that efforts to increase efficiency by simplifying workers' job responsibilities could instead be leading to lower employee job satisfaction and productivity over time.
"In a globally competitive marketplace, companies are trying to introduce efficiencies wherever they can to improve their financial performance for stockholders," Humphrey said.
"One way they do that is by designing, or redesigning, jobs to make them more narrowly focused on specific tasks. However, while this may improve productivity in the short term, it appears to create a new set of problems in the longer term."
Humphrey and his collaborators, Frederick P. Morgeson, a professor of management at Michigan State University, and Jennifer D. Nahrgang, a doctoral student at Michigan State, analyzed more than 40 years of research into the effects of work design on employee attitudes and productivity.
What they found was that simplifying tasks generally led to lower performance ratings and decreased worker satisfaction.
They also confirmed what other studies have shown, namely that having more autonomy on the job is related to better performance, higher satisfaction and lower feelings of exhaustion.
Having a socially supportive workplace is another highly beneficial factor, increasing job satisfaction, reducing feelings of exhaustion, and strongly reducing the likelihood of wanting to leave the job.
What's more, people who work in co-operation with others and receive frequent feedback perform better, show greater work and organizational satisfaction, have lower rates of turnover and lower levels of stress.
"The results of this research clearly show that organizations which focus on providing job flexibility, opportunities for social interaction and performance feedback can produce highly performing, highly satisfied workers who have low levels of stress, anxiety and burnout, and who are uninterested in searching for 'greener pastures,'" Humphrey said.
"However, organizations that move toward the simplification and independent completion of work will find that workers will be dissatisfied with their work and will perform at a lower level over time, with higher levels of stress."
However, he added, this seems to be precisely the direction that workplace design is headed.
"We're seeing many job functions that American workers used to do - computer programming, data entry and call center operations, for example - being sent overseas or contracted out to other U.S. companies that specialize in those areas.
"The employees who used to perform these tasks often find themselves either out of a job or in one that is less challenging and less fulfilling."
All of which could be a false economy, Humphrey argued. Because for corporate America, the costs of a demoralized work force, measured in decreased productivity and increased turnover, may well offset many of the cost savings that they have been hoping to achieve.