New working world: How a virus killed job descriptions

Published: June 1, 2020 2:00 AM

The virus has been our cue to shed norms of the past and old versions of job descriptions may well be one of them.

Crisis transformation has exposed the unnecessary in so many ways, and among the many HR-related outcomes of the coronavirus, one casualty is this.Crisis transformation has exposed the unnecessary in so many ways, and among the many HR-related outcomes of the coronavirus, one casualty is this.

By Purvi Sheth

Do you remember the time you read your job description from the beginning to the end, and calibrated if you spent your time at work doing the same things as the document suggests? Do you remember when it was meticulously updated? Do you substantially know your teammates’ job descriptions? If two out of three answers are no, the significance of the job description succumbed right here.

Yet traditional job descriptions for many companies remain critical to the HR in hiring, monitoring and performance management. However, crisis transformation has exposed the unnecessary in so many ways, and among the many HR-related outcomes of the coronavirus, one casualty is this.

Job description of a job description
“When you’re telling your story, you better have a modern story to tell. If I was still saying the same story I was saying 10 years ago, it would not be that interesting,” said Marc Benioff, founder of Salesforce.
While that applies to life itself, it is pertinent to job descriptions, which are meant to be ‘the’ story of a role. If the story hasn’t changed much, that job is probably dated. The job description has a job to do—that of maintaining relevance and context of the role in a dynamic world. The typical job description will have to change in form and substance.

The job description was meant to give people clarity as much as confines. It sometimes did this by strictly compartmentalising roles. Whether you are an overburdened business leader in crisis or a young manager on consecutive Zoom calls, you know that if you had to illustrate your job today, you would not write the same things as three months ago! The relevance of the document is diminished, if not destroyed.

So, what has changed?
Constantly adjusting business models: Hotels are turning into hospitals and engineering businesses are making ventilators. Between January and May of 2020, businesses have gone bankrupt, changed what they do or changed how they do it. A chronicle that largely relies on strong business constancy is obviously doomed. The world needs adaptable and flexible employees and roles, proactively anticipating remodelled business and steering a new direction without the crutch of a preconceived narrative.

Job descriptions can be granular and too exhaustive: Companies grow but job descriptions are either just duplicated or haphazardly updated till they are templates with little or no applicability to position imperatives. This encourages people to see their roles in a lethargic way, something we can no longer afford.

The past is anachronistic: Job descriptions are crafted using prior experience of business outcomes, past observations of the job, as well as hard-line reporting structures and work flows. Much like machine learning, job descriptions are rooted in the patterns of yesterday and the predictability of tomorrow. Given that the former is obsolete and the latter is uncertain, the job description, as we knew it, is a misfit. The environment post crisis will need almost rebellious human creativity and not algorithms or straightjackets.

Collaboration and matrix: One of biggest HR trends over the last few years is the movement from individual to team accountability in a matrixed set-up. The crisis is accelerating this and there is a new a level of transparency and interdependence among teammates for collective productivity. A job description that is too specific and does not adequately emphasise the role of collaboration is no longer needed. Finally, adversity quotient, the most desired skill of today, has never been written in the skills section. You may find the ‘what’ in the skills section but hardly ever the ‘how’!

From ritual to roadmap
If we were to assume business models are no longer static, old structures are being challenged and performance metrics with expected deliverables have metamorphosed, a job description can actually end up being an exalted ‘to-do’ list—an organisational ritual rather than a roadmap that serves to communicate the expectations of a new world built on synergy and reciprocity.

First of all, rethink jobs. If you think of jobs themselves as unvarying and marginally changeable, then their descriptions will never radically transform.

Jobs must be completely remodelled post the crisis to help individuals navigate uncertainty, collaboration and accountability. The strategic intent of the role, rationale for its existence, coupled with results producing actions is what new jobs should be about. Make room for self-learning and experimentation balanced with executional excellence within the job itself. Be disruptive and don’t limit it to ‘itemised duties’.

Whether you call it a position framework/roadmap, give it a combination of required attitude and approach to increase productivity as well as employee satisfaction using intrapreneurial skills. Revisit it frequently to adapt to the newness this decade holds.

The continuous evolution of an organisation is interminable, more so after a crisis like this. The very jobs that make up this transition and growth cannot then be caged in a document of permanence. The virus has been our cue to shed norms of the past and old versions of job descriptions may well be one of them.

The author is CEO, Shilputsi Consultants

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