It’s Time to Rethink Job Descriptions for the Digital Era – Harvard Business Review
Job titles still reign supreme in the world of work. They embody a strict delegation of job responsibilities, govern individual assignments, and patrol boundaries between departments and colleagues. However, the rise of technology and digital transformation has led to a significant blurring of job responsibilities and manager expectations that will only expand over time.
The reality is that conventional job titles have become outdated in many different workplace contexts. It is not that the idea of different titles or ranks is superfluous. The modern workplace is simply not a good fit for such rigid professional boundaries between coworkers and their respective responsibilities. Today’s employees are often required to work with other teams and offer expertise outside the confines of their department while still carrying out the specific duties outlined in their job description.
With the increasing support of technology and digital transformation, today’s most engaged employees are also constantly acquiring new skills and crossing previously well-defined lines to boost productivity and work quality. A profound reimagining of how to approach job titles and descriptions is necessary to infuse day-to-day tasks with more flexibility and a broader scope than a traditional title like “IT Manager — Level 5” might allow, for instance.
As technology continues to advance and as more jobs are automated, job titles will need to evolve to fit the new business landscape. Expect more “project” titles to spring up in particular, like Cloud Migration Lead or Remote Workplace Coordinator, as the workforce becomes more collaborative and fluid. These project titles may shift into new ones as the business objective is met and new needs crop up.
For example, the title of “receptionist” might be revised to “Practical Director of the Customer Experience.” This title conveys the projects the employee will be handling without putting them in a box where their skills are only used behind a reception desk. Their experience and consumer-facing skills make them a valuable team member beyond the repetitive tasks that currently fill traditional receptionist job descriptions.
You may think that reimagining job titles is only relevant to people managers, but most of us will draft more than a few job descriptions over the course of our careers. And for those of us applying for new jobs, we might review a job description and then update our resume to match or highlight specific skills and competencies mentioned to capture the attention of recruiters, hiring managers, or even bots.
For recruiters, HR leaders, and other people managers, applying I/O Psychology — the specialty of industrial-organizational psychology focused on the behavior of employees — can help direct the rethinking, design, and optimization of both job descriptions and titles. Making decisions informed by I/O psychology principles can serve to broaden the scope of each open position, attract compelling and diverse candidates, and highlight relevant management expectations.
Even before putting pen to paper to write a job description, ask yourself three questions: What current and future business needs would this role directly solve? Where else in the organization can this role have an impact? What core competencies will make this individual (and, thereby, your company) successful?
From there, I’d recommend rethinking a role that’s ripe for modernization and automation into one with room for flexibility and growth. For example:
“Customer Service Representative” to “Voice of the Customer Lead”
Where We See This Role Going:
- As we transition to more automated customer service calls and conversations, this individual will analyze engagement data and analytics to interpret and inform product decisions.
- They will grow our Voice of the Customer function and become an integral component of our customer-first strategy.
- They will also have the opportunity to find additional avenues and channels to engage with customers to better inform and enhance our product.
- While we see this role expanding with the Voice of the Customer function and company, in general, we’re looking for a clear willingness to learn new processes and technologies from day one that will be critical as we seek to remain agile and innovative.
The Hats You May Wear:
- Customer Advocate, Facilitator, Teacher, Learner, UX Expert, Problem Solver, People Manager, Data Analyst, Marketer, Coach, Department Head, Forecaster
Real-World Competencies & Examples:
- Collaborative Influencer: If you’re constantly looking to find new ways to partner with teams and individuals from across the company to deliver customer-first experiences, this role is for you.
- Digitally Dexterous: If you use data to not only inform, but optimize, the work that you do on a daily basis, this role is for you.
- Knowledge Seeker: If you’re one of the first people to show up for every training and/or you spend your free time learning online, this role is for you.
The key to success for all of us will be understanding that every employee and coworker is more than a rigid title and list of skills or expected tasks. The meteoric rise in tech adoption and digital transformation over the past 18 months reinforces that fact, rather than diminishes it.
How technology is changing how we work.
One of the most common elements of digital transformation across industries from aerospace to zoology is an increasing reliance on artificial intelligence (AI). Recent McKinsey research found that 67% of businesses have accelerated their adoption of AI and other automated technologies since the start of the pandemic. It is as close to inevitable as possible that AI will change the way millions of jobs are handled and organized. But the reality is that humans will remain at the center of nearly every occupation. The automation of manual or repeatable tasks, for example, will free up human bandwidth to take on more dynamic, nuanced, and mission-critical responsibilities that drive company growth, innovation, and customer satisfaction.
Take sales management, for instance. There’s hardly anything “routine” about being a sales coach or manager. The job entails offering prospects and coworkers a wealth of experience that varies based on the day, the task, and the people involved. It involves passing on practical insight for tasks like sales calls and advice forged in experience about how to improve.
Importantly, a sales manager’s career experience in the field can’t be replicated authentically and comprehensively by AI. There’s simply too much nuance and complexity. However, AI’s analytical capabilities can surpass even the best coach in scale, speed, and accuracy. While the workplace will remain human-centered, there’s an expanding role for AI and Robotic Process Automation at the table as the future of work continues to evolve.
Technology is already taking over significant portions of contemporary jobs, such as the work done by translators, transcribers, receptionists, and customer support professionals, to name just a few. As digital transformation continues to drive the adoption of technology designed to make repetitive tasks easy, workers specializing in areas that can be easily automated are at the biggest risk of decreased workload.
Translation, for example, requires speakers with a detailed understanding of the languages in question to faithfully translate even complex grammatical structures and ideas. As the tech itself improves and more organizations adopt solutions, large-scale translations will be more commonly and accurately captured with automated translation software and machine learning. The role of humans in this equation will remain intact, but specific responsibilities and day-to-day tasks will surely evolve — and may even include managing or providing regular quality checks on the AI or automated tech.
The same is true for customer service professionals. Human employees are needed to handle direct interactions with customers and employees — AI is still years away from serving as an acceptable replacement. However, more basic tasks such as scheduling appointments, responding to routine emails, and even requesting and arranging payment plans are now being automated, leaving humans to do more nuanced work.
AI won’t necessarily replace humans in these fields, but we’ll need flexible job descriptions to adapt to technological advances and the impact they’ll have on traditional job titles and roles. Expanding beyond narrow job titles will be a critical aspect of the digital workplace as it’s streamlined by automated technology.
Job titles draw unnecessary boundaries.
As more repetitive tasks — such as data entry and transcription — are streamlined via technology, professionals will have more time to interact with or collaborate with people outside their own departments. Increased connectivity between departments can lead to employees becoming more productive while delivering work outputs that are more accurate, dynamic, and higher-quality.
Consider a luxury cruise company that wants to design new snack options to boost revenue and attract new and returning guests’ attention. Instead of handing the assignment over to the sales department or the marketing department alone, the business can bring together crew members, IT specialists, data analysts, and communications and marketing professionals. The resulting team is better able to identify common guest requests, effective marketing to announce the new snacks, and a polished digital order option that reinforces visitors’ perception of their luxury environment. Not only could the team come up with a comprehensive solution to corporate goals, but they could do it in one smooth process that emphasizes collaboration.
Additionally, on a more practical and less conceptual level, automation stands to impact workers at almost every level of an organization. As repetitive tasks are automated or accelerated through digital transformation, the people who used to perform them will be able to take on work that might not fit their original job description. Allowing employees to transcend job titles can boost productivity during a time when role responsibilities, as well as the skills that are needed to execute them, change faster than we as people managers can update job titles and descriptions. Rigid job descriptions are no longer appealing to modern workers who understand the value of continuous learning and collaboration to their future careers.
Don’t put people in a box.
In developing the jobs of the near future that will be filled by today’s talent, we need to focus on skills, not tasks. This will help to identify the right talent with the necessary skills to accomplish a goal, without locking individuals into a specific role or saddling them with inflexible job titles. In practice, this involves hiring managers, HR executives, and other people managers emphasizing development and growth, rather than portraying job responsibilities as constrained within a particular “lane.”
Additionally, it’s important to build structure around core competencies and responsibilities at the individual level. However, it’s better to approach this type of role development as a scaffolding rather than a completed building. Once hired, it’s equally vital to let employees branch out and collaborate with folks outside their day-to-day while still focusing their work on important tasks.
The bottom line: employees should feel empowered by supporting technology and digital transformation, encouraged to learn and grow outside of their normal daily work routine, and enthusiastic about the prospects of developing their careers without the pressures of stringent job descriptions, responsibilities, or titles.
Discover Past Posts