SMART Work Enables Agency
The third letter in the SMART work framework stands for Agency.
Work scheduling refers to the extent to which you are able to organise your own schedule, while work methods refers to the extent to which you can choose the methods in which to achieve your work goals. Decision making refers to the extent to which you are able to make judgements and decisions individually.
Whilst some jobs will inherently involve a higher degree of agency than others, there is always ways in which to improve this aspect of work design.
Qualities of High Agency Jobs
For example, jobs with a high degree of agency allow individuals to:
control the timing and scheduling of their tasks
decide upon the best methods of completing a task, including the chance to show initiative
make decisions independently and feel empowered in doing so
“We are allowed so much freedom to use our creativity here.”
Qualities of Low
In contrast, jobs with a low degree of agency can involve:
a lack of flexibility or limited chances in which to provide input towards the scheduling and timing of tasks
excessive bureaucracy and red tape limiting the availability of different work methods
retribution and criticism for mistakes and micromanagement from supervisors
“It was hard not to have any control over my job – you don’t have input, everything is set out for you.”
Call Centre Operator
What Are the Risks of Low Agency Jobs?
Work that is overly restrictive, with little room for input or independent decision making poses a number of risks for individuals and organisations:
One of the key risks for employees who experience a low degree of agency in their work relates to mental health. A recent study showed that employees who had jobs with minimal agency had a 20-25% increased risk of experiencing mental health issues .
For organisations, the risks of overly controlling work, with little room for input are extensive. Research has demonstrated that enhancing agency can lead to improved safety outcomes, employee engagement, skill development/learning, productivity and proactivity  .
Research shows that job autonomy (alongside communication quality) was a significant predictor for increased safety compliance. Further analysis demonstrated that this effect occurred due to individuals with a high degree of job agency feeling more committed to the organisation and therefore more likely to follow safety rules .
A longitudinal study over 18 months demonstrated that work design features such as high degrees of agency and social support were positively related to increased personal resources such as perceived self-efficacy, organisational based self-esteem and optimism. These were linked together in a reciprocal relationship with employee engagement .
Strategies to Increase Agency
Micromanager from hell? No way to have a say in the direction of your organisation? Fear not, there are a number of practical strategies you can implement to try and improve the overall agency of your role. Here are some practical tips for you to try out:
Strategies for Employees
Here are some practical tips to try and help increase the agency of your work:
Speak to your manager about any projects that in which you could take ownership. Often smaller scale projects can be a great opportunity to demonstrate value whilst still building valuable skills.
If you are able to identify a more effective or efficient method of carrying out your work, develop a business case for it that you can take to your manager. Often, work is carried out in the same manner because ‘that’s how it’s always been done’. Creating a business case will help to make the switch less risky for your manager.
If you have other skills that aren’t directly related to your job such as graphic design or presentation skills, bring these to the attention of your manager. If it is an area in which you are seen to be an expert, you will be more likely to given some room to decide the best way to complete the task.
Strategies for Managers
Improving the sense of agency within your team can lead to a myriad of benefits. A few strategies you can try out are listed below:
Take an active interest in developments and advancements of your field through reading articles, listening to podcasts and attending conferences. You can then use this information to help inspire your team towards using different methods in which to achieve their goals.
At times when you have had to make difficult decisions or implement new organisational changes, use this as a learning opportunity. Distil key learnings and your thought processes in to short case studies to share with your team.
Try to minimise the extent to which mistakes are unnecessarily punished. By moving away from a blame culture and towards a solutions focus, you will help encourage your staff to take a more proactive approach which can positively impact on innovation and creativity.
If you feel bogged down in the manner in which your team carries out tasks, try consulting with team and colleagues both within and outside the organisation. Discuss the methods they use and see if there are any suggestions for change.
'Agency' in Action
 SafeWork NSW. (2017). Review of evidence of psychosocial risks for mental ill-health in the workplace.
 Parker, S. K., (2015). Does the evidence and theory support the ‘Good Work Design Principles’: An educational resource. Safe Work Australia.
 Parker, S. K. (2014). Beyond motivation: Job and work design for development, health, ambidexterity, and more. Annual Review of Psychology, 65, 661-691.
 Parker, S. K., Wall, T. D., & Cordery, J. L. (2001). Future work design research and practice: Towards an elaborated model of work design. Journal of occupational and organizational psychology, 74(4), 413-440.
 Xanthopoulou, D., Bakker, A. B., Demerouti, E., & Schaufeli, W. B. (2009). Reciprocal relationships between job resources, personal resources, and work engagement. Journal of Vocational behavior, 74(3), 235-244.