Strategic HR in focus: How senior leaders can implement work architecture model

Author: Laci Loew

Laci Loew

The traditional system of job architecture based on jobs and jobholders is inadequate for employers that want to increase human-centricity, upgrade the employee experience, attract and retain top talent, and improve organisational responsiveness to emerging social and political factors, writes XpertHR senior analyst, HR strategy and insights, Laci Loew.

Which employers are doing work architecture well?

Work architecture lays a roadmap for the future of work. It relies on a match between workers' capabilities and skills with work.

The benefits of work architecture are not limited to any one industry, organisational size or geography.

FedEx, Genentech, Hollywood Studios, HP, IBM, McDonald's, Ofwat and Procter & Gamble are among the work architecture success stories.

These organisations have proven that work architecture requires planning and long-term execution. No organisation can expect a successful work architecture experience overnight. And, in fact, it should not - that would be most disruptive.

However, an organisation with 100% flat jobs - ie relying on job architecture only without any investment in work architecture - is almost certainly obsolete.

Case study: Genentech's work architecture implementation

Genentech: overview

  • Industry: Biotechnology
  • Number of employees: 13,539 (July 2021)
  • Parent organisation: Roche Holding AG
  • Timing of work architecture implementation: During the COVID-19 pandemic


Genentech leadership believed that:

  • work flexibility, capabilities and skills are today's new engagement and retention currency; and
  • all job roles should have flexibility - when the work is done, how the work is done, where the work is done and who does the work - to stretch in alignment with the changing needs of the business.

HR and business leaders felt constrained by the words included (or excluded) in job descriptions to match employees most skilled with critical work streams, regardless of whether those streams are within the guardrails of a particular job role or not. They were worried about attracting and retaining top talent.

Genentech recognised that the labour market is a business problem not an HR problem. Genentech leadership acknowledged today's increasing empowerment of workers, and the increasing desires to have flexibility/collaboration and for leadership to pay attention to wellbeing.

Business goals

Genentech's business aims were to:

  • create a more equitable, flexible, and inclusive approach to working;
  • retain top talent; and
  • grow a democratised work ecosystem whereby work could be done by the most skilled/qualified, regardless of position, title, level, or function.

Genentech was a world-class example of change management and rapid agile development. The speed with which they engaged all of their stakeholders and gave them voice in the process and the speed with which they came up with designs; deconstructed roles; tested them; applied them; prototyped them; and then iterated was truly impressive.

Ravin Jesuthasan, author and speaker on the future of work

HR's perspective

The HR team's observations were that:

  • they cannot find the skillsets needed;
  • job descriptions do not seem to fit anymore;
  • automation is coming;
  • workers seem to be crafting their work in ways that do not fit their original job role;
  • maintaining the currency of thousands of job roles is cumbersome, time-consuming, and labour intensive; and
  • there is an internal marketplace, with everybody wanting to do passion-motivated projects.

Organisational actions

Genentech proceeded to:

  • deconstruct job roles swiftly to identify critical current and future skills;
  • identify opportunities for flexibility in each role, separating out skills that could be:
    • done only by humans;
    • automated; and
    • deprioritised based on current high-priority work;
  • listen to the employee voice on how work should get done; and
  • consider opportunities to reinvent work arrangements beyond traditional employment models and job hierarchies.

Key learnings from Genentech case study

  • Engage all stakeholders and give them a voice in the process.
  • Leverage analytics to inform critical skill areas for each job.
  • Build an internal talent marketplace to have skills needed on demand.
  • Set up leader expectations to support the work architecture model.

Business results

These changes resulted in:

  • speedier completion of high priority work;
  • better employee engagement;
  • reduced talent turnover;
  • improved organisational responsiveness to high-priority work and unplanned emergencies;
  • a more satisfactory employer brand rating; and
  • higher ratings around organisational commitment to democratising talent and inclusion.

Critical success factors for work architecture implementation

Making work architecture work requires creating skill pools and allocating work accordingly. It is a call for the transformation of key business and people processes. For example, work architecture relies on identifying the highest priority work. In organisations where there is no means to do that, it fails.

The key is to match work with skills to accelerate business performance while retaining some solid contributors in role. Only then can organisations improve the productivity of their workforce and amp up their business results.

Similarly, work architecture relies on internal knowledge about skills prevalent across a workforce. Without that insight, it fails. Without executive leadership sponsorship and leadership buy-in and accountability, it falters.

And finally, without training and an explanation of the "what's in it for me" for managers, supervisors, and the workers themselves, work architecture fails.

Factors critical to success of work architecture

Figure 1
  • Understand exactly which work is high priority: Without this knowledge and agreement among leadership, deploying workers to work outside of their current roles could be inefficient and poorly matched to skillsets. Leverage governance driven by strategic priorities set by the executive committee and gain buy-in from impacted functional areas.
  • Be clear about a worker's role and deliverables in the temporary, high-priority work assignment: Set the newly deployed worker up for success by defining and sharing well-documented responsibilities, timelines, deliverables and success metrics. Ensure leadership is available to answer initial and ongoing questions and remove roadblocks for success.

Good practice: HR change

Understanding and implementing HR transformation

Managing change successfully

  • Define clear people-leadership responsibilities: Be sure that the leader of the high-priority work takes ownership for work management and people development responsibilities. McKinsey describes five distinct leadership roles essential in work architecture. While many organisations will be unable to support flow-to-work so richly, the point is that to be successful, leaders must be aligned around the employee's responsibilities and who is supporting them on a daily basis.
  • Develop leaders in new competencies: Work architecture fundamentally changes how leaders create conditions for employees to make their best contributions. To ensure leaders are prepared, purposeful investment in the following competencies should be anticipated:
    • Technology fluency: Anticipate how technology and automation affect work.
    • Project guidance: Apply agile tools like scrum, sprints and hacks to oversee work.
    • Empowerment: Ensure individual and team success by allowing self-management.
    • Respect: Honour the aesthetic, cultural, and innovation the individual brings to the work.
    • Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) to Diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB): Assess whether work and its remuneration are distributed equitably, and personal bias does not get in the way of selecting employees for work assignments.

Five essential roles can make flow-to-work model successful

Figure 2

Source: McKinsey 2021

Work architecture will enhance the impact of leaders' humanity and ability to differentiate the good from the great.

John Boudreau, senior research scientist with the USC Center for Effective Organisations, said that work architecture "will require leaders and managers to excel at human leadership as they perpetually reinvent work; construct more transient, deconstructed, and highly efficient teams; and blend humans with technology".


The future of work will be defined by being less confined by the traditional boundaries of job architecture. Work will have fewer boundaries that have been routinely defined in the job description.

Good practice: Developing performance

Managing talent

Developing employee performance

Developing successful leaders in the workplace

The implications for HR are that there is an opportunity to look beyond the guardrails of job architecture and reshape the discipline to better align with new evidence and successes of work architecture. Doing so will enable work to be optimised, strengthen talent functions and outcomes, and accelerate the overall business impact.

Moreover, as automation, artificial intelligence (AI) and data analytics proliferate, the need to enhance job architecture with work architecture will increasingly affect more organisations and more of the work within them. The two strategies, job and work architecture, taken together will be the means to provide HR and business leaders with the ability to step up to a new way of working that accelerates business impact.

Survey respondents from McKinsey research report total returns to shareholders are higher than competitors by speed and agility of organisation to allocate talent to work.

Dynamic talent allocation increases odds of success

Figure 3

1 Respondents were asked about their organization's current total returns to shareholders and speed of talent allocation.

Slow = "very slow" (1) or "slow" (2); moderate = "neither slow nor fast" (3); dynamic = "fast" (4) or "very fast" (5).

Source: McKinsey Quarterly Winning with Talent Survey (n = 628)

While every organisation needs to assess the viability of work architecture, there is no question that institutionalising work architecture, even at the most modest level, is a call to action for the future of work.

Are you ready to join the ranks of those being held up as work architecture success stories?