Is There A Division of Labor Any More?

I am struck by how an organization places all the required tasks that were once performed by other organizational members on an existing organizational member who has distinct roles and responsibilities prior to staffing changes. Certain employees moved on to other jobs but their positions are not filled. As a result, the organization that once had a division of labor has become one that is unstructured and is somewhat disorganized.

As those positions are not filled, the existing member who has the most experienced and has a broad-based work experience was asked to carry those tasks. The organization discussed here eventually expanded the mission and added more staff to the existing structure. Consequently, there are added assignments but the structure remains the same. All of these added functions are new, and the vacated positions remain unfilled. Additional workload due to the increase of staff size increases the complexity and the responsibilities of the existing staff who has already taken on in whole or in part of the duties that were once carried out by those who left the organization.

The roles and responsibilities in this new structure are not sufficiently supporting the organization that is being discussed with respect to what an effective organization is required. As employees leave or are being added to the organization, it is necessary to review the roles and responsibilities and to ensure that no one has to take on the extra load as human beings have limitations. While certain employees may be willing to take on additional responsibilities to support the mission under a severe staffing crisis, they should not be taken for granted. As more staff are added, the organization needs to think of who will support the administrative functions of these new personnel and to review the division of labor and organizational structure.

Organizational structure is the manner in which an organization divides its labor into specific tasks and achieves coordination among these tasks. Organizational structure intervenes between goals and organizational accomplishments, and thus influences organizational effectiveness. Structure affects how effectively and efficiently group effort is coordinated. Labor has to be divided because individuals have physical and intellectual limitations. No reasonable person can take on so many added responsibilities and tasks that were the duties of others for so long as the effectiveness of the organization will be eventually impacted by this unreasonable workload.

Each organization has structure and a division of labor to ensure that work will be carried out to accomplish the mission and no single person should be required to take on so many distinct roles in this “division of labor” as positions are left unfilled. Employees have physical and intellectual limitations. Organizational structure and division of labor must be reviewed and reorganized every time there are changes in staffing levels to ensure that the workload will be fairly distributed among organizational members and to ensure a long term survival for both employees and the organization. Do not take anything for granted. Leaders and senior managers should be fair in workload distribution and care for the welfare of their employees. You will regret not to do the right thing. Are you aware of a similar situation? I would like to hear your story~ Dr. Phuong Le Callaway, (PhD) in Organization and Management/Human Resource Management.

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Carol Kruse

Fascinating information, Phuong! A whole new perspective for me, thank you for introducing me to this!!! I’d venture to say most workers — at any level including leadership — aren’t consciously aware of the organizational structure and division of labor aspects of their organizations or of doing their jobs, generating outputs, meeting organizational goals, etc. And I doubt most leadership in any sector addresses those aspects until things reach a crisis point in their organization.

I work for a local office of a federal agency, and we certainly fit the scenario of those who stay behind having to permanently absorb the work tasks of those who’ve left (usually without promotion or increase in pay…eventually those added tasks just become part of their regular job). While there has been some (minimal) discussion about having to adjust our national and local goals as a result of declining budgets and declining numbers of staff, no performance metrics have actually been lowered or “taken off the plate” yet, as far as I’m aware. I see some colleagues working too hard, for too many hours, under too much stress, to be healthy — or to be maximally productive. Due to past divisions of labor, it’s often difficult for those not so overburdened (yet) to step in and help those who are. Training someone to help you, or at least giving them adequate direction, often takes more time and energy than just doing it yourself.

I would posit that for something as all-encompassing that affects every individual in an organization as a structural or division of labor re-organization, an organization-wide, open discussion is essential when beginning the process. Employees are empowered by contributing ideas and thoughts and hearing others’ ideas and thoughts, knowing budgetary and other constraints, and feeling as if they’re a part of the discussion and decision; they’re also much more likely to look forward to and embrace changes, even if they don’t completely agree with them. That buy-in shows up in the bottom line of increased productivity. And, since collaborative process among diverse participants tends to generate optimal solutions for the whole, great ideas about how to make the changes might never surface without that all-inclusive discussion! Without open discussion among all levels in an organization, disenchantment, resentment, even fear and perceived intimidation will likely affect morale negatively and, therefore, lower productivity.

Okay, so in my mind I’m already “hearing” protests that such an organization-wide conversation about changing organizational structure, goals, workforce, divisions of labor, etc., would be too disruptive — but I strongly disagree. I believe a thoughtfully-structured, all-inclusive conversation process would in fact be cohesive, facilitate higher morale, and promote stronger dedication to employees’ work, their contribution toward the organization’s goals…and maybe even loyalty to the organization!


I’ve been facing this as well for about 5 years or so – I’ve lost count. Other dangers of this include organizational and task knowledge being with one person that would be lost if they were to retire, go for another job, etc. as well as giving that person so much more work that they begin doing work outside of the job class specification.

David B. Grinberg

Excellent observations, Phuong.

Unfortunately, gov agencies are suffering through the most severe era of budget austerity in decades. What this often equates to is NOT the wrong-headed and popular slogan “less is more” but rather the obvious truth that “less is less” — for agencies, employees and the general public. That’s a lose-lose situation.

Perhaps if America wises up and elects in new leadership to the House in 2014 we will see a welcome turn around. But unless and until that happens it will continue to be a slow burn for everyone.