How Well-Designed Work Makes Us Smarter

Work that permits autonomy, demands problem-solving, and meets other criteria for good design can bolster employees’ cognitive skills and ongoing learning.

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Rob Dobi/

Promoting worker learning is an increasingly urgent priority: To succeed at executing technology-driven strategies, a company must have a workforce that can rapidly adapt to and master new tools, processes, and roles. As AI systems automate more manual and routine tasks, humans will likely take on work that is more cognitively challenging.1 All of this makes it increasingly critical that managers understand how to foster cognition and accelerate learning in the workplace.2

We already know that both on-the-job learning and expert knowledge are strong drivers of higher worker performance.3 But how can we further enhance work to promote learning? Is it possible to speed up people’s informal learning at work? Can some types of work make people more (or less) intelligent over time? Our research addresses these important questions. The results show that not all work is equal when it comes to fostering learning — but the differences do not result from the type of work being done. From a review of research studies across multiple disciplines (including organizational psychology, occupational health, ergonomics, and gerontology), we identified the powerful role of work design for enhancing workers’ cognition.4 This means that, irrespective of a person’s occupation, more learning will happen when work is well designed.

Work design is about the nature of people’s work — for example, which tasks workers do and how many tasks they have — as well as how the work is organized, such as whether people work on a team or independently.5 In this article, we’ll describe five aspects of work design that we identified as shaping worker cognition, and ways to maximize them to boost learning. We’ll also discuss the implications that this research has for an aging workforce and provide recommendations that managers can put into practice.



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2. S.K. Parker and G. Grote, “Automation, Algorithms, and Beyond: Why Work Design Matters More Than Ever in a Digital World,” Applied Psychology, Feb. 13, 2020,

3. C.P. Cerasoli, G.M. Alliger, J.S. Donsbach, et al., “Antecedents and Outcomes of Informal Learning Behaviors: A Meta-Analysis,” Journal of Business and Psychology 33, no. 2 (April 2018): 203-230; and J.A. Carpini, S.K. Parker, and M.A. Griffin, “A Look Back and a Leap Forward: A Review and Synthesis of the Individual Work Performance Literature,” Academy of Management Annals 11, no. 2 (June 2017): 825-885.

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11. Cerasoli et al., “Antecedents and Outcomes,” 203-230.

12. A.N. Kluger and A. DeNisi, “The Effects of Feedback Interventions on Performance: A Historical Review, a Meta-Analysis, and a Preliminary Feedback Intervention Theory,” Psychological Bulletin 119, no. 2 (March 1996): 254-284.

13. L.A. Steelman, P.E. Levy, and A.F. Snell, “The Feedback Environment Scale: Construct Definition, Measurement, and Validation,” Educational and Psychological Measurement 64, no. 1 (February 2004): 165-184.

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16. T.A. Salthouse, “Mental Exercise and Mental Aging: Evaluating the Validity of the ‘Use It or Lose It’ Hypothesis,” Perspectives on Psychological Science 1, no. 1 (March 2006): 68-87; and Y. Stern, “Cognitive Reserve in Ageing and Alzheimer’s Disease,” The Lancet Neurology 11, no. 11 (November 2012): 1006-1012.

17. G.G. Fisher, A. Stachowski, F.J. Infurna, et al., “Mental Work Demands, Retirement, and Longitudinal Trajectories of Cognitive Functioning,” Journal of Occupational Health Psychology 19, no. 2 (April 2014): 231.

18. K.Y. Pan, W. Xu, F. Mangialasche, et al., “Working Life Psychosocial Conditions in Relation to Late-Life Cognitive Decline: A Population-Based Cohort Study,” Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease 67, no. 1 (2019): 315-325.

19. T.W.H. Ng and D.C. Feldman, “The Relationship of Age to Ten Dimensions of Job Performance,” Journal of Applied Psychology 93, no. 2 (March 2008): 392.

20. R. Andel, M. Crowe, E.A. Hahn, et al., “Work-Related Stress May Increase the Risk of Vascular Dementia,” Journal of the American Geriatrics Society 60, no. 1 (January 2012): 60-67.

21. A. Parent-Thirion, I. Biletta, J. Cabrita, et al., “6th European Working Conditions Survey: 2017 Update,” PDF file (Luxembourg: European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, 2017),

22. J. Rothwell and S. Crabtree, “How COVID-19 Affected the Quality of Work” (Washington, D.C.: Gallup, 2020).

23. S.K. Parker, D.M. Andrei, and A. Van den Broeck, “Poor Work Design Begets Poor Work Design: Capacity and Willingness Antecedents of Individual Work Design Behavior,” Journal of Applied Psychology 104, no. 7 (July 2019): 907.

24. The SMART model is based on S.K. Parker and C. Knight’s “A Higher-Order Analysis of Work Design Characteristics,” which is currently under review. Practical information about the model is available at

25. C. Knight and S.K. Parker, “How Work Redesign Interventions Affect Performance: An Evidence-Based Model From a Systematic Review,” Human Relations 74, no. 1 (January 2021): 69-104.

26. M. Tims, A.B. Bakker, and D. Derks, “Development and Validation of the Job Crafting Scale,” Journal of Vocational Behavior 80, no. 1 (February 2012): 173-186.

27. S. O’Mahony and B.A. Bechky, “Stretchwork: Managing the Career Progression Paradox in External Labor Markets,” Academy of Management Journal 49, no. 5 (October 2006): 918-941.

i. X. Parent-Rocheleau and S.K. Parker, “Algorithms as Work Designers: How Algorithmic Management Influences the Design of Jobs,” Human Resource Management Review, May 10, 2021,

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Comments (4)
pedro gavides
Very good research work on improvements in work design beyond the use of new technologies. They place human capital and continuous learning as a flag in the improvements of the work environment and therefore in the best quality of it
John wilson
This is an awesome article!!! An unquestionable requirement read for this advanced time.
Edwin Weckend
It's an in-depth and competent information. Thank you for the advice.
Joelle Bixby
This is a fantastic article!!! A must read for O&D and L&D professionals for this modern era.