• Carole Katz

Work design is the new black: Or is it orange?



In Australia, winter season is often Netflix season - that is, why we were happy when we saw that (since June 9) the new season of "Orange Is The New Black" is streaming on Netflix and we can binge-watch the Emmy-winning show again.

While we realize that the show is partly fictional and partly based on the biographical memories of Piper Kerman, we also discovered that the series provides the viewers with some good examples about the impact of work design on both inmates and prison staff.

A 2015 article from the The Washington Post stated that the show is "the best show about work since ‘The Wire’".

In season 3, the show gives vivid examples of how running the prison kitchen can provide an important source of job significance (and what happens if we take it away). More interestingly, the show illustrates how restructuring measures (due to privatization of the prison) relate to changes in work design:

"When Red [the kitchen chef] does get back in the kitchen, though, she returns just as MCC [the private prison company] institutes a new food supply chain, turning kitchen work into a matter of preparing boil-in-the-bag meals and denying Red the creativity that sustained her. Though she’s initially discouraged, Red ends up using her connections in the garden to prepare a series of locally sourced, limited-attendance dinners. MCC may have gotten per-meal costs at Litchfield down to the average the company was aiming for, but it’s sacrificed the much greater value of Red’s talents."

(Quoted from The Washington Post, July 9, 2015)

There are many more examples from the show that help us understand how work design can be a source of motivation and creativity.

Without spoiling too much of the last fourth and the (now streaming) fifth season, we can tell that an emerging topic is the question how an organisation can manage the tension between giving (both inmates and guards) control versus flexibility – with very entertaining examples on how too-much of control and autonomy-restrictive measures can fire back easily.

Those readers who feel that watching the shows blurs the lines between fiction versus scientific evidence of work design might be more interested in scientific studies around the effects of job characteristics on prison staff (for example, the negative effects of job autonomy and skill variety on burn-out or the effect of work characteristics on organisational commitment) .

However, the Netflix-show might also stimulate some thinking around the question how far work design does not only impact on the well-being of prison staff but may also relate to the well-being of the respective inmates.


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The Centre for Transformative Work Design

is part of the Future of Work Institute at Curtin University.

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