Structured vs. Unstructured Work: What’s the Difference and Which Is Best for You?

structured versus unstructured work

Most educators are familiar with the idea that there are four types of learners: visual, auditory, reading, and kinesthetic. In the world of work, a similar concept is divided into two types of office environments: structured and unstructured. Some employees thrive and learn best in one more than the other. Many are able to work in both, but prefer one over the other.

To get the most out of yourself and your team, you first must understand these two modes of work and how they can be achieved.

Structured Work

Structured work is most common in larger organizations. It involves clear, specific tasks that are expected to be done in a certain order, at a certain time. The work is well-documented and scheduled. There should never be a question about a person is assigned to work on. Expectations are easily understood, and employees can expect consistent feedback from management.

Unstructured Work

Most people in the workforce spend a majority of their time on unstructured work. It is made up of the day-to-day tasks that keep the organization running such as meetings and responding to emails. The tasks have much more flexibility than structured work tasks. Team members may rarely get feedback from management, and it is largely up to each individual to learn on the job, plan as they go, and complete tasks however they see fit.

Which Is Best for You?

If the idea of being creative and paving your own path sounds perfect, you may want to find a primarily unstructured work environment. With fewer defined task descriptions, there's more room for creativity and innovation. There's also less micro-management in an unstructured office, which allows employees to succeed — and fail — on their own. This culture also tends to generate more communication and collaboration between employees. Without a supervisor readily available or a document to consult, peers are encouraged to solve problems together. That's a good thing, if you know you have the self motivation to keep going without clear expectations and clear feedback.

If you would rather show up to work every day knowing exactly what's expected of you, seek to work in a structured organizational culture. Deliverables and deadlines will be clearly defined. Check-ins with management and stakeholders will be regularly scheduled. Put simply, there's far less uncertainty and more oversight in a structured work environment. Policies and procedures are clearly defined and expected to be followed.

It's helpful to have a clear sense of which mode of work you prefer before going into a job interview, since it's not uncommon for an interviewer to ask. Don't evade the question, especially because you can’t get it wrong and you don’t want to end up on a team that doesn't match your style. If you do, you'll likely end up disappointing yourself and your employer. So for the sake of both parties, know yourself and play to your natural strengths.

If you're not preparing for a job interview any time soon, pay attention to your current work environment. Do you find comfort in structure or does it feel stifling? Do you enjoy the possibilities of an unstructured environment or does it stress you out? If your current work environment doesn't match your needs, you may be able to work with your team to compromise. After all, your team likely wants to create an environment where you can produce your best work.

Finding the Best of Both Worlds

In today’s fast-paced, diverse workforce, project managers should make it a goal to include structured and unstructured organizational processes. The Workfront 2019 State of Work Report found that “while 64 percent of workers say their workplace regularly asks employees to think of how they can do things in a completely new way, 58 percent say they’re so swamped with getting day-to-day work done that they don’t have time to think beyond their daily to-do list.” Innovation is what moves companies forward. Your team members need time to brainstorm and gather new ideas in addition to completing their everyday tasks.

A blend of structured and unstructured work can help you find a sweet spot of accelerated productivity and ingenuity. This can be accomplished by using an efficient operational system of record. The right work management tool will help bring structure where isn’t any, while still allowing for flexibility and creativity. It will bring order to some of the work chaos, without stifling those employees who prefer an unstructured environment.

In Workfront, unstructured, repetitive, day-to-day tasks are automated, driving greater productivity. Social-style updates and dashboards add some structure to collaborative projects that aren’t usually run by a trained project manager. Instead of communicating through several different email chains and applications, an entire team can look to one place for all relevant correspondence.

In 2009, Trek Bicycle Corporation set out to increase the company’s overall efficiency. “Our process wasn’t very efficient and we still had no way to really communicate collaboratively with our offices in Taiwan, China, or Germany,” said Steve Malchow, Trek’s vice president of operations. The senior manager of the Trek team said he spent 40 percent of his time trying to connect with their global teams. After deploying Workfront’s enterprise work management platform, team members regained 30 percent of their time for innovation and improvement. They added some structure, while freeing up time for those who prefer to tap into their creative side with unstructured work.

Today’s workforce looks much different than it did even 10 years ago. In the foreword of Workfront CEO Alex Shootman’s book, Done Right, Ray Wang, the founder of Constellation Research writes: “The modern workplace has radically transformed. Where we work, how we work, what we work on, who we work with, and why we work no longer appear the same. As five generations of workers enter the modern workforce, leaders face challenges in how they inspire their organizations to execute in highly competitive market places. Not only do leaders have to attract the right talent, but they also have to ensure that their teams can succeed in the right organizational structure while dealing with massive change. This shift requires some new modus operandi for culture, leadership, and vision. Organizations need a defining direction.”

ray wang

Work management tools make it possible for organizations to mix the productivity of structured work with the flexibility of unstructured work. Everyone will be able to get their day-to-day work finished quicker, and seamlessly switch to formal, planned out projects within the same portal. Whether they prefer structured or unstructured work, there is something to help everyone stay on task and collaborate. We all learn and work differently, and it’s now easier than ever to leverage this diversity to propel your business forward.