About a year ago, a couple of colleagues and I had the idea of studying how organizations are trying to improve knowledge work these days. My colleagues (Bob Thomas and Sue Cantrell) reminded me of the current tendency to call just about anybody a knowledge worker. So as not to run afoul of this trend, we decided not to focus on just any old knowledge worker, but rather on the “high end” variety. Not programmers, but Senior IT Architects. Not paralegals, but Senior Attorneys. Not financial analysts, but Very Well-Paid Investment Bankers. We reasoned that those types of workers are increasingly important to organizations. Surely companies across the land were singling out these people for special treatment and bringing organizational, technological and architectural resources to bear on making them more productive and effective.
Well, we were wrong. We talked to more than 30 companies, each of which had plenty of such people. Each also had some kind of initiative to improve the work lives of knowledge workers already under way. But hardly a one of them had any focus on the “high end.” In fact, some even objected to the idea of singling out a group of knowledge workers for special treatment?even though many of these organizations certainly gave a variety of special treatments to senior executives. When we found a handful of companies that would admit they had high-end knowledge workers?and even that those workers sometimes got special privileges and attention?they still didn’t want to go public with it. A strong sense of democratic ideals?or a politically correct facsimile of them?prevented any notion that these high-end knowledge people are worth singling out.
We didn’t want to take no for an answer, however?that would’ve made for a very brief research project. So we asked the companies what they were doing on behalf of regular old knowledge workers. Again, we were a bit frustrated. They were doing a lot, they told us, such as:
- Putting workers in open work settings to facilitate communication (and reduce costs, the cynic might say)
- Placing workers in closed offices to facilitate heads-down concentration (really not so much of this)
- Installing Web-based conferencing tools to encourage virtual relationships (read: reduce travel costs)
- Sending people home to facilitate work-life balance (trusty cynical sidekick: sublease a floor of offices or two)
- Bringing people back into the office to facilitate the growth of social capital and trust…
Well, you get the picture. Nobody seemed to have much evidence that what they were doing would work, although they often had strong opinions and financially based motivations. Most discouraging, few companies were doing much to measure the results of their initiatives, ensuring there would be no findings of any rigor. All those experiments, yet no measures, no control groups, no pre- or post-implementation observations.
Still, we learned a few things from our visits and interviews. First?whether or not you agree on the concept of high-end workers?all knowledge workers are not alike. There are “sitters” and there are “movers.” There are “talkers” and there are “thinkers.” Some like working at home, and some can’t get a damn thing done there. Even if your company does only one thing?say, corporate law?your senior partners will spend much of the day communicating with clients while your junior associates will be hunched over their keyboards.
It’s clear that, at the very least, you need some segmentation of your knowledge workforce. Intel used to treat all its knowledge workers alike in terms of offices and technology, but its new approach allows for several variations. Providing alternatives to the standard cubicle made it possible to reduce overall space needs (because all workers weren’t there all the time) and increase employee satisfaction, retention and morale.
One easy and cheap way to make knowledge workers happy is to give them some freedom in their work environments. Product design company Ideo is the poster child for such an approach. Employees there can bring in just about anything to customize and jazz up their space, from surfboards to old motorcycles. It doesn’t cost Ideo anything, it makes the workers happy, and the company is one of the most creative and productive design shops on the planet.
Similarly, we found that the work-at-home question should be pretty much left up to the individual. It doesn’t seem to work very well to have people work at home for extended periods?out of sight, out of mind and all that. So the company doesn’t save a lot by closing office space.
We also discovered that the solutions for making knowledge work better should cut across organizational functions. If you’re going to coordinate a move to virtual officing or hoteling, for example, you need to involve?at a minimum?real estate and IT people and probably HR too, since worker-supervisor relationships will be affected. You might even need some advice from legal to make sure you don’t get sued when Joe Bloggs falls out of his chair in his home office. British Petroleum’s “Office of the Future” initiative combines new workspaces, organizational change and technology. Executives have home audio links and videoconferencing capabilities and, in the office, wireless LANs and team spaces with “smart boards.” They all have PDAs with both generic and BP-specific applications. Such mobility-enhancing technologies allow a much higher degree of work-life flexibility.
We found some in-depth examples of cross-functional coordination, though more examples are needed. Cisco Systems, for one, created a joint task force to design a new knowledge work environment. The group first explored key drivers that would influence its approach, such as Cisco’s business strategy and company goals, the organization’s culture, and related initiatives, such as improving customer satisfaction. Then the HR representative described the future characteristics of Cisco’s workforce, and IT’s representative provided a vision for the technologies expected to impact the workplace in the next several years. Over time, the task force developed a vision for what the workplace of the future would need based on the way the workforce and technology were evolving.
Finally, of the three possible improvement domains?IT, physical space and organizational changes?IT is perhaps the least well understood. Most organizations we talked with were trying out a variety of tools for collaboration, messaging, knowledge sharing and productivity (calendaring, meeting arrangements, peer-to-peer file sharing), but there were few standards in evidence. Best practices consisted only of supplying lots of training for new knowledge work technology. Rarely was the IT experimentation accompanied by any measurement. Without that, it will be hard to make progress. We’ve been experimenting with IT support for knowledge work for several decades now. When will we figure out what works?
If you’re making progress toward enhancing the performance of your knowledge workers or, God forbid, you’ve figured it all out, by all means send me an e-mail.