Making sense of knowledge worker productivity

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By John Blackwell

Edition 8 – Winter 2016 Pages 20-25

Tags: flexible working • HR • productivity

Just as there was a revolution in the 13th Century when an obscure German blacksmith Johannes Gutenberg created the first printing press which led wide-spread access to the written word and rapid transferred power from the monarchies, ruling political elite and religious authorities to the masses, there has been a similar shifting in workplaces over the last decade. The creativity and inventiveness of Herr Gutenberg permanently altered the structure of society and led to the unrestricted circulation of information.

Prior to this, it took massive dedication and time of monks to handcraft illuminated books written in Latin – a language that was scarcely understood by the masses. Due to Gutenberg’s work, it’s directly possible to link the sharp increase in literacy of the masses to the overthrow of most of Europe’s ruling monarchies, the agriculture and subsequent industrial revolutions and even, with easily reproducible maps, the discovery of America.

A 21st Century workforce parallel

The truth is that we’ve created a very similar scenario to Gutenberg within our 21st Century workforces. Over the last decade, we have successfully educated the workforces across the Western world that ‘work’ isn’t something only understood by an elite senior ruling executive group.

Work has become vastly demystified.

Employees know full well that technology is no longer the preserve of a select corporate ‘IT specialists’ talking in obscure impenetrable three-letter acronyms. The widespread consumer adoption of tablet computing, where’s there’s no serviceable parts, it starts at the single push of a button, lacks the frustrating lengthy boot-up (there’s a word soon to be confined to history), and is driven by highly effective apps that can be created by a teenager in their bedroom has transformed the understanding of technology and its role.

Similarly, employees are equally aware that work can be undertaken from any location. A Starbucks, hotel, a temporary office, a regional hub, a co-working space or indeed any other location that offers high-speed connectivity can be equally as effective as a vast corporate HQ.

However, despite all these advances and understandings, productivity across the UK is down by 17% over the last decade and executive leaders commonly exhibit a hazy understanding of the challenge, never mind how to address the problem of why isn’t work working?

Could it be that the ruling elite are losing touch with the workforce? If so, what needs to change?

Drawing on a recent substantial research study titled “Creating today’s workplace for tomorrow’s talent” where circa 3,000 people provided insight intocorrelations between employee engagement, talent retention, workplace design, quality of life and enhancing productivity amongst knowledge workers.

The most notable findings were around gender balance. While there is an overall 62% male to 38% female ratio in the knowledge worker field, by the time people reach ‘top management’ main board level, the male to female ratio has dwindled to 79% male to 21% female representation. At CEO level, the problem reaches crisis level – just 7% of FTSE 100 CEOs are women and a pitiful 4% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women.

This gender imbalance really presents a major challenge for all knowledge worker dependent organisations and sends out a massively bleak message about career development.

For the last fourteen years, we have tracked the output (i.e. graduates) of the top 100 universities. Progressively, women have increasingly dominated this output to the point where today close to 70% of graduates in the UK are now women.

While forecasting the future of work is a fool’s errand – there are just far too many variables – one forward factor can be projected with impunity, and that’s workforce demographics. Every respectable economy around the world knows exactly how many births and deaths there are in their country. This means that projecting future workforce numbers and composition is an extremely precise science.

It’s interesting to consider the significant shift workers over the age of 55. In 1990, about 10% of the workforce was over 55. By 2010 that had risen to 26% and by 2030, the proportion of older workers (over 55) will exceed 50%.

Bringing focus onto these talent dynamics, over the next decade the UKs Department for Work & Pensions (DWP) has projected that there will be 13.5 million job vacancies however hard data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that less than 7 million people will be leaving schools and universities to join the workforce during that time period. This means that potentially half of these job vacancies will go unfilled – presenting a vast gulf must be filled somehow, and quickly.

Clearly, with all these talent dynamics coupledwith slump in UK productivity, it demands that organisations across all sectors must act swiftly and decisively to remain competitive in the knowledge worker market.Given lengthening life spans, there must be a substantially increased focus on keeping working past traditional retirement age and crucially, attracting far more women into the workplace.

There are demonstrable advantages for organisations achieving a gender balance – 42% higher return on sales; 66% higher return on invested capital; 53% higher return on equity. However, women are four times more likely than men to think they have fewer opportunities to advance because of their gender – and twice as likely to think their gender will make it harder for them to advance in the future.

Emergence of the knowledge worker

First coined in 1957 by the man dubbed the founder of modern management, Peter Drucker, he submitted that knowledge workers would be”…the most valuable asset of a 21st Century institution, whether business or non-business, will be its knowledge workers and their productivity…”. It took until the mid-late 1990s for knowledge workers to proliferating the workforce in significant numbers and putting this into perspective,today the UK’s service sector, which represents 77% of the country’s overall GDP, is predominantly staffed by knowledge workers. And knowledge work is spreading rapidly across every industry sector. It’s widely accepted that 97% of all jobs will require internet access within the next two years.

By implication, knowledge work demands simultaneous divergent and convergent thinking, and most often demands collaboration, creativity and innovation. All of this draws on the single largest muscle in the body – the brain. Like any athlete honing their muscles, this huge muscle needs careful attention to get it to perform consistently at its best. The brain consumes 25-30% of all energy input into the body consequently it demands better understanding of how best to consistently fuel this muscle to ensure it performs at its optimal peak.

Knowledge workers are also more likely to work for organisations that they think are innovative or achievement orientated albeit neither feature seems to overly appeal to them. And the value of a top knowledge worker cannot be underestimated, Google for instance estimates that the business impact of its top performers can be up to 300 times that of the average employee.

Knowledge workers potentially have greater flexibility at work than those in less knowledge intensive jobs, but strikingly the differences are not so overwhelming. In reality, despite being perfectly capable of, and being trusted to work at alternate locationsas long as it has a good Wi-Fi connection, less than 60% of knowledge workers state that they have some flexibility in their work schedule compared to just below 50% of the overall working population.

Understanding productivity

Being blunt, most organisations around the world struggle to understand how to improve the effectiveness of their staff, especially those whose jobs mainly consist of interacting with other people.

Sadly, many executives have a poor understanding of the factors influencing productivity or, worse still, they simply do not truly understand what it takes to boost productivity for knowledge workers.

On returning home at the end of the working day and greeted with the ubiquitous “have you had a good day at work?” every single person intuitively knows how to answer. No one needs to refer to their balanced scorecard to answer, people intuitively know whether they’ve had another day walking through treacle or a day being productive.

The difficulty is that people are inherently messy, every one of us is individual with our own quirks, sensitivities and preferences, so it’s hardly surprising that dictating productivity from the top down is such a nonsense.

Since knowledge workers spend half their time on interactions, research and experience suggest that organisations should first explore the barriers that obstruct these interactions.

Our study indicated that more than half of all interactions are constrained by one of four barriers; physical and technical, social or cultural, contextual, and temporal.

Physical and technical

Do you work with people on a different planet? Ok, so maybe not a different planet but maybe right here on earth, just on a different continent?

If so, you understand the difficulties of working with those in differing time zones and how thiscomes hand in hand with technical issues – usually because of the lack of effective tools for locating the right people. Obviously collaborating becomes even more pronounced when they are far away.

However, one remedy can be to create ‘communities of practice’ for people who could benefit from one another’s advice. By adding electronic tools with videoconferencing and the occasional in-person meeting, communities can bridge physical distances and build meaningful relationships.

Social or cultural

Experiencerepeatedly shows that most companies believe they can do no wrong, they have the best organisation – ever – and have by far the best incentives for their employees. But do employees actually believe that rhetoric? The answer is probably not.

And that’s because rigid hierarchy and/or incentives that are totally ineffective, actually discourage employees to engage. In acceptance of that, some organisations have decided to pull their heads out of the sand and have created a series of case studies, drawn from real events in the organisation’s past to illuminate its values, processes, and norms.

These cases are then discussed with new hired staff in small groups, promoting a broader understanding of how the organisation works and encouraging a broad culture of knowledge sharing and collaborative problem solving.

Contextual

Employees who face contextual barriers struggle to share and translate knowledge obtained from colleagues in different fields. To overcome contextual barriers, organisations can rotate employees across teams and divisions or create forums where specialists in different areas can learn about one another’s work. Whether they do or not is a different story altogether.

Temporal

This is basically time, or rather the perceived lack of it. In many cases, organisations need to clarify decision rights and changing roles to reduce the interaction burden on some employees while increasing it on others.

Are we engaging?

It’s all about a ‘mutual gains’ employment relationship when it comes to employee engagement. Creating a win-win for employees and their employers with both parties ‘going the extra mile’, feeling ‘valued’ and ‘passionate’ for their work.

The question is, if this is all we need to do to engage our workforce, why is employee engagement so difficult?

Given the increasing complexity of the work we do and how we work, and the diverse nature of the workforce, organisations must become far, far better at developing their people management skills. All too often, the focus has been on the technical skills, but then not supporting on the ‘soft’ skills, which actually are the more challenging skills to develop and acquire, and the most important in driving long term engagement and organisational success.

It can be really difficult for organisations to effectively create engagement amongst their knowledge workers.

So you ask, what needs to change with employee engagement?

Well, work is not just about money, but being motivated by such things such as the working environment, the people within it, the product or service delivered and even the brand. Most importantly, engagement is not something that managers or organisations ‘do’ to their people – it is a mental, emotional and physical state and something that employees give.

Retaining knowledge worker talent

While talent is clearly a critical factor for business leaders, retaining employees whose knowledge has high competitive value is a challenge.

OK, a certain degree of churn is good for the individual and it can represent a positive dynamic in the broader economy, however higher attrition rates are hugely expensive for organisations.Our research found that 75% of newly hired top talent (degree-level and above) leave within two years, citing two major reasons for moving on;

Knowledge worker retention is best promoted when the organisation’s leadership recognises and expressly values the strategic importance of knowledge work, as well as when it cultivates an active learning culture. It is also best promoted when its HR programmes and practices support knowledge management processes.

So what needs to change? Firstly, there needs to be a positive work environment, where people are given the opportunity to grow and develop their careers. Secondly, culture has a huge impact of a person’s attitude to their working environment. A positive work environment must have a culture that values interpersonal relationships and collaboration, a team orientation, and respect for people. Other drivers that have been proven are things such as a sense of connection between an employee’s job and organisation strategy and the organisation’s success, a reputation of integrity, and a culture of innovation.

Quality of life

Just as with the changing nature of work, the dimensions of ‘quality of life’ are evolving at a rapid pace. Organisations need to be increasingly nimble and responsive to adapt to the rapidly evolving work ecosystem.

Being able to balance physical environments with people, technologies, and cultures is a very fine line, along with the ever-present drive to optimise productivity and control costs, while maintaining the crucial quality of life across the workplace requires a precise analytic understanding of how work works. The impact of design and configuration of office space on productivity and the happiness of employees cannot be underestimated. Our research has shown that 69% of staff state that their workplace design directly affected their effectiveness, with half stating that design is pivotal to maintaining relationships with their colleagues. But only 44% stated that their current workplace design was optimised for productivity and enabled them to network effectively with their colleagues.

Many office buildings and environments are still laid-out within a time-held tradition of business adjacency that relies on predictable notions of ‘who needs to be next to whom’. But what they don’t realise is that these ‘safe’ and ‘conservative’ options deliver safe and conservative outcomes. What would happen if offices were mixed up a little?What would happen if you sat the sales team next to the finance team? Evidence has shown that mixing upoffices enables organisations to tap into a bigger pool of thoughts and is a proven driver of breakthrough thinking.

It is also becoming increasingly evidenced that people feel a greater sense of belonging and part of a community in co-working environments. This break downs barriers and siloes as people begin to mingle and increasingly creates cross pollination.

We must not overlook the importance of being ‘human’ in the workplace. Who would have thought that we need to teach others how to be human? But we are at a time when we need ever more intuition and judgement yet productivity and innovation does not come from people who are treated like children. We need workplaces that offer autonomy and stimulate adult-to-adult relationships.

Sense and sensors

Returning to my earlier point about people being messy and having a huge spectrum of likes, dislikes, and sensitivities, it is now possible to permanently embed sophisticated sensor technologies into furniture and environments that can directly contribute to a healthier and happier workforce by tracking the way offices are used and adjusting them automatically.

Used properly, this technology can turn offices into places that employees choose to be in for their overall wellbeing.By constantly monitoring environmental conditions, the way space is used and even employee’s emotional and physical wellbeing, offices will be able to react automatically. This represents an amazing shift in design thinking. Sensors enable workspaces to continually alter for maximum efficiency, adjusting temperature and lighting levels, and make changes when workers are getting bored or frustrated.

This means the focus of office design will shift from maximising available space to responding to the individual people inside it. The past focus of space and building management has missed the greatest opportunity of all – to directly monitor the needs of the occupants, not just the function of the space.

Light intensity and spectrum, sound amplitude and direction, air quality, odour, and occupant location and activity can be integrated to provide the detailed information necessary for the environmental systems to react to actual user needs. However, with the advent of wearable technologies, biometric sensors can also provide insight into less obvious factors like restlessness, boredom and stress, as well as poor posture or too much screen time. This opens the possibilities for sensors to monitor emotions, and even monitor heart rate, gaze direction, facial temperature, skin moisture, skin temperature, and brain waves to assessin real time if the user is focused on intense work, is recharging, or is frustrated.

Fully integrated into new office furniture, these systems can create workplaces that adjust, both physically and environmentally in response to the conscious and unconscious behaviour of the people inside them. Imagine office environments detecting early risks of Type 2 Diabetes and suggesting lifestyle changes to head off this disease!

Clearly there may be some concern about the idea of being monitored if this technology is used to simply track their performance. However, the conversation needs to be focused on the quality of life and wellbeing of employees rather than any negative connotations.

Fuelling knowledge workers

The value and impact of nutrition in our workplaces is enormous and is all-too-often underestimated by employers. Just consider, if you work full time, at least one-in-four of your meals is going to be consumed during work hours. And knowledge workers are particularly exposed – by implication, their extensive reliance on using technology means a more sedentary work style and, making matter worse, how many of these workers are guilty of eating at their desk?

Unfortunately, employees are increasingly given mixed signals. While many organisations refer to ‘being like a family’ and say ‘that’s what makes us such a great place to work’, this is far from the truth. Organisations typically set themselves up as mum and dad, which makes it impossible to present ourselves as an adult.

“Employees are our greatest asset” is a mantra that echoes around almost every board room but its plainly perverse. An asset is a building, a table, or a car, it’s something that is tangible and typically behaves in the same way over and over again. Whereas as said twice before, people are messy – they are not and can never be classified as ‘assets’. Yet, organisations consistently treat employees as children – by example, telling them when to eat, how often to eat, and often where to eat.

21stCentury scientific studies are now pointing to eating frequent small meals as the best way to maintain energy and effectiveness.

Given the huge changes to the nature of work and the cultural shifts in eating habits – and despite many challenges – the workplace offers plentiful opportunities to promote a healthy diet while also earning a substantial return on the investment.

Put simply, when employees feel energised by their work, valued by their organisation, and happy in their environment, they are more productive.Even when companies allocate funds for food, fundamental tensions underlie workplace food provision. In particular, a tension persists between hospitality and health. What employees say they want to eat and actually eat are often quite different, and excessive quantity and portion sizes are of serious concern.

Conclusion

For all those involved with or interested in enhancing productivity and changing work practices, there are six key takeaways from this article;

1. Employee engagement – given the increasing complexity of the work we do, how we work, and the diverse nature of workforces, organisations must become far, far better at understanding and developing their people management skills.

2. Talent retention – talent is a critical factor, retaining employees whose knowledge has high competitive value is a vast challenge. Our research found that 75% of newly hired top talent (degree level and above) leave within two years

3. Workplace design – the impact of design and configuration of office space on productivity and the happiness of the ‘customers’ (the employees forced to use offices) is in dire need of an overhaul. Two-thirds of staff cannot work productively given the way your office is designed and configured.

4. Understanding productivity – most managers at best have a poor understanding of the factors influencing productivity or at worst, they simply do not understand what it takes to boost productivity. The problem is that people are inherently messy, every one of us is individual with our own quirks, sensitives and preferences, so it’s hardly surprising that dictating productivity from the top down is such nonsense.

5. Sensing people’s needs – new permanently embedded sensor technology can turn offices into places that employees choose to be in for their overall wellbeing. By constantly monitoring environmental conditions, the way space is being used and even employee’s emotional and physical wellbeing, offices will be able to react automatically. This represents an amazing shift in design thinking.

6. Fuelling our workers – the provision of nutrition in our workplaces needs to be rethought. Knowledge workers, with their extensive reliance on technology and more sedentary work style means they are vulnerable to the obesity and other health complications such as type 2 Diabetes. They need frequent small portion-controlled nutritious meals to maintain creativity, energy and effectiveness.

The bottom line is that we are all individuals working very differently toour past generations and put simply, when employees feel energised by their work, valued by their organisation, and happy withtheir environment, they are productive and happier.

The future of work…. is today W&P

John Blackwell

John is one of the top 100 global influencers in the workplace field and is widely recognised as the world’s foremost thought-leader on the changing nature of work and effective business operation.

Drawing on a 35-year board-level career with IBM and MCI, John implicitly understands that opportunities for innovation and investment must continually balance the need to act quickly.

For the past fourteen years John has been Managing Director of Quora Consulting, a UK headquartered unique business consultancy and provider of strategic solutions, with operations in North America and Asia Pacific. In addition, John is a prolific author with more than 110 titles to his name, including;
• A Mandate for Change
• Challenging Perceived Wisdom
• Creating Today’s Workplace for Tomorrow’s Talent
• Managing Uncertainty
• Meeting the Future of Work
• Smartworking
• Time for a Gear Change
• Unleashing Creativity, Flexibility, & Speed

These and many more of John’s reports can be downloaded from his online library. A Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute and a visiting fellow at three prestige universities, to-date John and his colleagues at Quora have inspired more than 350 organisations to innovate new work practices.Working together, John and Quora provide answers to problems that stifle change, dismantle barriers, and overcome corporate inertia to create effective new work practices.
Email: john.blackwell@quoraconsulting.com
Website: www.quoraconsulting.com
Twitter: @John_Blackwell
Linkedin: John W Blackwell

Quotes:

… …The gender balance across the knowledge worker workforce is challenging. At CEO level, the problem reaches crisis level – just 7 percent of FTSE 100 CEOs are women and a pitiful 4percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women….

…The value of a top knowledge worker cannot be underestimated. Google estimates that the business impact of its top performers can be up to 300 times that of the average employee…

…Being blunt, most organisations around the world struggle to understand how to improve the effectiveness of their staff, especially those whose jobs mainly consist of interacting with other people…

…Given the increasing complexity of the work we do and how we work, and the diverse nature of the workforce, organisations must become far, far better at developing their people management skills…

…Only 44 percent find their current workplace design optimised for productivity and enabling them to network effectively with their colleagues….

…We must not overlook the importance of being ‘human’ in the workplace. Who would have thought that we need to teach others how to be human?

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