How to support knowledge workers now and in the future

Despite the threat to jobs posed by technological progress, knowledge work is more valuable than ever. A recent study by Universities UK calculated that knowledge-based industries are worth £95 billion per year to the UK economy.

While AI and automation will continue to replace the roles of workers that perform repetitive tasks, jobs in which the employee’s primary role is to think are likely to flourish. Some predict that another billion knowledge workers could join the global workforce in the near future.

The most powerful tool a knowledge worker brings to work every day is his or her brain. Organisations pay for all the knowledge, skill and energy retained in that brain, so they have a huge stake in their employees’ cognitive performance. Knowledge-based companies are the aggregated knowledge and brainpower of the workforce and it’s down to leadership to maximise that brainpower and point it towards areas that provide the biggest returns.

Brain drain

AWA’s research in partnership with The Center for Evidence Based Management in Amsterdam has identified a range of factors that influence the performance of the individual brain and others that impact upon the effectiveness of the collective brain. The ‘individual’ factors are associated with the knowledge workers life style as well as the physical and mental environment where they work. The ‘collective’ factors include social cohesion, trust, a psychologically safe environment and vision and goal clarity.

Hydration, exercise, sleep, breakfast and diet play a major role in making sure knowledge workers bring their A-game to work every day. But only 5% of these employees are currently doing the things needed to be in the best possible mental and physical shape.

Once the employee is in the office, cognitive performance can be inhibited by environmental factors that consume energy but add no value. If we’re too hot or too cold, our brain works overtime to regulate our body temperature. If it’s too noisy or distracting, our brain expends energy filtering out the noise. Poor lighting affects our ability to focus on the computer screen. When meeting room technology fails at an important meeting, we become stressed. All of these burdens detract from the primary purpose of the knowledge worker’s day.

The mission of those responsible for managing the workplace, then, must be to ensure any and friction is eliminated. However, this demands a radical rethink of how workplaces are designed, how they function, and how knowledge workers ultimately experience them.

The workplace collective

Once the knowledge worker has the right tools and conditions to bring their best self to work, organizations need to accumulate and exploit that brainpower. From here, the goal should be to create workplace experiences that not only help cognitive performance but also help employees to form connections. Workplaces work best when they tune in to workplace user groups as ‘consumers’, creating a sense of belonging and connection to the purpose of the organization. Key to this is understanding the culture of the organisation, its objectives, and the needs of its workforce. What kind of employees will thrive in your organization, and what will they need to give you their best? What will draw them to your organization, and what will provide an rewarding life?

AWA’s research into knowledge worker productivity provides us with some of the answers to those questions. Our study highlighted six factors that are most likely to make a difference to the knowledge community including social cohesion, information sharing, external communication, perceived supervisory support, information sharing, and vision and goal clarity.

Companies in the knowledge economy depend on the fusion of their employees’ energy, expertise and experiences. That’s why social cohesion is so important. People need the freedom, space and support to share ideas and to spread their networks as far as possible. However, they also need guidance and encouragement from their leaders, and those same leaders have a responsibility to ensure that the organisation’s goals and expectations are clear.

But creating the right conditions for this kind of combustion reaction doesn’t come easily. Organisations need to design workplace experiences that cater to both the individual’s and the community’s needs. This means building a level of social mobility into the office design so that colleagues can meet up, collaborate and share knowledge. Meanwhile, employees must also feel empowered to make their own decisions in these environments so that they can build trust and bonds across the organization.

Few organisations are ready for the the billions of knowledge workers set to join the global workforce. To get prepared, organizations need to think about every aspect of the employee’s working day, from the granular detail to the bigger picture.

By Andrew Mawson, founder, AWA