Header photo courtesy of M Moser, a Workplace Week New York 2019 participant

Guest Post By: Andrew Mawson, Founder and Managing Director, Advanced Workplace Associates Ltd.

According to some estimates, there are 1 billion knowledge workers in the world. Despite the threat posed by automation and AI, this suggests that knowledge work is more important than ever. In fact, as technology replaces the roles of workers undertaking repetitive tasks, it is likely that a greater proportion of the global population will become engaged in knowledge work.

One recent study in the UK calculated the country’s knowledge-based economy is worth $122 billion per year. But what is it that makes it so valuable?

Knowledge workers are best described as ‘people who think for a living.’ The best examples of this professional class include designers, architects, systems and software engineers, and consultants. And the most powerful tool each of these knowledge workers brings to work every day is his or her brain. The retained knowledge, skill, energy and effectiveness of that brain is what organizations are paying for. Knowledge-based companies are therefore the aggregated knowledge and brainpower of the workforce, and the role of leadership is to maximize that cognitive energy and point it toward activities that have superior commercial or societal value.

Consequently, cognitive performance should be paramount to the organizations engaged in knowledge work. Imagine the power and productivity of a business that has all its knowledge workers firing on all cylinders. Today we know they are not.

Cognitive performance

Based on our research undertaken in partnership with The Center for Evidence Based Management in Amsterdam, there are some 13 factors that influence the performance of the individual brain and six factors that impact upon the effectiveness of the collective brain. For the individual brain, some of these factors are associated with the knowledge worker’s life style, while others relate to the physical and mental environment in which they work. For the collective brain, ‘social cohesion’ (business friendliness), trust and the creation of a psychologically safe environment rank highly along with vision and goal clarity.

From a lifestyle standpoint, we know that hydration, exercise, sleep, breakfast and diet play a major part in making sure knowledge workers are on their A-game when they come in through the door each day. But we also know that only small percentage of knowledge workers ensure they do all the things needed to make sure their brains are in the best shape possible. Do employers know that they are being short changed? If a top-class athlete turns up to an Olympic final without training or following an appropriate regime designed to achieve top performance, they will fail. It is no different for a professional knowledge worker.

When the employee is in the office workplace, losses in cognitive performance can accrue from factors that consume cognitive energy but add no value. If we’re too hot or too cold, our brain requires our physiological systems to regulate our body temperature. If it’s noisy or distracting, our brains work overtime to filter out that noise. If the lighting is poor, our brains struggle to interpret the squiggles on the page that are letters. If meeting room technology makes it tough to connect to a screen at an important meeting, the stress consumes yet more cognitive bandwidth. If relationships with co-workers, supervisors or people in other departments are weak, cognitive energy is lost overcoming tension and absorbing negative feelings. Each of these burdens detracts from the core purpose of the knowledge worker’s work.

So, from a workplace management standpoint, we need to make sure that nothing consumes that precious brainpower that is not adding value. The sort of frictions described earlier are the enemy of the brain.

The problem, however, is that few workplaces are being designed or managed with cognitive performance in mind. They frustrate knowledge workers and inhibit their cognitive performance. In the past facilities and real estate staff have referred to these things as ‘comfort factors’, elements that are likely to annoy employees.

But it’s clear now that these impediments are consuming cognitive energy that should be being used on more valuable tasks. As a result, we need to radically rethink how workplaces are designed, how they function, and how knowledge workers ultimately experience them.

To better understand how this is possible, knowledge work should be split into two parts: the individual and the collective. Employees need to be provided with the right tools, resources and environments to perform ‘friction free’ to the best of their ability every day. Meanwhile, the productivity of knowledge-based communities also depends on a frictionless, harmonious and obstacle-free workplace.

Creating a magnet at work

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. The goal should be to develop a magnet for knowledge workers. This is possible by creating workplace experiences that not only help cognitive performance but also connect with people on an emotional level. Workplaces will work best when they tune in to workplace user groups as ‘consumers’ and create a sense of belonging and connection to the purpose of the organization.

Key to this is understanding what the organization is, its values and objectives, where it’s heading, and the needs of the people within it. 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 a rewarding life?

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

Let’s drill down into a couple of these factors. When a knowledge-based organization wants to combine the collective brainpower of its employees, developing a unified goal is imperative. Creating one vision will give people clarity around the direction of travel and their role in helping the organization to get there. Secondly, there’s social cohesion. Companies in the knowledge economy depend on the fusion of their employees’ energy, expertise and experiences.

But creating the right conditions for this kind of organic reaction to happen isn’t easy. Organizations need to design workplace experiences that cater to both the individual’s and the community’s needs. For example, there should be a level of social mobility built into the office design so that colleagues can meet up either to collaborate or socialise. And employees must also feel empowered to make their own decisions in these environments so that they can build trust and bonds across the organization.

Too few contemporary workplaces are being designed to support the billion-strong knowledge workforce. To change this, organizations must start to think about every single detail of an employee’s working day and how each one affects cognitive performance. Their success depends on it.