Today, the nature of work has changed, and it, along with new technology, is helping define where we work. In terms of getting along with each other, however, I don’t think that the rules have changed very much. In fact, I think that all we need to do is remind ourselves of some rules that we learned on our first day of school.
Knowledge Work: It’s What We Do Now
What are you up to at work today? Planning? Writing? Organizing? Analyzing? Programming? Brainstorming? Designing?
Chances are good that you’re not working on an assembly line. The nature of work today has changed— plenty— in 30 years: In the 1980s, there were 19 million manufacturing jobs that aren’t here any longer. Six million factory jobs went to other countries in the last decade alone, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Although some reports say that manufacturing work is returning to our shores, it will still be nipping at the heels of the knowledge work that most of us do now. In North America, knowledge workers outnumber all other workers (including agriculture and manufacturing) by about four to one. And the numbers are growing.
The term was first used by Peter Drucker in his 1959 book Landmarks of Tomorrow, describing work done with the mind rather than by physical labor. Knowledge work includes strategy and planning, acquiring and distribution, searching, analyzing, and organizing, storing, programming, and marketing.
Is it just me, or does the idea of knowledge work remind you of kindergarten? Think of how we developed strategy with big building blocks, played games that involved distributing cards or marbles to others, analyzed what we had done in order to improve the next time we built a fort, jumped rope or threw a ball, learned how to put things away so we could find them easily, and to get up in front of class for some good old marketing show-and-tell.
I think we love knowledge work because it inspires in us the playful, inquisitive, and creative nature that is part of our core selves. We always aim for positive results, and if we miss the mark, we figure out a new way to get things done.
Unlike manufacturing work, knowledge work isn’t repetitive and its end point is unpredictable. Courses of action emerge— from monitoring and analyzing— that might not have been part of the original plan.
Another difference: it’s invisible, because it happens in peoples’ heads. They can perform their work anywhere; there is no need to report in to a factory or a desk. In fact, sitting in perfect attendance at a desk is no longer cause for glowing praise from managers, or proof that actual work is happening. You can count the number of doodads you build in a day on a manufacturing line, but mind work is far more elusive.
According to Thomas Davenport, an academic and author specializing in analytics, business process innovation and knowledge management who wrote this article, depending upon what they are responsible for, the work done by knowledge workers ranges from collaborative to isolated, and from structured and policy-driven to autonomous. He says it’s important for leaders to recognize how each person or position works, and to implement productivity strategies and technology in order to help them become more productive, on an individual basis, because their work and individual needs vary greatly.
Balancing Work Modes and Using Surroundings Effectively
What does your workplace look like today? Are your employees coworking or teleworking off-site? Hotelling? Are they alone, doing heads-down, focused work, or are they meeting with their work group?
Recognizing and supporting the variety and nature of work today is a key to improving productivity. Striking a balance between interactive and solo work is important for individuals; providing space for varying work needs is imperative for employers.
In Collaborative Workspaces: Not All They’re Cracked Up to Be, Allison Arieff writes, “Achieving flexibility, creating spaces that serve a diverse workforce— that is where workplace design should be headed.”
I’m reminded, again, of kindergarten class. We had a big building station, a dress-up area, and quiet time for stories. We sang together and then worked alone at learning stations. Each area was conducive to the activity we were involved in at the time.
Many new workplace designs are segmented in a similar way. They incorporate smaller workstations for individual employees (fitting more bodies in one place also means reducing real estate costs).
Larger spaces house teams of workers, allowing them easy access to each other for impromptu collaboration. Meeting spaces are relaxed, conducive to communication and idea generation. Small, walled, single desk spaces for intense concentration are available on a temporary basis, or employees are encouraged to work from home for better focus.
How Do We Get Along Together Now?
I don’t believe there are really any new rules for how we interact in this new world of knowledge work and the workspaces that are blossoming because of it. All we need to do is remind ourselves of those we followed back in our early school days. Of course, their application is a little more complex, especially where technology is concerned, but I think they still apply:
Keep our classroom… uh, workplace… neat and beautiful. This rule applies at your workstation (especially in hotelling situations), wherever food is prepared, the bathroom, and any other shared spaces. It’s unfortunate that adults need to be reminded to practice something they mastered in kindergarten, but it’s all about efficiency, and keeping your work community healthy.
Be kind to everyone. You never know who you might need to interact with to get things accomplished. And, don’t forget to be good to yourself by establishing a healthy work-life balance, which is harder to do as technology makes it ever more possible to bring overwork home.
Everyone gets to play and learn. An excellent rule for meetings and brainstorming sessions. Also a good rule for employers: give your workers the resources and space they need to do their work. Not only will they appreciate it, you’ll realize increased productivity as a result.
Use a soft voice. As workspaces become more crowded, it’s important to support both quiet work and louder, interactive work by establishing and holding ourselves to rules about the space or time for each.
Clean up your own mess. In this instance, I think it applies to accountability and responsibility. Just as the lines between work and home can be blurred, so, too can areas of responsibility in the realm of knowledge work. It’s important to be clear about who does what, from both the employer’s and the employee’s perspectives. A lack of clarity can lead to a host of work-related problems; at worst, an ingrained culture of irresponsibility, fear, and finger-pointing.
To close, some words from Robert Fulghum, who wrote Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, (inspiration for this post), “Take any of those items [kindergarten rules] and extrapolate it into sophisticated adult terms and apply it to your family life or your work or your government or your world and it holds true and clear and firm.”