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Withering Heights

Withering Heights

We thought companies would want to single out their "high-end" knowledge workers for special treatment. We were wrong.

About a year ago, a couple of colleagues and I had the idea of studying how organisations 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 organisations. Surely companies across the land were singling out these people for special treatment and bringing organisational, 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 organisations 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 rigour. 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.

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