“The great management challenge of the 21st century” — that’s what management consultant Peter Drucker calls the process of successfully leading knowledge workers.
Drucker created the idea of the knowledge worker some time ago; they are employees (often in leadership) whose productivity revolves around intangible deliverables. Learning how to use them effectively is an ongoing struggle.
For example, consider your business strategy. According to an August 2019 report by Slack (as cited by eMarketer), less than a third (29%) of the knowledge workers surveyed (17,000 in total) were “strongly aligned” with their company’s business strategy. You can imagine where that leaves everyone else — see graph.
Per Slack: Unaligned knowledge workers “are disconnected from their company’s strategic objectives and more pessimistic about its future. They are more likely to operate in silos and feel less empowered to seize business opportunities” [source].
Serious mistakes compromising knowledge worker productivity
What’s keeping knowledge workers disconnected and dissatisfied? And what should leadership do (or not do) to keep them on track and working as effectively as possible?
Here are three potential management mistakes that may be getting in the way.
Mistake No. 1 — Intuitive management
Yes, intuition has its place in life. And whether you realize it or not, the older we get, the more we tend to rely on intuition — both professionally and personally — because it’s based on a collection of individual experiences.
Unfortunately, this default in your approach to managing a knowledge worker (or even measuring their productivity) can be detrimental in the workplace. Data must play a role in the decisions that affect how a knowledge worker is to perform.
According to Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a Professor of Business Psychology at University College London (UCL) and Columbia University, “...Data and intuition are not necessarily incompatible or mutually exclusive. In fact, they create a wonderful synergy. You can be intuitive by going beyond the data, without nonetheless ignoring the data. Data improves intuition, and intuition improves data” [source].
Try this: Step back and look at your organization's goals and determine where your knowledge workers fit into achieving them. It’s not enough to assume or “feel good” that their work is instep with that.
Project management tools can be a good starting point to reverse that course. They provide real-time project data with multichannel access. They can help reduce missed deadlines and admin work. These tools also offer employees a transparent view of a complex project to fully grasp their role in the bigger story.
Mistake No. 2 — Bogged down by support activities
It’s not uncommon for managers to want to make the most of their valuable knowledge workers by applying their impressive skill set in every available vacancy.
Can you blame them?
The problem is when we expect our people to be well-versed in so many skill sets that they have no opportunity or incentive to focus on any one of them. This, ultimately, distracts them from their core competency (aka the very reason you hired them).
Consider this: Workfront’s 2019 “The State of Work” reports revealed U.S. workers say only 40% of their work week is taken up by primary job duties [source]. Some of what’s taking up the rest of their week includes:
- Nonessential tasks
- Wasteful meetings
- Administrative tasks (e.g., document and spreadsheet creation, secondary research)
Per the same report: “64% of workers say their workplace regularly asks employees to think of how they can do things in a completely new way; a full 58% say they’re so swamped with getting day-to-day work done that they don’t have time to think beyond their daily to-do list.”
Are you guilty of bogging down your knowledge workers with support activities? Not sure? My advice is to go right to the source.
Try this: Setting time aside to conduct regular, thorough and unrushed job performance interviews is essential. Not only is it a great opportunity to evaluate how they feel, what’s frustrating them and discuss job expectations. It also gives you the chance to assess how you are using them as a team member.
And this: It may also make sense to seek external support for those time-consuming nonessential and administrative tasks noted above. This will undoubtedly free up your knowledge work to refocus on executing high-priority strategic initiatives, in addition to:
- Boosting knowledge worker morale, productivity, and impact
- Eliminating bottlenecks and siloes with a centralized solution for ad hoc work
- Offsetting rapidly rising office space and labor costs
Mistake No. 3 — Undefined business hours
The rise of the knowledge worker is predicated on the digital workplace. No longer are we just colleagues sharing four walls, a lobby and some cubes. We have coworkers around the globe. And with that comes undefined, poorly understood business hours.
The traditional 9-to-5 workday has become a mere suggestion. And remaining accessible 24/7 is now the expectation. But is it a good one?
Try this: Make deadline and time-sensitivity expectations clear from the outset. And continue to assign and delegate support functions to those who are there to support. If you don’t, then the next time you give someone an assignment at 4:50 PM, they may assume you want it completed ASAP and work late to make that happen (even though that may not be your intention).
The reality is good employees — especially good knowledge workers — are eager to please. By simply being considerate and detailed as you assign work, team members will remain well-informed, not burned out.
Leverage your knowledge workers for success
If getting your knowledge workers back to their core competency is Priority No. 1, then you may be required to ask yourself some tough questions:
- Do I rely on my intuition when making decisions that affect our knowledge workers?
- Is it clear our knowledge workers are distracted and frustrated by ad hoc creative, administrative, and technology tasks?
- Are team members working “after hours” to complete support tasks I assign them?
When left unnoticed, the mistakes covered here combine to waste a knowledge worker’s time, energy, and motivation. Even good leaders can, at times, cause knowledge workers to become unproductive through poor management. It happens.
From project management tools to outsourced administrative support, you have options to bolster your knowledge workers. Which is a good thing, because they need it.
Seth Appel is Vice President of Productivity Solutions and Product Management for RRD Global Outsourcing.