Knowledge workers: creating an effective workplace

In the know

15 January 2016

How can we create effective workplaces to support those who 'think for a living'? Andrew Mawson introduces the 6 factors of knowledge worker productivity

Knowledge workers are managers, surveyors, researchers, consultants, creative professionals, scientists, analysts, designers, journalists, software designers, systems designers, engineers and so on – people "who think for a living".

Developed economies around the world are increasingly dependent on the performance of knowledge industries for their economic success, but while much is known about the science associated with traditional manufacturing productivity and techniques to manage it, the same is not true for knowledge workers.


In 2013-14, Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA) and research partner The Centre for Evidence Based Management, set out to understand the factors that made a difference to knowledge worker productivity and ways of measuring it using respected academic databases as an evidence base. The work was sponsored by BDO, the British Council, Telereal Trillium, Allsteel, Old Mutual and the Royal Bank of Scotland.

Using the highly robust rapid evidence assessment methodology, 2 questions were addressed:

  • what is known from the world's academic research about the measurement of knowledge worker productivity
  • what are the factors associated with it?

While it was confirmed by the research that there was no universal way of measuring the productivity of knowledge workers that would enable comparison between organisations (e.g. something equivalent to return on capital employed, profit for knowledge), we concluded that it would be possible to use 'proxy' measures to assess the factors that support knowledge worker productivity.

Developed economies around the world are increasingly dependent on the performance of knowledge industries for their economic success

Researchers identified 6 factors that were most highly correlated to knowledge worker productivity. Together, they describe a social infrastructure that creates the conditions for workers to fuse their knowledge, constructively challenging each other to come up with new ideas and knowledge and gaining an understanding of everyone's contribution.

The thesis is simple: if these 6 factors are the best science available on the subject, then leaders and their organisations should orientate everything (culture, recruitment, performance management systems, organisational design, training, workplace design, IT) to achieve them.

Factor 1: Social cohesion

"A shared liking or team attraction that includes bonds of friendship, caring, closeness and enjoyment of each other's company."

People get on with each other in their teams, with other teams and with senior leaders. They are happy to share their ideas and knowledge and are comfortable with robust discussion for the greater good. They feel safe in saying their piece, regardless of the seniority or importance of others.

Factor 2: Perceived supervisory support

"How employees feel the supervisor helps them in times of need, praises them for a job well done, or recognises them for extra effort."

People need to feel that those they report to are positively supporting them in achieving their endeavours and not constantly 'beating them up' or blaming them for apparently substandard tasks.

Factor 3: Information sharing and transactive system

"How teams pool and access their knowledge and expertise, which positively affects decision making and team processes. This leads to the idea of a team transactive memory system – a collective memory in a collective mind – enabling members to think and act together."

It is about creating a culture and IT infrastructure for sharing knowledge and treating the whole team and the wider community as 'knowledge memory', to short circuit the search for the best sources of knowledge and so avoid reinventing the wheel.

Factor 4: Vision/goal clarity

"The notion of vision refers to the extent to which team members have a common understanding of objectives and display high commitment to those team goals. For this reason, 'vision' on the team level is also referred to as goal clarity."

For people to be emotionally engaged with the work they do, they need to understand how it fits into their team's vision and goals and in turn those of the enterprise. They also need an empathy with the vision to commit their intellect and time to the tasks they perform and be prepared to go the extra mile.

Factor 5: External communication

"The ability of teams to span boundaries (team and organisational) to seek information and resources from others."

In other words, 'get out more'. We are talking about people exposing themselves to the views and experiences of diverse groups outside their team and organisation in order to shape their ideas and bring back new insights to fuel innovation and to maintain their vigour.

Factor 6: Trust

"The firm belief in the reliability, truth or ability of others. It is created by the expectation that the actions of other persons will be to one's benefit, or at least not detrimental."

People need to feel that those around them will act in their interest, that the knowledge they contribute will be used responsibly and that they can depend on the advice, skills and abilities of their colleagues.

Steps to success

Where organisations or units depend on the creativity, ingenuity and knowledge for their business success, the 6 factors are vital in releasing and focusing the energy,commitment and knowledge of individuals and organisations on business goals.

RICS members can use these factors both to run their businesses and teams and contribute to the design of the workplace as a tool to aid increased knowledge worker productivity.

Fresh start: creating a new workplace can be the catalyst for a discussion about what the organisation is trying to achieve and how the space can play a role. If enhanced worker productivity is a goal, you have the opportunity to share the science of the 6 factors with leaders.

Social cohesion: sitting next to the same people every day creates a social cohesion between them, but to the exclusion of relationships with other members of your team, division or organisation. Getting people to sit in different places, overhearing different conversations and forming of new friendships is key to greater social cohesion, so a mobile workplace infrastructure (IT, space, services) is crucial to making this happen.

For people to be emotionally engaged with the work they do, they need to understand how it fits into their team's vision and goals and in turn those of the enterprise

For example, Mintel Chief Executive Peter Haig insists on his leadership team sitting in different locations in its building every month. Another organisation 'gamified' the idea by operating 'desk bingo', where in a month people have to sit at every desk in their team area. There are other strategies, such as creating collaborative spaces on each floor as a 'heart' for a building, or drawing people out of their own locations to meet or eat, designing restaurants as a destination social space. Running lunches and social events with different themes can bring together people who may not normally meet.

Perceived supervisory support: design the workplace so that leaders can sit with different members of the team every day, enabling them to support and coach and allowing the team to get to know the leader better as a person. Being locked away in an office may aid their ego or ability to concentrate, but it deprives the leader of a powerful source of information about what is going on and how the team is feeling, and also increases 'power difference'.

Information sharing and transactive memory: make the design of collaboration and meeting spaces across your buildings very different. Maybe give them crazy names. Why? Because people's recall of the experiences in a place is aided by the memory of the event and the place. Create meeting rooms that are designed to maximise eye contact with 'easy to use' IT tools to access and share information.

Vision and goal clarity: use graphics and mobile displays to make visible the team's vision, purpose and key goals so members are reminded of them and other teams can see how what they do links to them.

External communication: no reason why real estate and facilities management cannot be the catalyst for 'show and tell' sessions, with a systematic programme of cross-organisation presentations or events – perhaps at lunch time. Facilitate a 'work anywhere' programme, allowing people to work in other parts of the building or in other buildings and be exposed to a different world than their own.

Trust: enclosed spaces are not going to support trust. Make things open and transparent to indicate that there is nothing to hide.

Awareness: use walls to display graphics of the 6 factors providing a constant reminder of the aspects that make a difference to the performance of the team and community. As a leader, adopting workplace 'science' in delivering your role will also enhance your professional standing in a business context. For them, the 6 factors resonate and at last give a baseline against which to design meaningful workplaces.

Andrew Mawson is Founder and Managing Director at AWA Ltd

Further information

This feature is taken from the RICS Property journal (December 2015/January 2016)