The term “knowledge workforce” refers to those individuals who make their living primarily by developing and using KNOWLEDGE in their daily work.  The knowledge workers are our planners, analyzers, organizers, programmers, doctors, lawyers, scientists, marketers and designers whose contributions transform our business, commerce and government worlds.

Because we can see the manual labor that constitutes most blue-collar work, it is fairly easy to determine when blue-collar employees are working.  But how does one know when a knowledge worker or professional is actually working.  Since a great deal of what they do takes place in their heads, we can never be quite sure.  Moreover, many knowledge workers work from home, their cars, or somewhere on the road where their managers and bosses rarely see them face to face.  How do we know how hard they are working?

Evaluating the work of highly mobile, professional knowledge workers is one of the big challenges for managers in our high technology, information age.  This is why so many managers are happy when they can see their knowledge workforce in a confined workspace during an average day.  At least they are present.  But such happiness is often illusory.  These employees may be at work but are they working?

Fans of the movie “Office Space” frequently recall the scene where knowledge worker Peter Gibbons enthusiastically explains to several efficiency consultants that he effectively does less than 15 minutes of “real Work” in an average week.  We laugh, yet know intuitively that wasting time at work for many knowledge workers is a high art.

To undertake a realistic assessment of the VALUE of a knowledge worker’s output, today’s managers must get past the concept of TIME and the weight we place on its importance.  The eight-hour day.  The 40-80 hour work week.  Billable hours.  Hourly pay rates. Timed breaks.  Reporting and leaving times.  Core hours.  These are all basic elements of how we think about work and monitoring these time matters, occupies a lot of many manager’s attention.  But none of these time elements, unfortunately, correlates directly to the quality or value of an individual’s output whatever that might be.

Two baseball players may each have exactly the same number of plate appearances/times at bat but the productive output of one is often far superior to the other.  Two musicians may practice their instruments the same number of hours but the virtuosity of one will often far exceed that of the other. It is a fact of life that some people can simply produce higher quality results in less time and with less effort, than many of those around them.

Now I am not about to suggest that we forget all about time from now on.  It is, and will continue to be, an organizing pillar of modern-day work in both the private and public sector.  But the best managers understand that a far more important  issue is productivity and its quality, not time on the job.

If we believe in a meritocracy at work where the highest quality producers receive appropriate rewards and recognition compared to others, then managers need to be clear in their own minds about what those quality production standards are.  More importantly, these standards need to be clearly communicated to the workforce so individuals understand the judgement criteria they will face.

This is not easy for many managers to do.  There is no magic formula, as standards regarding production and quality vary from industry to industry, business to business, profession to profession. But the best managers work hard at this because they understand it is the key to empowering subordinates and allowing them to find their own paths to success.

Being able to set standards and quality expectations for subordinates and then holding them to those benchmarks, frees managers from fretting about whether folks are working, or are simply at work.  It frees them from wondering what people are doing when they cannot be seen.  As long as productive knowledge workers routinely deliver the required high quality results, in appropriate timeframes, how long it took them to do so becomes a rather moot point.

Many of today’s organizations have already moved substantially beyond clock watching and time card punching in managing their workforce.  Current trends and technological developments will undoubtedly accelerate the pace.  So managers, for now do the best you can to focus on the product for which you are responsible and its quality, and worry only about those time matters that you must.

Categories: Exercising Responsibility, Managing & Leading, Managing People, Motivating Top Performance

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2 replies

  1. My wife ended her career with a boss who hounded her about taking too long to advise students on courses to take for the next semester.

    I have a good friend who is a handyman..He works for restaurants. They think he bills too high, on an hourly basis. Fact is, he is just able to get the jobs done in half the time of other handymen. Actually this works out to the managers, as he’s outa there B4 the customers start arriving for lunch.

  2. This is a great blog!

    A suggestion:

    As long as productive knowledge works routinely and delivers the required high quality results, in appropriate timeframes, how long it took them to do so becomes a rather moot point.

    More importantly, these standards need to be clearly communicated to the workforce so individuals understand the judgment criteria they will face.


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