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Productivity and the knowledge worker

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conference contribution
posted on 2005-01-01, 00:00 authored by Hilary Davies
The industrial age of Taylor and Ford transformed the landscape of office buildings. Office spaces were very uniform and highly supervised. People were units of production. Their work activities were routine. Work study, or "time and motion" studies measured outputs.

The current "information age" way of working, combined with major demographic shifts in the workforce (Gen-Xers, career-shifting Baby Boomers and a greater number of women and minority ethnic groups in the workforce), requires major changes in how to support service industry productivity. The motivations of knowledge workers are very different from those of the industrial age worker. Commitment to the organisation has gone as a result of business re-engineering processes that increased productivity but at the expense of job security. Workers are more likely to be "goal-focussed" rather than "prevention focussed" (Meyer et al 2004 2 ) meaning that instead of doing only what is necessary to retain their job, workers actively seek more meaningful work that matches their personal value systems. They even want to have fun at work!

What contribution can the workplace make to support this work and increase productivity? Surveys have indicated that workers spend more than 75% of their time in their own office space with more than half of that time spent in concentrated work. Concentrated work requires quiet with few distractions, yet workers report that distractions are probably the biggest problem hampering their productivity. What are the current workplace solutions to office space usage? Probably the worst option for distractions is frequently used – open-plan offices, which are a more cost-effective use of space, but at the potential expense of productivity. Visioning architects such as Duffy (1999)3 advocate quiet spaces ("dens") where workers can decamp to carry out their concentrated work. But is this workspace as efficient for the worker – who may have to transport materials back and forth?

Workers know what they need to support their productivity best. On the rare occasions when the staff have been given the opportunity to configure their work-settings, high productivity increases result. Besides noise, environmental quality is perceived as a key factor influencing productivity. Stuffy workplaces generate lethargy. Greater worker satisfaction with their workplace is reported when they have more individual control over the environment.

We need to seriously question the "one-size-fits-all" office building with cellular layouts. Workers need to be involved in the design and fit-out. They need personal control over their environment and an organisation that can support their individual aspirations and values. A number of interventions that could generate significant improvements in knowledge work productivity are proposed.



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2005, Queensland University of Technology, School of Engineering Systems


A Sidwell

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