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When organisations embark on change and business transformation, key objectives invariably include reducing costs and maximising asset productivity. What often gets overlooked, however, is the productivity that relates to the workers within the organisation, particularly knowledge workers – people who think for a living and are becoming increasingly important to the economy. Establishing a workplace model that encourages this is key to business transformation success in a knowledge economy.

One of the challenges is that knowledge-worker productivity is nowhere near as well understood as, say, productivity within manufacturing and service industries. Up until quite recently, very little was known about the organisational factors that influence it, but it is an area that Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA), one of Europe’s leading workplace transition consultancies specialises in.

AWA works with organisations of all sizes to help them make the transition from old work and workplace models to new ones. The majority of employees within their client organisations are knowledge workers.

AWA founder and managing director Andrew Mawson says: “Business transformation is often prompted by a company moving into a new building or to a new location, which they see as a fresh start and a blank sheet of paper on which to redesign their workplace model in order to maximise engagement and productivity.

“Our role is to advise them on how to move forward and to get the most out of the rare moment of change that relocation brings. Looking at knowledge workers specifically, we realised that nobody had really come forward with clarity on the things that make a difference to knowledge-worker productivity. So there were no scientific findings on the real organisational drivers of knowledge-worker productivity.”

Two years ago, the research group within the AWA’s Workplace Performance Innovation Network (PIN), in partnership with the Center for Evidence-Based Management, a global network of academics, undertook an extensive study looking at all published academic research on the subject done anywhere in the world.

Armed with the science we’re now able to work with clients to improve their performance, uniting workplace design, technology and culture as tools in making a radical transition in performance

“It produced an invaluable insight, identifying six key organisational factors that are proven to be associated with knowledge-worker productivity, which gives us a much clearer understanding of the world of knowledge work,” says Mr Mawson.

The six factors include social cohesion, perceived supervisory support, information sharing, vision and clarity of goals, external communications, and trust. Taking the first of these, social cohesion, the principle behind it is that people should be comfortable to contribute freely their knowledge ideas and energy, and be happy to challenge each other constructively to create new knowledge and understandings for the good of the organisation. Get to know more people well and you get to know what more people know, in effect, making your brain bigger.

Mr Mawson says: “Social cohesion is as much about professional friendships – relationships up and down the organisation – as it is about team and community cohesion. Individuals must feel able to challenge the views or ideas of much more powerful and influential senior leaders constructively if they are going to get the most from the organisation’s knowledge ‘assets’.

“Armed with the science we’re now able to work with clients to improve their performance, uniting workplace design, technology and culture as tools in making a radical transition in performance.”

AWA’s latest research has gone a step further to look at what makes the knowledge-worker brain work better, including the things the worker has to take care of themselves, like sleep and hydration, to things the organisation is responsible for, such as culture and workplace design.

He says: “Staff education and mobility can help people make the right choices. Increasingly, we’re seeing knowledge workers as cognitive athletes playing high-level team sports.”

Equipped with AWA’s research findings and insight, leaders of knowledge-based organisations are in a much stronger position to influence things like culture, leadership competences and workplace infrastructure in the future. For some organisations the findings constitute a blueprint for new “design requirements” for everything associated with the organisation, from its culture to its workplace design.

In some of the world’s most successful knowledge-based businesses, the findings confirm their view of best practice.

Mr Mawson says: “I was in California recently talking to companies in the Bay Area, where big companies like LinkedIn and Electronic Arts are based and represent the pinnacle of knowledge-based business. I was talking to leaders responsible for the workplaces of software programmers, engineers and designers about our research findings and the feedback I had was amazing – extremely positive.”

AWA’s goal now is to raise awareness of the research findings among organisations that are implementing business change and transformation, and enable them to understand the impact they can have on knowledge-worker productivity outcomes and ultimately on the business bottom line.

“If you are in the business of business transformation, you have to think about the people and the place,” Mr Mawson concludes. “Your goal must be to maximise the contribution of every brain on the payroll by providing the right environment for social cohesion, where people are working together and sharing ideas in a culture of trust.”