Aligning work, outcomes key challenge facing knowledge organizations — not office attendance

The state of knowledge work has reached an accelerated transitional phase of virtualization and decentralization, beginning with the broad adoption of information and communications technologies (ICT) in the 1980s and 1990s. This megatrend has been sped up by the public health measures during the COVID-19 pandemic. Today’s knowledge work is largely digital, obsoleting analog highways and office buildings. It’s also less tied to what author Dave Rolston dubbed the four dead kings of work: one job duty, supervised by a single manager and performed at a set time and location. Knowledge organizations must now quickly plan how to navigate this paradigm shift relative to the mission and needs of their organizations. They can start by asking themselves these basic questions:

  • To what extent can the organization’s work be accomplished virtually and asynchronously? Who does the work and how is it organized?
  • What work requires co-located staff working in real time and how does this support the mission? How often, where and how and most importantly what are the expected benefits and outcomes?
  • Is the organizational culture like that of a think tank where staff regularly convenes in person to spitball ideas and white board or Kanban them? Or is most thought and planning work done individually?

For many, it might be a mix of this type of synchronous joint brainstorming and async, not bound to time and place, considering the best and most creative thought work often gets done and ideas and solutions to tough challenges bubble up when doing other activities such as exercising, walking the dog, housework and even sleeping.

Should they host two to four week seminars like that of a university where newer staff are tutored by more senior staff? What physical spaces would be most economical for these? Many organizations will find they don’t need dedicated spaces; smart ad hoc co-work locations will do.

It’s imperative organizations address these questions rather than adopting an arbitrary schedule wherein staff commute to an office location a certain number of days or on designated days of the week, referred to as “hybrid.” As coffee badging is showing, this approach isn’t sustainable. Staff morale will suffer if team members feel they are going through the motions without purpose other than to show up at a designated office site. It also fuels resentment, with staff feeling that their personal time is being wasted by unnecessary commuting.

Underlying these questions is a bigger question with major implications: Is the Industrial Age employment model outdated for today’s knowledge work along with its wage and hour requirements and state mandated workers compensation insurance? Does it really make sense with so many knowledge workers working in their own homes rather than a centralized commuter office?

The same question applies to employer medical benefit plans given reform of individual medical insurance in 2010 with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act designed to make it easier for individuals to purchase their own plans. Both it and state workers’ compensation laws could benefit from a thoughtful review and updating.

Workers’ compensation insurance mandates on employers could be narrowed to apply only to occupations that require on site duties that pose clear injury risk, saving knowledge organizations money spent on premiums. The Affordable Care Act mandate on large employers to offer group medical benefit plans conflicts with reforms aimed at boosting non-group plans. For now, getting around the mandate would require knowledge organizations to rethink whether their staffs should be classified as employees going forward given the change in the nature of knowledge work.

Some knowledge organizations — information technology companies in particular — tend to hire and fire en masse. Instead of employing, they should consider fully migrating to using contract staff and self-employed people and putting key personnel on retainer. They can be formed into teams to work on short term projects of a year or less as well as longer term initiatives. These outcome based models of knowledge work offer a great adaption to Rolston’s dying kings of work and offer knowledge organizations greater flexibility and significant overhead savings.

Roger Martin, former dean of the Rotman School of Management, suggested knowledge organizations – which he termed “decision factories” in a 2013 Harvard Business Review article can avoid the cycle of mass hiring and firing by restructuring into flexible teams to work on defined projects rather than hired as permanent employees based on a written job description. That coincides nicely with both Rolston’s assessment of the changing nature of knowledge work as well as its accelerating virtualization.

“Coffee badging” symptom of need to redefine knowledge work

As some employees are being called back to the office, many are subtly protesting by returning to the office for as little time as possible, Frank Weishaupt, CEO of Owl Labs in Boston, told FOX Business. “Coffee badging is when employees show up to the office for enough time to have a cup of coffee, show their face and get a ‘badge swipe’ — then go home to do the rest of their work,” said Weishaupt. His firm, Owl Labs, which makes 360° video conferencing devices, did a deep dive into the trend’s data. The new trend of “coffee badging” at work is apparently in response to companies’ requirements that more employees return to the office. “Our 2023 State of Hybrid Work report found that only about 1 in 5 workers (22%) want to be in the office full time, with 37% wanting hybrid work options and 41% preferring to be fully remote,” said Weishaupt.

This phenom is a symptom of the struggle to redefine knowledge work that has been decentralized out of commute-in offices thanks to information and communications technologies that emerged more than four decades ago with the innovation of microcomputers, personal communication devices and the mass market Internet. The momentum and urgency of which increased considerably with the public health measures to slow the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some organizations have resisted the decentralizing trend, insisting their staffs must commute to centralized offices to collaborate in person. But “coffee badging” shows not everyone is on board with the idea – or that any meaningful collaboration is taking place. Particularly if they are showing up to work in a cubicle when they could just as easily get their work done in a home office and avoid wasting an hour or more a day commuting.

The redefinition of knowledge work will require deeper thought in the ICT and post COVID-19 era that has fundamentally altered it. It is no longer about showing up at a set location at a predefined time schedule — two of Dave Rolston’s “dead kings” of work. The new definition will must center on outcomes and goals and how information is developed and communicated to further a knowledge organization’s mission.