Physical workers create a tangible product, such as a product on a factory line. Knowledge workers vary from physical production workers in that their work, and the quality of it, is not well-defined, is not possible to see or measure, and creates intangible, cognitive products (Latham, 2021). Managers in the knowledge economy must manage knowledge workers. Knowledge workers use subjective judgement and have a variable amount of mental engagement, which affects their overall productivity. Managers in the knowledge economy find it difficult to measure productivity and to improve productivity of knowledge workers (Birkinshaw et al., 2020). In fact, Ann Latham says that “Tracking their progress is laughable because they aren’t distinct, countable entities that move through well-known, clearly-defined processes toward predictable conclusions” (Latham, 2021).
In order to effectively manage knowledge workers and positively impact their productivity, managers of knowledge workers need to be able to create an environment where workers can concentrate and exchange ideas (Karabell, 2015). Google addresses “psychological safety” in their “re:Work” program, code named “Project Aristotle,” where they determined that creating an environment of psychological safety for a team of knowledge worker increase effectiveness (re:Work, 2022). Google’s “Project Oxygen” research lists that key behaviors for managers are: being a good coach, empowering the team (not micromanaging), creating an inclusive environment, being results-oriented, being a good communicator (listens and shares), supports career development, has a clear vision for the team, has key technical skills, collaborates, and is a strong decision maker (re:Work – Guide: Identify what makes a great manager, 2022). These skills are critical skills for managers of knowledge workers in the knowledge economy.
Shellie Karabell, writing for Forbes, lists skills similar to Google’s managerial skills. Like Google, she says that it is important for managers to be able to communicate the strategic view and the vision, be respectful toward knowledge workers, remember their individuality, and come up with different metrics and measurements of success (Karabell, 2015).
As a result of 2020 and the COVID-19 epidemic, more knowledge workers are working from home. Post-COVID, 19% of employees, according to a global PwC survey, do not want to return to the office. 72% of employees would prefer a hybrid working arrangement, allowing them to work from home some of the time. Gartner predicted 51% of global knowledge workers would be working remotely. Managers, as a result, have “reduced oversight (control)” over knowledge workers. Managers are learning not to have too many rules, but to focus on results. In order to increase engagement and motivation, it is important to be flexible. Post-COVID managers need to have skills in: putting up guardrails while allowing autonomy and improvisation, providing positive feedback and opportunities for employees to grow and learn new things, and explaining the organization’s goals and purpose. Managers need to use the online systems to check-in with employees to keep teams engaged and aligned (Shinkle, 2022).
Birkinshaw, J. Cohen, J, & Stach, P. (2020, August). Research: Knowledge workers are more productive from home. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2020/08/research-knowledge-workers-are-more-productive-from-home
Karabell, S. (2015). How To Manage The Knowledge Workers On Your Team. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/shelliekarabell/2015/10/28/how-to-manage-the-knowledge-workers-on-your-team/?sh=125225ba1dda
Latham, A. (2021, August 8). Managers and knowledge workers have it tough and here’s why. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/annlatham/2021/08/08/managers-and-knowledge-workers-have-it-tough-and-heres-why/?sh=2d58b3bd4453
re:Work. (2022, September 03). Retrieved from https://rework.withgoogle.com/print/guides/5721312655835136
re:Work – Guide: Identify what makes a great manager. (2022, September 03). Retrieved from https://rework.withgoogle.com/guides/managers-identify-what-makes-a-great-manager/steps/learn-about-googles-manager-research
Shinkle, G. (2022, September 03). The new rules for managing knowledge workers in a post-COVID world. Retrieved from https://www.businessthink.unsw.edu.au/articles/managing-knowledge-workers-covid