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The Quest for the ‘Holy Grail’ measurement of knowledge worker productivity

Measuring the productivity of office occupants has become something of a ‘Holy Grail’ in FM as a way of providing evidence that the quality of the workplace environment enhances performance. But is it really possible to measure the output of a knowledge worker in the same way you’d expect from say those in manufacturing?


The quick answer to that is no you can’t.

In order to be able to understand how to organise the workplace (and everything associated with it) to maximise knowledge worker productivity, we have to review the concept of “productivity” as we would understand it in the manufacturing world. There’s not a simple formula when it comes to measuring the output of employees working in the knowledge industries. The work that knowledge workers are involved in is more complex; and the outcomes are, therefore, less defined.

So rather than directing all our efforts on how to measure performance, I think we should instead focus on maximising the performance capability of each individual by creating the right conditions. To do that, we need to recognise that the primary tool of a knowledge worker is their brain. Then we need to manage the workplace accordingly so that we provide the services and conditions that can unleash the potential of each and every individual on the payroll. Once we’ve successfully done that, the next step is to think about the community – what can we do to help it to flourish so that knowledge transfer can happen. It’s important that people aren’t inhibited when it comes to sharing their ideas, and workplace management plays a key role in that pursuit.

Before we set metrics, we need to ensure that the workplace doesn’t get in the way of people being able to work effectively. Distraction from excessive noise or poor levels of temperature, light and air quality, for example, can all impinge a person’s performance. The technological infrastructure should also be in ship-shape condition; it should be slick and easy to use – an enabler, not a burden! If we do everything in our power to ensure that our employees are physically and cognitively fit, then that should have a positive knock-on effect on overall performance.

You can measure the workplace offering by conducting an assessment, running a company-wide survey, or by having the candid conversations necessary to gauge whether people have the things they need to be able to be the best they can. However, measuring actual productivity – the value of a person’s contribution – is a trickier beast. The productivity of a knowledge worker is largely measured by the ability to solve a problem, or the time in which it takes to complete a task. As such, performance is often gauged by the perception the leader – “you’re doing a good job here, you need to improve this” – and that’s, of course, subjective.

All we can do is create the best conditions that we can based on the best science we have available. AWA has conducted bullet-proof research that reveals the factors that can impact cognitive performance and knowledge worker productivity. This will help leaders get the best out of the people that they’re hiring by providing the framework necessary for people to be able to do their best work in a socially cohesive environment. 


When an issue like productivity gets covered in the kinds of publications that CEOs actually read you know it won’t be long before you can hear the rumbling of the circling bandwagons of the various workplace disciplines, accompanied by the exhortation of the snake oil salesmen, the purveyors of miracle cures and the polishers of silver bullets. Disciples of the “no email” school fill up the time clawed back with an ever-expanding ecosystem of productivity apps and gadgets. Businesses that recognise the time hoover that is the detested meeting, rename them huddles or scrums rather than removing them altogether.

Our measurement and tracking tools are shiny and attractive but the whiff of scientific management follows in their wake. The eminence grise with the clipboard could be certain of a worker’s productivity when there were assembled widgets rolling off the production line. The ephemeral nature of much knowledge work means that is not so readily measured. And what exercises economists and policy makers is not productivity but Productivity.

We have a more highly educated workforce working longer hours than ever before but it’s not feeding through into the kind of economic growth that raises wages and living standards. There is no guarantee that removing blockers to productivity will have any effect on Productivity. That is not to say that we shouldn’t look to remove them. Those involved in the design and management of workplaces can certainly have a hand in enabling that process.

Neil Usher, Sky’s workplace director, has long propounded the Elemental Workplace, an unscientific yet entirely correct, common sense approach to providing the kind of environment in which people, individually and collectively, can get their work done in the best possible manner for the type of work they need to do in the configuration of their choice with technology that works and is appropriate to the job whilst taking care of their fundamental needs (greenery, fresh air, natural light, healthy food etc.). This is the kind of place in which we could rightly expect people to be productive. And, in the Leesman Index we have analysis of qualitative self-reported data against a single question to suggest that these types of workplace make people “feel” productive. Of course, feeling productive doesn’t necessarily mean you are productive (or, indeed, Productive). As workplace professionals we can provide people with great workplaces. It’s not so easy for us to determine what will happen in the space we provide.

Poor job design is another factor in productivity. So is poor management and a lack of the right personal development opportunities. And still knowledge work retains a nebulous quality that defies easy measurement. Perhaps it’s a fool’s errand in any event. As William Bruce Cameron noted, not everything that can be counted counts; not everything that counts can be counted. Perhaps the UN’s World Happiness Index might be a better place to look. In that context, self-reported productivity might be a more useful indicator. But that is not our current reality and it’s not likely to be the reality for some time to come however much we might wish it otherwise (and I often do). 

About Sarah OBeirne


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