Becoming a world-class knowledge worker

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In my last job, I was a regional marketing manager for a public software company. I was working closely with teams across five time zones — London, Tel Aviv, Berlin, New York, and San Francisco.

In my first week of onboarding, I had about 20 one-to-one Zoom calls, and five one-to-many intro presentations. To access basic data and set up tools to do my job, I had to file multiple tickets for the infamous — but ever so kind — IT support team. It took me about three weeks to get started with actual work. It was a draining start.

The level of organization and documentation didn't improve from there. There were no written goals, files were scattered around, and communication relied on synchronous meetings and noisy Slack threads. I was on the same team as a company veteran who knew how things really worked — who did what, where to find things, and who to talk to — so I was eventually able to find my footing. 

Were it not for him, I don’t know what I’d have done. And we’re talking about a technology stock that has grown more than 5x in 2020 since IPO. 

I was lucky, but most people aren’t. And after working in both public and seed-to-series B startups for the last five years, I learned that mine was not an isolated case, but rather the standard.

Knowledge worker productivity challenges

Very few knowledge workers actually know how to work productively, share knowledge, and communicate effectively in their organization, regardless of their role or company size. Knowledge workers also face many productivity challenges in their day-to-day if documentation is not prioritized. 

This year, the seismic shift to remote work made one thing even clearer — working remotely requires you to know who does what, where to find things, and who to talk to. If I need a five-minute chat just to find out 'who’s on this project' in a 500-person org, that adds up to a lot of time lost. 

At scale, it’s easy to see how these issues can snowball into missed opportunities to build a competitive advantage. Trying to find information takes the average knowledge worker 59 minutes per day, and seven out of 10 workers report finding the information they need to do their job is time-consuming.

In 2021, setting and maintaining high standards for productivity, collaboration, and knowledge management won’t be a luxury anymore. It will separate the next generation of market leaders from the rest.

Trouble is, best practices for productivity and collaboration are rarely taught within formal training, or proactively shared internally. They become 'hidden' routines that aren’t recognized by management or woven into company culture.

There are a handful of best practices for productivity that are commonly overlooked. The most important one is documentation. 

Document to build clarity, confidence, and conviction

Productivity is about doing more with the same. Productivity is the reason why small, tight-knit teams can attract top-tier capital and talent to build things that solve problems at scale, and why they do it faster than others. It can be measured with profit or revenue per employee.

As good talent becomes scarcer than good capital, productivity becomes even more important. And since it says a lot about the quality of the knowledge created, and how organizations manage it through hiring, training, and talent retention, productivity is a strong proxy of a company’s overall performance.

How do you build productivity into your company? In my experience, it all starts with clarity. And the easiest way to make things clear is to write them down.

Documentation is the cornerstone of knowledge creation and the reason why documents, spreadsheets, and slides are the lifeblood of knowledge workers. It’s not a coincidence that in 2020, over 2 billion people are using Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides every month. That’s 25% of the world population. And a staggering 115 million are on Microsoft Office every day.

When you document your thoughts, the actions you need to take become clearer, and you make better decisions. On a practical level, there are a few things you can do to embed this ritual in your company operations and culture.

Build your docs, tasks, and updates with scalable templates

Templates are a launchpad for creativity, not a constraint. 

Templates make it easy for people to get started and get inspired, but the expectations should be higher than 'filling in the blanks'. As you raise your work standard, your templates will need refreshes and upgrades. 

How do you get started with templates?

  • Identify the core use cases of knowledge creation. Think long-form documents for project plans, project updates, and team processes (e.g. processes for hiring, team weeklies, or new product feature documentation), or tickets for project management tasks (e.g. bug filing, tasks, and to-dos).
  • Craft your template structure. Create a consistent and scalable format for them (e.g. introduction, main points, conclusion). There’s a whole science behind this that works across every type — and it’s unbelievable how well it builds confidence and drives convictions with your team.
  • Use markdown format (e.g. titles, sub-titles, etc.). Formatting your docs helps you emphasize and clarify key parts of your message, and makes it easy for others to skim or read through what you put together. Your colleagues will thank you for respecting their time and attention.
  • Brand your templates (e.g. add your company font and logo on the headers). Branding will provide the stamp that 'this is how things are done here. Docs that don’t contain any branding are automatically not 'up to the standards'.

The best documentation tools for modern teams (like Almanac, Notion, Clubhouse, Pitch, and Coda) have built-in template features — whether you’re writing docs, tickets, or slides. We've also built templates for things like project summaries, OKRs, and onboarding plans

In my last job, if I’d had templates to follow for my onboarding, goal setting, and document creation, it probably would have taken me one week to start doing actual work instead of three.

Prioritizing knowledge worker productivity

  • Following the shift to remote work, high standards of collaboration and knowledge management will be what separates the next generation of market leaders from the rest.
  • Very few knowledge workers truly know how to work productively and communicate effectively in the workplace, because these best practices are usually hidden routines not proactively shared.
  • Productive knowledge management starts with documentation, which drives clarity and conviction — and is the reason why documents, spreadsheets, and slides are the lifeblood of knowledge workers.
  • Structuring your docs, tasks, and updates with scalable templates is the easiest way to get started with documentation and setting higher productivity standards in your team and company.
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