Managing yourself as a knowledge worker – building guardrails

Working from home is revealing how much of our daily work is kept in check by guardrails we don’t see or think about. We’re struggling to explicitly handle and deal with stuff that the environment handled for us invisibly. I’ve written elsewhere about the value of making knowledge work visible to make it more manageable. This is further elaboration of that line of thought.

What’s guardrail? It would be anything in your environment that provides a constraint on how you work without interfering with the work. Examples include;

  • dedicated office space
  • dedicated personal computer in the office
  • work email address
  • work calendar with standing meetings scheduled
  • formal title and position in the organization
  • reporting relationship to a boss
  • specified working hours
  • work phone number and voice mail
  • team assignments

None of these things are exotic. We take them for granted and that’s the point. They help everyone “stay in their lane” and maintain focus on getting work done.

Being able to say “not my job” has been a time-honored prerogative of many an office drone and organizations functioned quite well. As you rise within an organization, there are fewer opportunities to claim “not my job.” As an executive much of your job is to define the jobs and the lanes. In well run organizations, executives also acquire support systems they can call on to handle that scope and responsibility.

Executives set agendas, which means they also set the boundaries in the environment that matter. If you accept that knowledge workers also function as executives, then one consequence is that knowledge workers are responsible for setting and managing their boundaries.

Carving out a lane is a more demanding task than staying in one.

If you’re a knowledge worker, you are only person aware of all the competing demands for your  attention. Matrix management is one technique to acknowledge and negotiate conflicting priorities. It also assumes that those managing a row or a column in the matrix know more than the individual knowledge worker occupying a matrix cell. I’m tempted to leave off the qualifier and visualize knowledge workers simply occupying cells.

To return to the perspective of an executive for a moment, executives contend with many distinct systems—leading their organizations, serving on boards of other organizations, collaborating with peer professionals, contributing to their communities, and the like.

Each of those systems operates on an implicit assumption that their priorities are preeminent. Which leaves you as an executive or knowledge worker as the only person in a position to reconcile competing priorities.

One element in that reconciliation is working out what to do about guardrails. We don’t tend to think about them if they are well designed. As a knowledge worker you get to lay down guardrails or choose to ignore them. Either way, the responsibility has to be yours.

This feels like a separate task from designing and managing your substantive knowledge work. Let me offer a simple example from my own work. In addition to my consulting work, I am teaching, I serve on several not-for-profit boards, and I manage several ongoing activities at our church. One of the things I’ve done to create guardrails between these responsibilities is  to use separate email addresses and discrete inboxes for each activity. I’m letting a simple feature of my technology environment help me define lanes.

This process of consciously seeking opportunities to define lanes or guardrails in the work environment is an example of what my friend Benn Konsynski describes as “cognitive reapportionment.” It is a component of being a knowledge worker in today’s environment.