The 3 types of knowledge workers, and how to work with each
Published on October 24, 2019
Are you the kind of person who craves focus? Maybe you do your best work when you can avoid meetings, grab some headphones, and ignore all your emails. Or perhaps you’re more of an organizer. You love calendars and know exactly how to get nine people in the same room at the same time—even if some of your coworkers bristle at your attention to detail.
Tendencies like these can make the workplace difficult to navigate. You have your preferred way of working, your colleagues have theirs, and sometimes the two just don’t match. What’s worse, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. You might find a great stylistic compromise with one coworker, only to learn it doesn’t work at all for the next.
Look a little more closely, however, and the chaos gets a little clearer. We reached out to a dozen Dropbox employees across a variety of roles, then did six in-depth, follow-up interviews. A pattern began to emerge: among the dozen employees, each tended to fit—at least loosely—into one of three primary categories: content, coordination, and communication. Simply knowing which category a colleague is in can give you a big head start toward finding the right way forward—even if you work in completely different ways.
Style #1: Content Creators
Primary goal: Finding focus
Typical roles: writers, designers, engineers
Biggest pain point: interruptions
Common tools: Dropbox Paper, Adobe Suite, Sublime Text
Content Creators tend to value focus above all else. They do their best work when they have at least an hour or two without interruptions. You’ll find lots of Content Creators among writers, designers, and programmers, although there are exceptions on every team.
As the content manager for customer experience (CX) at Dropbox, Ryan McFadden counts both himself and his team among the ranks of Content Creators. “For CX, content creation is our world,” he says. The CX team writes articles and produces GIFs and video for the Dropbox help center. It’s their job to anticipate just about every possible Dropbox use case, and to produce content that helps users understand how it all works. “We’re making edits each and every day. We have so much content: close to 600 articles, and that’s just in English, just in the help center alone.”
Getting each article just right (is it as concise as possible? do all the words match the product exactly?) is a group effort, with several rounds of reviews and long strings of comments. “Commenting is hugely important—we have to have product managers, marketing managers, support agents, come in and say, ‘This is right, this is wrong, users will not understand this based on the tickets I’ve seen,’ and so on.”
Ryan’s team needs the ability to leave feedback at precisely the right spot on the page or the right place in each sentence. That might mean flagging the punctuation in a bulleted list, highlighting an issue with a GIF animation, or rewriting an explanation in a way that will make sense for more users.
It’s a similar story for Tiffani Jones Brown, editorial director for both brand and UX writing at Dropbox. As the lead creative among a diverse set of writers, Tiffani spends a lot of time thinking deeply about strategic planning, hiring philosophy, and delivering feedback. It’s also her job to make sure her team’s copy in a TV ad and an in-product help message both feel like something Dropbox would say. And for that, Tiffani needs time to think.
“In order to write something well, I have to understand it. If I’m bouncing between chats, conversations, and emails, it’s harder for me.” Tiffani says she’s found many of her fellow managers like to “figure it out together,” but she’s much more at home “going deep by myself first.”
To be fair, both Ryan and Tiffani can snap into coordination mode when needed. Ryan says he often works with product managers on big launches. “We are creatives, but I appreciate how people in other roles hold our feet to the fire.” And that’s not to mention all the coordination it takes to change CX content when a product gets updated or improved. “If we’re seeing a sudden feature change, or marketing needs a last-minute fix, or if we’re seeing a huge spike in ticket volume, we might need to edit something very quickly.”
For Tiffani, communication looms large. Once she’s been able to think through a style guide revision or updated voice and tone, it’s time to communicate that information to dozens of writers across different functions—a process that can also involve plenty of debate and refinement. It’s not enough for Tiffani to simply think hard and create something from scratch. She also needs buy-in.
How to work with Content Creators
In each case, Ryan and Tiffani simply need others to respect their process, and their time for focus. If it seems like they’re ignoring teammates, it’s usually only temporary. They’re likely wrestling with a particularly thorny batch of copy, or re-reading a video script for the seventh time to make sure the tone is just right. They’ll be ready to collaborate shortly: they just need to get their thinking straight first. And once they do, they’ll be among the most focused and crisp collaborators in the office.
Style #2: Communicators
Primary goal: Problem-solving in real time
Typical roles: comms, security, recruiting, sales
Biggest pain point: unresponsive contacts, accessing key info
Preferred tools: Zoom, Slack, email
Communicators love to think out loud and hash things out. They’re most at home scheduling a Zoom video conference, or getting colleagues’ quick input on Slack. They start to feel restless when people take several days to get back to them, but they thrive in meetings, where work can happen in real time.
Rachel Hansen is an analyst relations manager at Dropbox. That means she gets big questions on short notice, whether that’s a follow-up inquiry after a major product announcement, or feedback after a big Dropbox event. Rachel can’t spend time drafting a long, comprehensive response to every query—something her colleagues will often do when putting together a press release or sales packet. Instead, she has to move fast. “Sometimes we’ll get questions from an analyst about an announcement clarification or a report they want us to fact-check in a short period of time. It’s usually very specific who I need to have look at it, and in what time frame,” she says.
That means Rachel is often sending quick, one-line messages to coworkers and partners—however she can get accurate info fastest. For this reason, she also doesn’t have the luxury of using only the tools she prefers. “I default to whatever is going to work best for the people I’m working with.” Some analysts use email, others want a call. Then there are some who prefer text-based chatting. Even within Dropbox, she’s learned certain coworkers tend to use Google chat, while others use Slack—tendencies she’s internalized and memorized.
Much like Rachel, David Stafford relies on communication for his core job. He’s a sales leader and remote worker, so he lives on Zoom for nearly eight hours every day. Chatting live with coworkers is where he’s the most comfortable, and how he gets the most work done. But to do it well, he needs to pay close attention.
“Communication requires a lot of focus: It’s 100% of my bandwidth,” says David. Communicators like David are good at being present in every interaction. They thrive in meetings, so they tend to be among the most engaged people in the room. While some of their colleagues might try to chip away at other tasks while sitting in a presentation, the Communicators tend to lean in and have great questions, on the spot.
And it’s not just meetings and video conferencing. David’s communication-centric day starts the moment he wakes up, with his email. “The first thing I do every morning is wake up and get to ‘unread zero.’” Because he works across time zones, he’s always making sure he hasn’t missed something that happened while he was sleeping. And if you’ve sent him an email, he’s likely to at least acknowledge your message within a few hours. It’s just how Communicators roll.
Like Content Creators, Communicators still need to travel outside their comfort zone from time to time. For David and Rachel, that often involves tracking down missing information or dipping into content creation.
Work that interrupts his flow of meetings can be disruptive for David. “Sometimes, I need to carve out time for content creation, like an upcoming video for Hack Week. It’s not my usual modality. My daily structure is not conducive to that sort of activity.”
Meanwhile, Rachel still wants an easier way to find key info. “Search and access between different tools is my biggest gripe,” says Rachel. She’s constantly looking for a specific response, message, or data point, but it’ll often be buried in one of many different applications.
How to work with Communicators
If you’re working with a Communicator, sometimes the best thing is simply to let them know you got the message. Or that you’d be happy to chat, just a bit later than they might want. It’s one thing to stall when you know you don’t have an answer to one of their emails. It’s another to respond quickly—and let them know you’ll follow up on Thursday when you have a chance to take a closer look. When Communicators know where things stand—and know their colleagues are engaged—they’ll be more willing to meet you in the middle.
Style #3: Coordinators
Primary goal: Keeping everyone else organized
Biggest pain point: juggling inquiries from a dozen people at once
Typical roles: executive admins, product managers, chiefs of staff
Preferred tools: JIRA, Trello, calendars
Coordinators see the workplace from 1,000 feet above. While Content Creators fiddle with code, copy, or design concepts, and Communicators engage in live conversation, Coordinators improve how all the systems and projects interconnect. They’re more likely to already know their colleagues’ quirks, because they spend so much time thinking about how to help diverse teams come together.
Julia Weingardt is a deputy chief of staff whose main job is to manage everything for Dropbox board meetings. It’s a challenging role with dozens of decisions many people never see. She has to make sure there are no surprises for a room full of very busy people. She’s constantly watching out for the risk of duplicate work, where two presenters might accidentally be prepping the same kind of information.
As the meeting approaches, she keeps a close eye on file versions: the same docs, presentations, and reports must arrive in everyone’s inbox, at the same time, and all the feedback needs to wind up in the same place. “It’s giving them deadlines, getting the most up-to-date content, setting time to practice, ensuring that the flow goes together—that it’s not disjointed.”
To pull it all off, Julia often makes multiple to-do lists, each one specifically tailored to a single person. This way, there’s no confusion about who owns which task, or where to look if something’s running late. “I will go through everyone’s list with them and ask, ‘what can I help you with?’” She might be offering feedback on a speaking script, weighing in on slide design, or ensuring all the tech is ready to go for a presentation. It’s all about making sure the board meeting goes as smoothly as possible.
Margaret Shen—a product manager at Dropbox—faces a similar organizational challenge. On a typical day, she’s busy coordinating seven or eight engineers, along with representatives from a dozen other teams across the organization. “Everyone has dependencies based on engineering work,” she says. She’s the one who needs to keep everyone in the loop.
That often means knowing what to share with each collaborator—and what not to share. “A single top-level task—like building a UI flow—might have 30 to 40 specific engineering tasks involved. Not every team needs to know that level of detail.” Margaret knows certain engineering landmarks will mean the most to certain teams, so she might share one progress report with the sales team, but wait for the next one to update marketing. This helps keep everyone on track without creating information overload.
How to work with Coordinators
It’s a Coordinator’s job to juggle an avalanche of information—and to make sure the rest of us don’t have to deal with it. For that reason, the best way to work with Coordinators is simply to trust them. There’s typically a reason Julia gives team members one task, while delegating a second to someone else. Margaret knows you’re eager to get an update on a new Dropbox Business feature, but rest assured she’ll follow up when the time is right for your team.
When a Coordinator tells you the outcome is uncertain, they’re not dodging the question: they’re giving you their best guess based on all the information available. And if you’d still like a little more clarity, trust that no one works harder to achieve clarity than them.
Putting it all together
Just about all knowledge-based work involves at least a little of all three types: the core content, the communication surrounding it, and the coordination to make it all happen. For this reason, you’ll rarely find someone who fits perfectly into just one category. They might be a Communicator at heart, but you can bet they’ve learned a bit of content and coordination along the way.
Understanding this blend—both for yourself and for others—is often the final key for unlocking a tricky work relationship. If you and a colleague can start in an area where you overlap, you’ll be much quicker to respect the places where you work differently.