WHY EMPLOYEES ARE OFTEN MORE PRODUCTIVE AT HOME
Working from home is a concept which started to gain more and more popularity in companies from all sort of industries. Many people agree that “A workforce culture based on long hours at the office with little regard for family or community does not inevitably lead to strong productivity or innovation,” and also that “Technology is great; it helps us do things more efficiently and cheaper. But it has also led to a breakdown in human interaction that is bad not only for humankind in general, but for business. Therefore there’s much of debate about this. Instead of asking whether employees are more productive at home or at work – to which the obvious answer is, it depends on the specific individual and the particular task – what we should have been asking is:
What home environments can teach us about building a better workplace?
Numerous studies have found that in many cases, employees who have the option of telecommuting are more productive than their office-bound counterparts. But what is it about working from home that often boosts our output? And more important: How do we apply those insights to the office so that employees can be more effective at work?
In fairness, some comforts of home just can’t be replicated, no matter how hard a company tries. Take shaving 2 hours off an employee’s commute. Eliminating travel time reduces employees’ stress levels and allows them to spend the best hours of their day doing their job. It’s a legitimate benefit that deserves serious consideration. But there’s more to working from home than simply less travel. Consider access to a quiet, private space, for example. It’s impossible to excel at challenging mental work when we’re under a constant barrage of e-mails, conference calls, and meetings. Our brains can only handle so much. The cognitive bandwidth we each have is limited, which is why distractions can be so harmful. Allowing disruptions to consume our attention leaves us with fewer resources to attend to the work that matters. Workplace distractions also slow us down more than we might recognize. A quick visit from a colleague might only take 30 seconds but the cognitive reverberations of that diversion can last much longer.
A University of California-Irvine study found that when we’re distracted from an activity in which we are fully immersed, it takes us average of more than 20 minutes just to regain our previous momentum unlike in the workplace, there’s also less pressure in a quiet home environment to multitask. While we like to believe that we’re good at multitasking, research suggests it’s rarely an effective strategy. What appears to us as tackling several activities at once often involves simply shuffling between tasks, for which there are serious consequences. When we multitask, our performance suffers, and our stress levels spike. In part, it’s because redirecting our attention from one task to another depletes our cognitive resources, leaving us with less mental energy than if we had simply devoted our full attention to one activity at a time. Researchers are also finding that chronic multitaskers – those of us who can’t help but read e-mails while talking on the phone for example – are especially prone to experiencing boredom, anxiety and depression.
Another benefit of working from home: personalization. At home we get to control many aspects of our environment – everything from the setup of our office to the lighting of our desk to the temperature in our room-which improves our comfort level and allows us to direct our focus to our work. Bur personal comfort isn’t the only reason personalization is important. Human beings are territorial animals. When we have the freedom to shape our surroundings, we experience a heightened sense of personal control, which reduces stress and improves our confidence. In contrast, believing that we lack control over our environment leads to a decline in motivation. Psychologists have found that organizations that encourage employees to customize their work-spaces tend to have happier workers. Not only does decorating an office make employees feel more comfortable, it also promotes a sense of personal ownership and belonging.
When we work from home, we also have access to restorative experiences, like glancing out a window, going out for a run, or taking a nap. At most organizations, opportunities like these are rare. Having the freedom to recharge in ways that many workplaces discourage, undoubtedly plays a role in facilitating a telecommuter’s productivity. It’s no wonder so many employees believe they are more productive from their home office. It’s because in many cases, they are. When we’re placed in an environment that’s conducive to complex thinking, our minds respond. But the real lesson of telecommuting, the one that every CEO would do well to consider, is that there’s something deeply wrong with the design of a workplace when the only way for an employee to feel productive is to physically leave the building. When coming in early staying late, and working weekends become implicit requirements for keeping up, this much is clear: The current model is broken. So what’s the alternative? Well…Telecommuting could be one option to be taken into consideration.
CAVES AND CAMPFIRES
What the research tells us is that we can enhance employee performance by leveraging their surroundings. That we can foster better outcomes by designing environments that help employees meet the cognitive demands of their work. Unfortunately, that’s far from the way most offices are designed. Instead, the vast majority of organizations embrace a one-size-fits-all approach, asking every employee to toil in the same setting, regardless of their actual work assignments. Marketers, accountants and salespeople are all lumped together into identical office spaces and expected to excel at their jobs, with little to no environmental accommodation. But there’s an alternative to this approach. And it’s one that’s rapidly gaining favor in the technology sector – an industry that’s been at the forefront of applying psychological insights to workplace design for many cutting-edge companies, such as Google, Cisco, and eBay.
The model for the modern workplace is no longer an evolved version of the factory floor, but a modified version of the college campus. What can companies learn from a college campus? Well, they learn how to create an environment that fosters self-direction, for one thing. Within a college setting, students receive a set of expectations at the beginning of the semester. How they approach their work is up to them. If they succeed, they are rewarded with good grades and the prospects of a better future. If they fail, they may be asked to leave. Universities offer students a range of settings, from private and semiprivate dorm rooms to quiet libraries to communal spaces like cafeterias, a quad, and the gym. The campus serves as a tool. It’s up to students to utilize the facilities and develop their own formulas for success.
Many organizations are now designing workplaces that embrace a similar approach, offering employees a variety of settings and giving them the option of choosing their own paths. Employees receive a desk of their own, access to a selection of locations designated for quiet focus work, and a range of communal spaces that facilitate collaboration, as well as spontaneous interactions. Depending on the type of work a company does, they can also choose to incorporate some fun, eclectic designs, creating an assortment of vibes (a café, a quiet library, an inspiration room) that employees can draw upon to match their project. The value of this method is that it allows employees to adapt their setting to the demands of their work, instead of the other way around. When companies offer employees a choice of location, they don’t just create an environment that better positions workers to succeed – they empower their team members, demonstrating trust in their decision-making abilities. There’s another benefit to providing employees with a spectrum of opinions, and that’s creating an environment that’s rich in both caves and campfires.
In order to describe our evolutionary penchant for both quiet, restorative spaces and interactive, group settings it’s enough to see that some of us have personalities that make caves more appealing, while others have personalities that draw us to campfires. But we all need access to both settings in order to thrive, which is what the campus model delivers. It allows people on both extremes to find their preferred environment in a single workplace. A campus approach may sound complicated or expensive, but it doesn’t need to be. Sure, having the Googleplex’s 26 acres at your disposal would make it easier. But even smaller offices can zone spaces according to activity, turning the corner office into a public “thinking space” where employees come to focus can do far more for a company’s Rate-Of-Investment than using the same room for barricading its most talented executive. And when spare rooms aren’t available, room dividers and sound machines can be used to create distinctive spaces with a unique feel.
In PART 1 (see my previous post) we encountered a difficult question:
How do you choose among cubicles, private offices, and open spaces when all three present significant downsides?
There is a simple answer: You don’t. By breaking free of the single space mind-set, organizations can leverage many of the productivity insights as I’ve just mentioned in Part 1 and Part 2. One thing the research has taught us is that no single environment is conducive to every task. By offering a selection of options, companies can support both focus work and collaboration, using the space they have to enhance their employees’ efforts which brings us back full circle.
Imagine a hallway with three doors. Door N° 1 leads to a room with plants, tall ceilings, and expansive views. It’s where you go to find big ideas. Behind door N°2 is a small soundproof room with bare walls and a healthy supply of red pens. It’s where you go to tweak, edit, and root out mistakes. Enter door N° 3 and you’re in an open-plan space, where you and your colleagues can park your laptops, grab a snack, and do your thinking in the company of others. It’s where you go when you’re looking for a collaborative spark. We can continue fantasizing about this workplace. Or we can build it.
The Lessons of Workplace Design
I. Action Items for Managers
Design with the end in mind.
Some activities require disciplined, distraction-free attention. Others benefit from instant communication and collaborative interactions. The best companies design workplaces with the end in mind creating spaces that facilitate the work their employees do. No single environment is effective for every task, which is why more and more companies are creating hybrid spaces that offer employees a range of uses.
Think like a caveman.
Many of the insights shared by evolutionary thinkers can be easily applied to enhance office settings. Some design elements, like the addition of plants, aquariums, and images of nature, are relatively inexpensive. Others, like offering plenty of natural light and seating with views of the outdoors, are worth considering when selecting or designing a new space.
Brand your workplace experience.
Great companies do more than make their employees comfortable. They craft experiences that make their workplace distinct. A unique workplace communicates an organization’s priorities, demonstrates managerial competence, and grows employee engagement. You can start by mapping out your organizational touchpoints (like your lobby, bathroom, and break room) and find ways of enhancing each employee experience in a way that is consistent with your brand.
II. Action Items for Emerging Leaders
Invest in your psychological comfort.
Many employees rarely give much consideration to the decor of their workplaces. Research suggests that they might be more productive if they did. The more comfortable we are, the more cognitive resources we have available for focusing on our work. Which is why taking the time to personalize your workspace (to the extent that you can), from modifying the layout and direction of the furniture to making even modest changes, such as adjusting the height of your monitor or the amount of lighting available at your desk, can have a reliable able effect on your productivity.
To replenish your attention, step outside.
Much of the work we do requires deep concentration, of which we have only a limited supply, But studies show that we can replenish our mental resources by going outdoors. When we’re in natural settings, it’s easier to let our attention wander and allow our minds to recharge. No matter how well your office is designed, leaving it for brief periods can help make you more effective.
Create a workplace soundtrack.
We often take for granted the noise levels in our environment, yet studies reveal that sound can influence our performance in surprisingly powerful ways. Leaving the office not an option? A pair of headphones can do the trick. Websites like Coffitivity.com recreate the low hum of a café, which research suggests can provide a creative boost, while Simplynoise.com offers the constant swish of white noise to mask distractions when your work requires deep concentration.