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What Science Says About Productivity: 6 Strategies to Gain a Competitive Edge

Jamie Davidson May 14, 2019
6 Science-based Strategies to Increase Productivity

In today’s competitive business environment, even small increases in productivity can be enough to create and sustain a competitive advantage. So, if you’ve tried all the routine tricks out there, these six pieces of diverse productivity research may offer new insight that can make you and your team even more productive.

Illness Causes Billions in Lost Productivity

“The cost of poor health to employers is greater than the combined revenues of Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Netflix, eBay, and Adobe,” said Thomas Parry, Ph.D., President of Integrated Benefits Institute. New research from the IBI shows “US employers paid nearly $880 billion in health care benefits for employees and dependents. However, illness-related lost productivity costs them another $530 billion per year.”

Even though covered by health insurance, employees are absent from work almost 900 million days due to illness. And over 525 million days are lost because of impaired performance. That’s more days of work lost than if every nurse in the U.S. missed work for a year!

Needless to say, that’s a lot of budget allocated to health coverage for employees who can’t work. So, what can companies do up front to encourage wellness and prevent employee illness and absenteeism in the first place?

How Companies Can Improve the Well-Being of Their Workers

Improve Access to Healthy Foods

Google and other tech industry leaders have long been recognized for their commitment to stocking offices with healthy foods and catered meals. And although the companies’ original intent in doing so may have been to spur informal brainstorming sessions among employees, its also true that healthier employees are more likely to be engaged, productive employees.

Fortunately, you don’t have to break the bank on 5-star food to see similar benefits. Miles Burke, the founder of 6Q, recommends increasing access to healthy foods in smaller ways. Put out a bowl of free fruit in common areas. Choose healthier options when ordering meals for client meetings. Cater in a “Meatless Monday” lunch that is more healthful and less expensive than a meat-based meal. Make kitchen equipment such as refrigerators, blenders and sandwich presses available so that employees can prepare healthy foods at the office.

Control for Environmental Factors

Justwork’s Kristin Hoppe recommends addressing noise pollution in the office. “Studies have shown excessive noise pollution — that is, exposure to the sounds like modern appliances, car traffic, and airplanes — can increase high blood pressure, heart attacks, and even strokes.” Her suggestions include creating quiet spaces in the office and adding white noise machines to drown out distracting sounds.

Decreasing the number of people in the office at one time can also cut down on the chaos. Encouraging remote work allows employees to benefit from working in an environment of their choosing. Ultimately, this removes office-related stressors. Just make sure that you incorporate ways for remote teams to stay connected to in-office counterparts. Utilize video conferencing to stay in touch and for virtual team building.

Invest in Mental Health

The team at CultureIQ advocate for making mental health a part of the conversation. They advise to “set realistic objectives for your team. Keep the late night emails and 80 hours work weeks to a minimum. Sure, in a fast-moving company when you’re on the grind, time does get lost. When the stakes are high, burning the midnight oil is par for the course. That said, be sure to give your team a chance to catch their breath to prevent burnout.”

Be a leader on these issues. Workplace wellness policies are worth no more than the paper they’re written on if your company’s leadership doesn’t follow them or provide the resources for others to take advantage of them.

Poor Sleep Quality Contributes to Productivity Loss

Speaking of focusing on health, one of the most vital areas to consider is sleep. Unfortunately, those who pull “all nighters” in the hopes of maximizing their productivity may garner the opposite effect. Preliminary results of a study published by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine suggests that “several sleep-related symptoms are associated with decreased work productivity.”

Senior author Michael Grandner, Ph.D., MTR, Director of the Sleep and Health Research Program reports that “Many people believe that in order to get more done, they need to sacrifice sleep. This study shows that, quite to the contrary, poor sleep is associated with lower productivity in general, and specifically across a wide range of areas.”

In particular, the study found that “compared to those who regularly got 7 to 8 hours of sleep, those who reported getting 5 to 6 hours experienced 19 percent more productivity loss, and those who got less than 5 hours of sleep experienced 29 percent more productivity loss.”

The message is clear: investing in sleep quantity, not just quality pays dividends in terms of workplace performance. However, organizations have a role to play as well when it comes to the expectations they set for their workers. When late nights and long hours are the expectation, expect productivity to suffer as a result.

Open Offices Decrease Face-to-Face Interactions

It sounds counterintuitive, but new Harvard Business School findings suggest that open office configurations – originally intended to promote collaboration – may actually have the opposite outcome. Employee collaboration may be increasing, but not when done in-person.

Following the transition to an open office, “the participants spent 73 percent less time in face-to-face interactions, while their use of email and instant messenger shot up by 67 percent and 75 percent respectively.” In another study at a Fortune 500 company, “face-to-face time decreased by around 70 percent across the participating employees, on average, with email use increasing by between 22 percent and 50 percent.”

How Employers Can Boost Employee Engagement

If you currently run an open office, reconstructing closed offices or bringing in cubicle partitions may not be desirable. And it’s doubtful your annual budget allows for remodeling. However, you can mitigate potential negatives associated with open layouts by leaning into remote work. Employees prefer the flexibility these arrangements offer. And, conferencing tools make it possible to maintain collaboration, no matter where in the world team members may be.

Green Plants Increase Productivity

A fun and healthy way to boost productivity at the office is by adding green plants. Research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied found that “Workers in spaces with even just a couple of plants showed 15 percent higher productivity compared to those in lean surroundings.” When offering an explanation for this finding, the researchers’ premise was that “objects like plants, photos and other mementos in workspaces encourage psychological engagement, unlike ultra-modern sterile spaces.”

Besides the health benefits that come from adding green plants to office space, it appears they make workers feel more engaged. This engagement translates to higher productivity. The beauty of this finding is that it’s relatively easy to implement. Filling an office with plants can cost just a few hundred dollars or less. Encouraging workers to bring their own greenery can make implementing this suggestion even more affordable.

Implicit in the researchers’ findings is another suggestion. If green plants boost engagement by creating more comfortable workspaces, a similar effect may be observed by encouraging them to bring in the photos and other mementos mentioned by the study’s authors. Sure, sleek, minimalist office space may look good in pictures. But if productivity is at stake, it may be worth experimenting with allowing workers to make their workspaces their own.

Managers Influence Subordinates’ Productivity

We expect that managers will influence the productivity of the employees they supervisor by setting priorities and holding workers accountable. However, we also think of productivity as a largely self-directed affair. If an employee fails to meet expectations, they’re usually found to be at fault – not their managers.

Yet, the results of the World Management Survey, led by Raffaella Sadun, Nick Bloom, and John Van Reenen over the past decade suggests that there is a “large and significant correlation between management and organizational performance.” Management has historically been difficult to measure. Therefore, the team initiated their research by adopting “a set of 18 managerial basics, which could arguably be considered ‘best practices’ (in operations, monitoring of production, target setting and people management).”

They then applied a “Management Score” as measured on a scale of 1 through 5. One signified the lack of adoption and 5 described the full adoption of the practices across more than 12,000 organizations in 35 countries.

The study proved a direct relationship between management ratings and a variety of metrics for company performance—including productivity, profitability, growth, and survival. What this research suggests is that, if productivity is suffering at your organization, it may not be your employees who need to be further educated or incentivized. Instead, you may see greater improvement by investing in the skills of the managers on your staff. Look at the team’s set of 18 managerial basics for ideas on where your management team can improve.

Free Time Makes Us Unproductive

Does this scenario seem familiar? You come back from lunch at 1:00 pm in anticipation of the meeting on your calendar at 1:30 pm. You have 30 minutes that could be spent productively. Yet, if you’re like most people, you won’t be productive at all. Ironically, you perceive the 30 minutes as being too short to actually be worthwhile. Therefore, you waste the time, rather than getting anything completed.

It turns out, your inclination is shared. Research published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that “In a series of eight studies, both in the lab and real life, researchers found that free time seems shorter to people when it comes before a task or appointment on their calendar.”

Selin Malkoc, a co-author of the study and associate professor of marketing at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, explains the reasoning behind this phenomenon. “We figure something might come up, we might need some extra time, even when there’s no need to do that. As a result, we do less with the available time.”

So what can you do with this insight? Firstly, be more deliberate about the way you schedule your meetings. If you know you have a 1:30 pm meeting, for example, make sure you’re well-prepared for your meeting before taking lunch. Return to the office shortly before it starts, eliminating the downtime you’d face otherwise.

Subsequently, arrange for web meetings or conference calls to fill gaps in your schedule. If your 1:30 pm meeting is off-site and you plan to arrive at least 15 minutes early, prevent those 15 minutes from becoming wasted time by taking care of a quick online meeting while you’re waiting.

Implementing Productivity Best Practices

Scientific research can play a valuable role in our understanding of productivity. But, it’s important to remember that our knowledge is always going to be incomplete. Every study has its weaknesses, and it’s possible that the findings of one may not translate to your unique work environment, company structure or industry.

What productivity looks like in a manufacturing company will be very different than what it looks like in a corporate consultancy. Similarly, workforces made up of younger workers may respond differently to productivity-inducing measures than those made up of older generations.

It’s up to you to conduct your own experiments. Use the findings above as a starting point to make your own hypotheses. Implement them however you’re able to. Decide as a workplace which changes are working and which ones aren’t. Keep your employees engaged in the process and, with time and experimentation – informed by recent scientific findings – you’ll hit on the winning combination of productivity-driving elements for your office.

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