Myth-busting Productivity Experiments That Will Change Your Habits Forever
EXPERIENCED BUSINESS LEADERS know that the key to competitive advantage and success is the smart management of scarce resources. More precisely – it’s the smart management of your talent.
Research by the leadership consulting firm Bain & Company found that enterprises like Apple, Google, Netflix, and Dell are 40% more productive than the average company. Is it because these companies attract top-tier employees?
A partner at the research firm, and the author of Time, Talent, Energy: Overcome Organizational Drag and Unleash Your Team’s Productive Power, Michael Mankins, says that’s not the case. Their research found that the top-performing companies start with about the same mix of star players, but are able to produce dramatically more output. The productivity formula lies in what they do with these high performers.
So, how to unleash your team’s productive power?
Chris Bailey, the author of The Productivity Project, went on a mission to find it out. He spent a year performing deep dive experiments into to pursuit of productivity. He went several weeks with getting by on little to no sleep, he stretched his work week to 90 hours, he lived in total isolation for ten days, and got up at 5:30 every morning for three months – meanwhile monitoring the impact of his experiments on the quality and quantity of his work.
However, he’s not the pioneer in productivity hacking. From the Hawthorne experiments in the 1920s to the sleep studies in the 1990s – experimenting with productivity has fascinated people for generations.
Here are nine myth-busting experiments that will change your habits forever!
1. The 6-hour Workday
Sweden is known for its commitment to keeping citizens happy. This February, the city of Gothenburg ended an extensive two-year experiment: As part of a government study, a select group of retirement-home employees worked just 30 hours a week.
The Sahlgrenska University Hospital’s orthopaedics unit switched 89 doctors and nurses to a six-hour workday. They hired 15 extra people to ensure the hospital work got done, which cost the hospital $123,000 a month. But the results of the study revealed major points that can save companies a lot of money in the long run.
Employees claimed they were happier, less stressed, and enjoyed their work more.
The nurses took fewer sick days than they did when working eight hour days. They also took fewer sick days than the nurses in the control group – in fact, they took fewer sick days than nurses across the entire city of Gothenburg! They got an average of 7 hours of sleep a day versus less than 6 hours a day for nurses working traditional hours and took less unexpected time off.
While the study found health and productivity benefits, it didn’t measure the potential long-term cost savings of healthier nurses. But one thing is clear, these improved attitudes and health led to higher quality care at the nursing home.
Altogether, it cost about $1.3 million to run the experiment throughout the two years the city had budgeted for. Legislators came to a verdict it would be too expensive to implement the project across the entire municipality.
Daniel Bernmar, city councillor of Gothenburg says that the government might be too short-sighted in its judgment about costs. A long-term benefit of shortening the workweek could be that people wouldn’t get as fatigued over the course of their careers.
Less than 40-hour workweeks are common in parts of Europe. However, in the US, the average full-time worker commits 47 hours to their job. In certain Asian countries, such as Japan, the numbers are even higher, reaching an astonishing 70 hours per week.
“A shorter working day is often portrayed as a utopian dream that would be too costly to realise, much as previous work reforms were portrayed in the past. But what if working less is the key to a more sustainable working life?” – Daniel Bernmar
2. The Sleep Study
Getting enough sleep is the primary necessity of every human being. It’s vital for various bodily functions; in fact, it is possible to survive longer without food than sleep. While nutrition and exercise are constantly discussed, sleep health hasn’t yet become a top-of-mind issue for most people. Why is that a problem?
The part of our brain responsible for functions such as sensory perception, motor commands, and language – the neocortex – directs all the primary cognitive processes that help us get things done: planning, problem-solving, reasoning and executing plans. And while other brain areas can cope relatively well with little sleep, the neocortex can’t.
A survey about the correlation between health, sleep, and work performance questioned 4,200 workers in health care, transportation, and manufacturing companies. The accumulated data painted an interesting picture.
The participants said they needed an average of 7.6 hours of sleep a night – but got only 6.4 hours. About 55% reported having insomnia or had some trouble sleeping. Performance and productivity were significantly lower among workers with sleep trouble than they were among those who usually slept well.
The researchers estimated that the lost productivity caused by poor sleep cost the companies $3,156 per employee, and the total loss for all four companies was around $54 million a year. This didn’t include the cost of absenteeism – those with insomnia missed an extra five days from work compared to good sleepers.
However, there is nothing extraordinarily new in these findings. A study from 1997 found that sleep deprivation has roughly the same effect on our performance as alcohol intoxication. After 17 to 19 hours of staying up, individual performance is equivalent to a person with a blood alcohol level of 0.05%. After roughly 20 hours of staying up, the person’s performance equals that of someone with a blood alcohol level of 0.1% – meeting the legal definition of drunk in the United States.
Well-rested leaders are more effective. But according to a recent study of senior leaders, sleeping also prevents burnouts. The study found that 96% of leaders experience at least some degree of burnout, with one-third describing the condition as extreme. The relationship between sleep and stress is evident. Lack of sleep creates heightened emotional activity and the experience of stress results in poor quality of sleep.
Poor sleep has been found to be a major predictor of reduced engagement at work. It’s time for organisations to find ways of reducing lost productivity, employee churn, and increased health conditions resulting from insufficient sleep.
3. The Expectancy Theory of Motivation
Edward Tolman and C.H. Honzik were cognitive behavioural psychologists, who developed a theory of motivation and learning through experiments with rats.
They found that rats navigated a maze quicker when they expected a reward for doing so. Tolman theorised that motive drives a person to continuously behave a certain way until some fundamental need is met. This idea was the beginning of what would become theories of motivation.
Adding to this experiment, an international expert on leadership and decision making, the Expectancy Theory of Motivation was suggested by Victor H. Vroom.
Vroom suggested that the connection between people’s goals and behaviour at work is not as simple as we’ve been led to believe. He realised that employee’s performance is based on individual factors such as skills, personality, knowledge, abilities, and experience.
According to Vroom individuals can be motivated if they believe that:
- The desire to satisfy the need is strong enough to make the effort worthwhile.
- There is a positive correlation between performance and efforts.
- The reward will fill a critical need.
- A favourable performance will result in a desirable reward.
To enhance the performance-outcome tie, managers should use systems that connect performance very closely with rewards, and that the rewards provided are wanted and deserved by the recipients.
4. The Super-chicken Management Model
In the 1990s, an evolutionary biologist William Mure conducted an experiment with chickens to increase their egg laying productivity.
He divided the hens into two groups. For the first group, he selected and bred the most productive hens of the flock for six generations. This produced the best individual chickens.
For the second group, he picked a cage of average chickens that got along well and produced enough eggs together.
The all-star team full of individual super-chickens sounds a lot like the standard corporate model where individual performers are promoted – while the second cage of chickens resembles a workplace that values team players without ranking each person individually.
If the corporate model is right, the cage of super chickens should be the most productive, right? Shockingly, the individual super-chickens were hyper-aggressive and pecked each other to death with only 3 chickens left in the cage at the end of the experiment. These super-chickens were the most productive in their respective cages because they suppressed the productivity of other hens.
The friendly chicken cage, on the other hand, increased their egg production by 160%. They were more passive and they worked well together.
The results of the experiment are interesting because they show that promoting competition may not be the optimal way to increase work production.
For the past 50 years, we’ve run most organisations along the super-chicken model, assuming that picking the superstars – the brightest and most knowledgeable people – and giving them all the resources and the power is the key to achieving success. The result has been just the same as in William Muir’s experiment: aggression, dysfunction and waste.
The super-chickens are talented, but they also get ahead at the expense of their coworkers by taking credit and suppressing others.
Leadership coach Margaret Heffernan talked about this effect at TED Radio Hour, The Meaning of Work, and derived the characteristics of really successful teams:
- They show high degrees of social sensitivity to each other.
- Each individual contributes to the team equally.
- No one dominates or is given more attention than another team member.
Look around in the office. I’m sure you can point out the super-chickens at your workplace. The relevance of the experiment in today’s workplace is significant.
The success of a super-chicken depends on the failure of others. Super-chickens seek to increase individual productivity at the expense of the group instead of increasing overall productivity through collective effort and collaboration. The super-chickens in Mure’s experiment achieved high productivity rates by literally killing the competition. Superstars in the corporate world achieve individual success through aggressive tactics, leading to increased dysfunction in the workplace.
If you want your workforce to bring its best, Heffernan says you must speak to something deeper inside people than revenue targets or measurement goals. Stop creating super-chickens, create a purpose for employees and focus on creating a flock in which everyone flourishes.
5. The Hawthorne Effect
The Hawthorne effect, named after the most famous series of experiments in industrial history, marked the change in thinking about work and productivity. The experiments took place at Western Electric’s factory in the 1920s and 1930s and were conducted by a sociologist, Elton Mayo, who eventually became a professor of industrial research at Harvard.
Previous studies at the time had focused on the improvement of individual performance. Hawthorne set the individual in a social context, establishing that the performance of employees is influenced by their surroundings as much as by their innate abilities.
The original purpose of the experiments was to study the effects of physical conditions on productivity. For the experiment, two groups of workers in the Hawthorne factory were used as guinea pigs. One day the lighting in the workspace was improved dramatically for one group, while the other group’s lighting remained the same. The researchers found that the productivity of the more highly illuminated workers increased.
The working conditions were changed in various other ways as well, and in all cases, their productivity improved when a change was made. In fact, their productivity even improved when the lights were dimmed again.
The experimenters revealed that it was not the changes in physical conditions that were affecting the workers’ productivity. Rather, it was the fact that someone was concerned about their workplace.
Fritz J. Roethlisberger documented the results of the Hawthorne Studies in 1939 in Management and the Worker. The conclusions about worker productivity were in sharp contrast to the conventional perceptions of that time citing that financial reward was the most conducive to worker productivity. Instead, greater productivity resulted when management made workers feel valued and aware that their concerns were taken seriously.
Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, Professor at Yale School of Management, notes in his detailed analysis of the studies: “Instead of treating the workers as an appendage to ‘the machine, the Hawthorne experiments brought to light ideas concerning motivational influences, job satisfaction, resistance to change, group norms, worker participation, and effective leadership.”
These were groundbreaking concepts in the 1930s, but from the leadership point of view today, organisations that do not pay sufficient attention people are consistently less successful than those that do.
Disclaimer: this next experiment caused 14% of the employees of a billion-dollar company to quit. But don’t rush into conclusions quite yet!
In March 2015, Zappos’ 1,500+ employees got a memo from CEO Tony Hsieh. The online shoe retailer was transitioning to “Holacracy,” a manager-free operating structure that is composed of equally privileged employees working in task-specific circles.
Hsieh has always been interested in business experiments. He began test driving Holacracy in 2013 as a way of maintaining fast-growing Zappos’ employee-centric culture. “Having one foot in one world while having the other foot in the other world has slowed down our transformation towards self-management and self-organization,” Hsieh wrote. He offered an ultimatum: Embrace self-management by May, or they’ll give you a three-month severance package to leave. 210 Zappos employees decided to take the offer, and leave.
Hsieh conducted one of the biggest experiments in management history, but one in seven employees didn’t want to take part.
The idea of holacracy comes from a former software developer and entrepreneur Brian Robertson. He started his professional career in the dot-com era, and quit in 2001 to start his own company, Ternary Software. Managing his own company, it became apparent just how limited the management hierarchy system was: “It wasn’t agile. It wasn’t adaptable. It was crushing the ability in people to contribute and use their gifts.”
Forms of “self-management,” where employees make most decisions without the approval of a manager, have been practised for decades. But Robertson was inspired by the agile software development movement of the late ’90s. It advocated a workflow that allowed engineers to develop ideas without the direction of a manager.
Rather than having static jobs, in holacracy work is processed through roles that are always subject to change.
The initial transition at any company is always painful and uncomfortable, says Robertson – and it was no different at Zappos. The turning point came three months in when people instead of challenging the system were sharing what they were learning.
Robertson said that Holacracy should be viewed as an operating system. Zappos still needs to work out the bugs in its apps. If it works, he thinks Zappos will become more agile and thus more profitable. And if it doesn’t, it will still benefit from lessons learned.
7. Working From Home
There’s nothing new in the practice of working from home. The popularity of working from home has been rising rapidly in the US, with over 10% of the workforce now regularly work from home. But the scepticism over the effectiveness of this remains.
With Marissa Mayer’s move to ban working from home at Yahoo in 2013 a general debate was raised over the costs and benefits of this practice. Does working from home encourage employees to “shirk from home” or is it an essential way to make our modern work lives actually work?
To answer the question scientifically, a research team composed an experiment on China’s largest travel agent, a 13,000 employee NASDAQ listed firm, CTrip.
CTrip wanted to test the working from home policy both to reduce office costs and the firm’s high annual rate of staff turnover (50%). However, the management was concerned, that allowing employees to work from home could have an adverse impact on their performance. Therefore, they wanted to test the policy before rolling it out to the entire company.
CTrip ran a nine-month experiment with employees. They were divided into two groups: one was offered the option to work from home for four days each week, the other staying as a control group.
Both home- and office-based employees worked the same shift, under the same managers as before, in their same work groups, and with the same work-order flow. The only difference between the two groups was the location where they worked.
CTrip kept extensive, computerised records of the times employees were actually working, the sales they made, and the quality of their interactions with customers.
The results? The performance of the remote workers went up dramatically, increasing by 13% over the course of the nine months. There was no change in the performance of the control group (and there were no negative effects seen from staying in the office). The rate of staff turnover fell sharply for the home-workers, dropping by almost 50% compared to the control group. The remote workers also reported substantially higher work satisfaction and less “work exhaustion” in a psychological attitudes survey.
CTrip’s management team was so impressed by the success of the experiment that they decided to roll it out to the entire firm.
8. The Habit of Productivity
According to Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habit, 40-45% of our daily activities are automatic habits. Forming a habit isn’t easy, and it sometimes takes a few months to integrate a new habit into your life. But if you think about it, bad habits are formed so easily: you just repeat a certain behaviour over and over again, don’t even notice you’re doing it, and boom, it becomes a habit. But how do you form good habits that boost your productivity?
The key lies in creating “micro quotas” and “macro goals.” Your goals are the big picture items that you wish to accomplish. The quotas are the minimum amounts of work that you must get done every single day to make the larger goal a reality.
Developer, designer, and author Nathan Barry has made a great case study of the use of these quotas. He forced himself to write 1000 words per day come hell or high-water. The result was three self-published books resulting in thousands of dollars in sales.
When fantasising about building a certain habit, it’s important to clearly answer why do you want the change to occur. It may seem like a small detail, but it plays a huge role in keeping your motivation up over time. Research shows that excessive fantasising about results can be extremely detrimental to the stickiness of any habit.
When you think about it – the reason it’s so hard to form productive habits is the same reason they’re so effective when they’re in place.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle
9. Happiness & Productivity
A recent 700-person experiment conducted in Britain by the Social Market Foundation and the University of Warwick says it has concrete evidence that happier employees are more productive in the workplace.
Researchers showed randomly selected employees a comedy clip or provided them with snacks. They then followed up with a series of questions to find out if and how the “happiness shocks,” as they’re referred to in the report, made the subjects happy.
The experiment showed that productivity increased by an average of 12%, and reached as high as 20% above the control group.
Dr Daniel Sgroi, the author of the report, noted: “Having scientific support for generating happiness-productivity cycles within the workforce should help managers to justify work practices aimed at boosting happiness on productivity grounds.”
“At Google, we know that health, family and well-being are an important aspect of Googlers’ lives. We have also noticed that employees who are happy demonstrate increased motivation. We work to ensure that Google is an emotionally healthy place to work.” – Lara Harding, People Programs Manager, Google.
Have any groundbreaking productivity experiments changed the way you work? Let us know, we’d love to hear your thoughts!