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Professor Alex "Sandy" Pentland
Alex "Sandy" Pentland

The Water Cooler Effect

Fewer memos, more coffee breaks

Imagine you're the manager of a call center and a researcher told you of a simple way to increase your workers' overall productivity by 10-15%. You'd be interested, yes? What about when the researcher told you that the key to this was "fewer memos and more coffee breaks"?

Your grandmother would probably agree that employees are not just wasting the company's time when they gather around the water cooler or the coffee machine. But why? What happens around the water cooler and how can we measure it? My research group at MIT has developed innovative methods for examining the impact of workplace socializing. Using specially designed badges embedded with a radio transceiver, a microphone, a microprocessor, and a set of motion sensors, we can track and record information such as the wearers' location, direction, and voice inflections. For example, when one badge wearer meets another, the length and tone of the wearers' conversation is measured. Then, all of these data can be compared with the wearers' productivity.

One intriguing study that used these badges was conducted in a call center. Although this type of workplace is very instrumented and engineered, prior to devices like these badges there has been no convenient, objective way to measure face-to-face contact between the employees. What we found was that cohesion among employees, your "tribe," if you will, is one of the largest factors in both productivity and job satisfaction. Cohesion is defined as how connected your work friends are with each other; that is, do the people you talk to also talk to one another? How tightly woven and interconnected is your personal network?

In another study, we monitored IT workers and their productivity using similar badges. Once again, we found that group cohesion was a central predictor of productivity. In fact, workers whose group cohesion was in the top third showed an increase in work productivity of more than 10%. In addition, workers who had access to more people, that is, their network of company contacts was larger, also demonstrated increased productivity. In this case, workers whose network access was in the top third of the group showed an additional productivity increase of 4%.

What conclusions can we draw from these data about the importance of cohesion? First of all, it underscores that we are all social animals and that our connection with others at a local level - our tribe - is vitally important. Second, with increased cohesion likely comes an increase in things such as shared tacit knowledge, shared attitudes and work habits, and social support. This happens through office chat about how to manage specific situations, people, and problems, sharing tips, talking about life-work balance, and so forth. In other words, much of the important information about how to be successful and productive at a job is not going to be found in a memo or an employee handbook, but rather around the water cooler.

About the Author
Professor Alex "Sandy" Pentland

Alex "Sandy" Pentland has founded more than a dozen companies and social institutions. He directs the MIT Human Dynamics Lab and the Media Lab Entrepreneurship Program.