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Misunderstanding the brain is bad for business

How organizations spend big dollars making people less effective

New technologies have emerged throughout history that have mocked our closely held intuitions about the world. Telescopes for example taught us that the universe doesn't revolve around the earth. In a hundred years, as new technologies unfold that we can't yet imagine, I wonder if we will look back in amazement at how we misunderstood the human brain in this era. I propose that some of these minsunderstandings may be the cause of much everyday misery in the workplace.

Seeing isn't collaborating
I recently visited a large technology firm. They proudly showed me some new workstations being put in place across their business. The main new feature was a significantly lower cubicle line, allowing you to see just about anyone else on your floor while sitting down.

Someone at the firm had noticed that people were not collaborating much, and throught the problem was that people couldn't see each other. The trouble is, collaboration may have less to do with being able to see other people and more to do with how people feel at work. We tend to reduce collaboration when we feel threatened or stressed, and increase it when we feel safe. How people feel about each other tends to be based on less physically-obvious factors, like people's sense of being treated fairly, or of how much uncertainty they are having to deal with, and how much autonomy they are given to follow their hunches. In fact, making it easier to see people may have exactly the opposite of the intended effect. Unfortunately, organizations often find it easier to invest in physical, tangible changes over less certain human changes. (Perhaps this is because certainty in and of itself appears to be rewarding, and uncertainty acts like a threat.) In this way you see investments in software and technology massivley outstripping investments in training and development, even though the research generally shows that companies get a better return on investment the other way around.

‘Nothing jangles a primate like crowding'
Let's go back to this new office fit out. I recently visited Lisa Feldman Barrett, one of the world's experts on the neuroscience of human emotions. (There was a great post on her work recently, illustrating how we have misunderstood emotions.) We began talking about organizations and the trouble with working in large teams. ‘Nothing jangles a primate like crowding' she said offhandedly. It was such a great statement it stopped me in my tracks and I made her repeat it and explain. Here's the gist of it: if you take any type of primate and put them with lots of others, it's almost guaranteed to raise everyone's cortisol levels, a marker of stress. Yet this is exactly what this technology firm wanted to do - make people acutely aware of how many others they were surrounded by.

A media company I met with last year was already experiencing the effects of this problem. Someone had decided that a massively open-plan layout would be good for creating 'buzz' and therefore innovation at the office. They had worked (and invested) hard to make the space ‘fun' and ‘creative' with many fabulous pieces of art, unexpected architecture and great use of technology. Walking into the foyer was an inspiring and exhilarating experience. Only trouble was, people couldn't focus. ‘I just can't get any real work done here' was a comment I heard several times in my meetings there. It was all too distracting. To make matters worse, they had reduced the number of quiet spaces, so people now couldn't easily get time to do the deeper thinking work.

The brain is very easily distracted - even tiny distractions like a quiet beeping can stop an important train of thoughts in its tracks. Not understanding how distractable we are, as well as how crowding makes us anxious, has see many companies spend millions of dollars going in exactly the wrong direction, giving the brain the opposite of what it needs. If more innovation is required, studies are showing that it's not just feeling happy that helps, it's also important to lower the overall noise in the brain. Insights and breakthroughs come from a quiet mind, not a hyper-stimulated one. If you want to increase innovation, increase people's capacity to do really quiet work.

A surprising study shows how bad the situation may be
A large healthcare firm I am working with recently surveyed their employees, receiving over 6,000 respondents. The questions were designed to tease out how efficient people thought they were, and we discovered a few surprises.

Firstly, most people did their best thinking in the morning. That was no big surprise. Though if this is the case, then we shouldn't be scheduling meetings in the morning, unless it's a creative meeting to invent something together. Mornings are needed for deep thinking. Despite this, most people's mornings are filled with activities that would be better after lunch, when your brain craves interaction to stay awake.

We also asked the question ‘Where do you do your best thinking'. The answer was indeed surprising. Only around 10% of people responded ‘at work'. Consider this: people are paid to think, and are required to spend a lot of time at work, yet work is not the place they think well. Something is indeed wrong with this picture. Here's the scary bit: the company in this survey is doing some of the better things to improve the quality of thinking at work. I believe we'd see worse results from other places.

Gettting the space-time continuum right
I believe there is a sweet-spot for organizing people's time and space at work. It probably involves not scheduling meetings in the mornings. Giving people the option of a quiet, totally undisturbed working space - and I mean totally quiet, to work in the mornings. Small distractions appear to cost a lot metabolically. And then providing an option of a space to work around other people for the lower energy afternoons. Also allowing people to work from home as much as possibe. This would have many benefits, including reducing pollution, energy use, increasing work life balance, as well as productivity. My hunch is that working at home should probably average about 50% across an organization. A new study showed that people who telecommute work for 19 more hours before having the level of work-life balance issues that someone working 38 hrs has. That's a lot of extra productivity. (Am working on another big post on this issue to come out soon.)

What will it take to create the ideal work environment? For a start, organizations need to do more careful research around designing workflows, research that takes into account how the brain actually works. A lot of our intuitive hunches about the brain are wrong, and many workspaces work against creating high functioning teams. Misunderstanding the brain is bad for business.

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