On the Evolution of Work Systems in the Digital Economy
If Dining Environment Can Make Food Taste Bad, Can Work Environment Sour Experience of Work?
What better way to illustrate how experience of a stimulus (held constant) is shaped by environmental factors than to examine how our experience of food changes according to the ambiance of the dining area? Check out the findings in Eating in a cafeteria makes food taste worse. Even when factoring out the possibility of particular odors in the environment impacting the taste of food, visual information remains an important factor as many of us know intuitively. Our interpretation of this visual information transforms our experience. Some examples from common knowledge:
- Some restaurants make use of red decor as this color helps stimulate the appetite.
- Restaurants that offer a great view can afford to skimp when it comes to the the flavor of the food.
- The packaging of a wine bottle impacts our judgement of whether or not it’s great wine.
A while back, I wrote a post about how and why the work environment impacts our mood and mental state. This was brought about as a response to the assertion that work environment doesn’t matter and that we can all just hunker down and keep our noses to the grindstone. Yes, there is such a thing as the psychological state of “flow” as conceptualized by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. In the state of flow, we feel so absorbed with what we’re doing that we can tune out external stimuli to some extent. However, as human beings, we continue to process sensory information about our environment even if we aren’t immediately aware of our doing so. I can be really into my work, but if there’s smoke or some nasty smell coming from the air vents, I’m going to notice. If I’m performing work that requires concentration and it becomes noisy, I’m going to notice. You get the idea.
Hence, various work environments can boost or hinder the ease of accomplishing certain types of work. For example, people who perform work that benefits from creative thinking are often advised to expose themselves to new activities, stimuli, and environments for good reason. Somehow I don’t think that the experience of doing the “same old, same old” at the same old office helps boost creativity. On the other hand, this “time cage” that is the standard 9-to-5 experience appears conducive for performing boring work. After all, it shuts out opportunities to be distracted by anything else that is more attractive or interesting. A preliminary study from “The Effects of Telecommuting on Productivity,” E. Glenn Dutcher, Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization (forthcoming):
Employees get more boring work done in the office and more creative work at home.
Researchers assigned two tasks to 125 participants. The first was rote and repetitive; the other involved coming up with as many unusual uses for ordinary objects as possible, a test often used by psychologists to measure creativity. About half the participants did the tasks in a supervised lab, the other half remotely.
On the uncreative tasks, people were 6% to 10% less productive outside the lab. The fall-off was steepest among the least productive third of workers… On the creative tasks, by contrast, people were 11% to 20% more productive outside the lab.
Employers like Google, which tries to achieve an informal work environment, recognize that a lack of structure often abets creativity.
Now that we keep hearing that creative thinking is becoming the way for employees to really add value to their organization as boring, repetitive tasks increasingly become automated, shouldn’t work environments evolve to support this? Boring, repetitive work may not die out completely, but many of us do currently perform work that benefits from our ability to think creatively. Thus, where it matters, a less structured work environment would provide support for innovation and give organizations that competitive edge. What do you think? Please share your thoughts and experiences!