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Do Social Work Environments Decrease Productivity?

Learning where to work for different tasks can help you achieve more in less time and with less effort.


Say bye-bye to laughter and fun.

We’re constantly searching for ways to optimize our productivity. We create social work environments where people feel at ease. Offices offer free yoga classes, add meditation rooms or are even decreasing the length of the standard work day, all in the name of increasing output.

Did you know that even the physical location of where you work can have a measurable effect on your productivity? The key to remember is that not all tasks are created equal. Learning where to work for different tasks can help you achieve more in less time and with less effort. Here’s how.

morning coffee by @thehotelyogini

Creative Work: The Coffee House

Once upon a time, we all drank beer all day. Seriously! In the 1600s and prior, water in Europe was considered unsafe to drink, so instead, everyone drank a watered-down version of beer from morning to night. Then, during the middle of the 17th century, tea and coffee began to arrive from the colonies, and the daily beverage of choice switched over. Instead of spending the entire day a little bit drunk, people began their days with a mild stimulant. This of course lead to some changes in productivity of society overall —and perhaps is why this period of time became known as “Age of Enlightenment.”

The introduction of coffee and tea also led to the rise of a remarkable new social construct. The café, or coffee house was born. During the Age of Enlightenment, cafés became meeting houses where people of (almost) all walks of life could freely intermingle. Cafés allowed for the free trade of ideas in between people of different classes and professions. It was a style of intellectual exchange not previously experienced. In coffee houses, ideas, even bad ones, could freely disseminate, as Steven Johnson pointed out in his 2010 TED talk, Where Good Ideas Come From. Very unintentionally, cafés became a mating ground for ideas.

The coffee house as work place and a meeting place continues on. In fact, in today’s culture, coffee houses are increasingly popular work environments, especially for freelancers or creatives. It isn’t just for the social exchange however. Studies have proven that the ambient noise in cafés is helpful for optimizing creative thinking.

In a 2012 study, researchers at the University of Chicago tested how ambient noise impacted creative thinking. They asked people a serious of questions measuring creative thought, while playing soundtracks at various levels. The researchers found that when ambient noise was set to 70 decibels, participants performed 35% better on average at creative tasks than those working in quieter settings. Interestingly enough, 70 decibels is about the level of ambient noise found in an average coffee house.

Keep in mind, though, that the researchers also noted that performance fell when the noise level reached 85 decibels, so an overly busy coffee shop might be a less than ideal workplace.

yoga practice by @thehoelyogini

Inspiration & Innovation: The Yoga Studio or Gym

When you’re searching for new inspiration, or looking for new solutions to ongoing problems, a coffee house might not be your best bet. True, cafés during the Age of Enlightenment were a hot bed for verbal exchange, but times have changed. Today’s coffee shops are more often filled with headphone-wearing patrons intent on their screens. Striking up conversations can often be challenging.

The concept of the original coffee houses still hold true however. Human interaction is still a driving force for innovation, especially interaction with people who are different than yourself. Conversing with a variety of people provides us with new perspectives on existing problems — a key factor in innovation. These days, this could mean going to the gym, a yoga class, the golf club or joining your local dog walking group.

First of all, change of environment stimulates creativity, so simply the act of moving out of your office or work space can be beneficial to producing new ideas. Furthermore, if your group or community of choice is practicing physical movement or exercise, you can increase your capacity to innovate even more. Physical movement and exercise have been proven to improve cognitive function, allowing us to innovate better.

Exercise directly improves the flow of blood in the brain and enhances the functionality of various neurotransmitters involved in cognitive processes.

According to Harvard Medical School, “Exercise helps memory and thinking through both direct and indirect means. The benefits of exercise come directly from its ability to reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation, and stimulate the release of growth factors — chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and even the abundance and survival of new brain cells.

Indirectly, exercise improves mood and sleep, and reduces stress and anxiety. Problems in these areas frequently cause or contribute to cognitive impairment.”

Physical movement and exercise are important to innovation, thanks to the effect that they have on our brain’s ability to function. So when you’re stuck in rut or can’t work past a problem, your best bet is to grab a buddy and head out to your local yoga studio or gym.

home office by @thehotelyogini

Focus: Your Home, Office or the Library

Tasks that require focus, unlike creative or innovate ones, are best done in distraction free zones. While swapping up your routine enhances creativity, being interrupted can kill productivity. Multiple studies have tested visual distractions, and the conclusions have been consistent: visual distractions have a negative impact on cognitive functions and focus. Another study in Applied Cognitive Psychology concluded that silence is best for focus and short-term memory recall.

That means when you have a task that requires you to stay focused (accounting, writing, programming, data entry, responding to client emails, etc.), you should seek out a distraction-free zone to work in. For some, this may be your office or home office. For others those locations provide a myriad of distractions and therefore are less than ideal. Libraries can be fantastic, distraction-free work environments, along with country cottages (should you have access to one).

A Tip: Leave your cell phone behind.

Cell phones create a distraction every time they ring, beep or buzz with a notification. In a study published in the Harvard Business Review in 2015, researchers asked participants to complete and exam measuring attention span. The first time, participants completed the exam with no cell phone next to them. The second time, cell phones were placed on the participants table, and the researchers intentionally pinged the cell phones during the exam.

Of course, participants who looked at the notifications found that productivity and focus significantly decreased, up to 40% (see below). What is interesting to note however, is that participants who did not read the messages were equally as disturbed. The participants experienced the same decrease in productivity whether they had read the message or not. It could be stipulated in this case that hearing the buzz of your college’s cell phone could create an equal reduction in your productivity — all the more reason to find a distraction free work environment when you have focus-heavy tasks.

Not made to multi-task. photo by @thehotelyogini

Multi-tasking: Nowhere

Multi-tasking is not a strategy that enhances productivity. In fact, according to Psychology Today Magazine, it almost doesn’t exist. Psychology research has shown that our brains only have the ability to complete one cognitive task at a time — just one. You can be talking or you can be listening. You can be reading or you can be typing. You can be listening or you can be reading, but you’re never actually doing both at the same time. What we have come to call multi-tasking is actually nearly impossible for our brain to accomplish (there is one exception below). Instead of calling it multi-tasking, we should really be called ‘task switching.’

Task switching is the ability to switch from one task to another. In productivity terms, this habit can cost us. Task switching may only waste 1/10th of a second each time we do it, but it can contribute to a loss of up to 40% in our daily productivity. Task switching contributes to the time that it takes to complete any of the assigned tasks, and increases the amount of errors that are made completing those tasks.

This is due to the fact that task switching is a complicated act. It involves four major areas of the brain to switch from one activity to another — the pre-frontal cortex for shifting and refocusing attention; the posterior parietal lobe that activates the ‘rules’ for each new task; the anterior cingulate gyrus which monitors errors; and the pre-motor cortex which regulates the movements required for each task. That’s a lot of neurons to fire off just because you stopped writing your email halfway through to answer the telephone.

There is one exception to the ‘task — switching’ rule — one instance in which we truly can multi-task. When you are completing a physical task that you have done very very often and you are very good at, you can do that physical task while you are doing another mental task. For example: if you are an adult with no motor difficulties, you feasibly can walk and talk at the same time.

Repetitive physical tasks that you already know how to do really well — such as playing a sport — may actually be improved when a mental task is added. In this study on the effect of music on the cardiovascular reactivity among surgeons, the mental task of listening to music improved the surgeons’ performance (speed and accuracy were measured, amongst other things) during the repetitive physical task of completing routine surgical procedures.

Bottom Line

Not all tasks are created equal, and no one single work environment is suitable for every task. Social work environments can be great for enhancing creativity, but terrible for productivity. Sitting at a quiet desk may help us focus, but we need to get up and move around to innovate. In the modern work world, it’s important that companies acknowledge the necessity of employees to work in a variety of environments if they want to improve output levels across the board.


Top image courtesy of Unsplash.

Originally published at medium.com

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