Tag Archives: productivity

Our daily commute has a direct impact on our productivity and job satisfaction

Our daily commute can tell a lot about our productivity at work, according to new research.

Image via Pixabay.

New research at Dartmouth College showcases the importance our commute can have on our workday. The findings show how certain behavior and psychological patterns we exhibit during commuting can be used to accurately predict job performance and employee satisfaction levels throughout the day.

The results are based on a year-long monitoring period of commuting workers prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Start of the day

“Your commute predicts your day,” said Andrew Campbell, the Albert Bradley 1915 Third Century Professor of computer science at Dartmouth, lead researcher and co-author of the study. “This research demonstrates that mobile sensing is capable of identifying how travel to and from the office affects individual workers.”

Data for the study was recorded through the smartphones and fitness trackers of 275 workers over a one-year monitoring period. The participants’ states were also recorded for 30 minutes before and after commuting. Most of these individuals (around 95%) drove to and from work, the team reports. Participants were provided with Garmin vivoSmart 3 activity tracker and a smartphone-based sensing app.

These devices were used to record a range of factors including the levels of physical activity, phone usage, heart rates, and stress levels. This body of data could be used to accurately predict workers’ productivity and satisfaction, the authors explain. The research could also help us to raise workers’ quality of life and help them be more productive.

“We were able to build machine learning models to accurately predict job performance,” said Subigya Nepal a PhD student at Dartmouth and lead author of the paper. “The key was being able to objectively assess commuting stress along with the physiological reaction to the commuting experience.”

Each worker’s day was assessed using ‘counterproductive work behavior’ and ‘organizational citizenship behavior’, two recognized criteria of job performance. The first is behavior that harms an organization’s overall efficiency, while the latter is beneficial. The baselines for each of these behaviors were set through regular, self-reported questionnaires sent in by participants.

“Compared to low performers, high performers display greater consistency in the time they arrive and leave work,” said Pino Audia, a professor of Management and Organizations at the Tuck School of Business, a senior scientist on the study team, and a co-author of the study. “This dramatically reduces the negative impacts of commuting variability and suggests that the secret to high performance may lie in sticking to better routines.”

Apart from this, high-performers tended to show more psychological markers of physical fitness and stress resilience. Low-performers showed higher levels of stress before, during, and after the commutes, and tended to use their phone more during commutes.

This aligns well with previous research on the topic, the team explains. Such research found that stress, anxiety, and frustration felt by individuals during their commute can reduce their efficiency at work, increase levels of counterproductive work behavior, and lower their engagement with organizational citizenship behavior. However, the current study is the first to link commuting data directly with workplace performance.

“The insights from this proof-of-concept study demonstrate that this is an important area of research for future of work,” said Campbell, co-director of Dartmouth’s DartNets Lab.

The small percentage of participants who engaged in active commuting — such as walking to work — showcased that such forms of commuting are typically associated with increased productivity during the day. Additionally, the study also found that people tended to spend more time commuting back home than they do going to work in the morning.

In the future, the team hopes that their findings can be used as a basis for new technology aimed at detecting and lowering commuter stress. Such interventions could include an app that offers suggestions for short stops, music, or podcasts aimed at improving a commuter’s emotional state.

The paper “Predicting Job Performance Using Mobile Sensing” has been published in the journal IEEE Pervasive Computing.

Feedback and setting goals are keystones of keeping us motivated and on-task

While goal-setting can help us keep focused and productive with tasks, receiving feedback is much more effective, according to new research.

Image via Pixabay.

Everyone has, at one point in their lives, lost motivation for a project they were initially keen on. If you’re the exception, I envy you. But a new paper holds some clues about how we all could have an easier time staying motivated and on the task at hand. According to the findings, receiving feedback in conjunction with reaching individual goals can go a very long way towards keeping us focused and involved with tasks or projects.

The findings can help employers keep their employees happier and more productive, but can also help us in our personal lives.

How to keep at it

“Sustaining one’s attention is notoriously difficult. The longer that an individual performs a task, the worse their performance tends to be,” said Matthew Robison, University of Texas at Arlington assistant professor of psychology and first author of the study. “If you want to encourage people to maintain focus on a task, whether it be learning or job-related, or if you are designing something that you want people to engage with, giving feedback about their performance is a very powerful motivator.”

Having a roadmap of several goals is an effective way to keep us involved with tasks over a longer period of time. Mixing feedback into that process, however, can produce an even more powerful effect, according to new research.

The study involved four rounds of experiments during which participants were asked to perform a simple but attention-intensive task for 30 minutes at a time. Across these different experiments, the researchers tracked how effective three approaches were at increasing the participants’ ability to sustain attention on the task at hand. These approaches were goal-setting, feedback, and incentive manipulations. After each experiment, participants were asked to provide commentary on how motivated and alert they were during the tasks, and to rate their attention levels as either ‘on-task’, ‘wandering’, or ‘absent’.

The first experiment involved task-setting. The results show that having a specific goal in mind helped improve the participants’ ability to sustain their attention over time but didn’t influence their engagement with the task. Task engagement was defined as having higher motivation and lower levels of thoughts unrelated to it.

During the second experiment, the researchers split the task into several time blocks and gave participants feedback at the end of each. The results here showed that the participants had a greater ability to maintain attention and felt greater motivation to complete the task. Feedback, even by itself, was also effective at limiting task-unrelated thoughts, the authors explain.

Incentives by themselves did little to increase either task engagement or performance, they add. Some of the incentives offered to participants during the third step of the study included cash bonuses or early release from the experiment, to mimic the same types of incentives employees are likely to be offered at work.

That being said, participants showed a decline in performance over time during all three experimental stages. As they spent more time with the task, all participants reported feeling less motivated, more fatigued, and that they had a harder time keeping their minds from wandering.

“Even in conditions when people report feeling motivated and engaged, it is difficult to maintain optimal performance, especially if the task is attentionally demanding,” Robison said.

So why are these findings important? It pays to keep in mind that, as humans, we have a set of cognitive limitations that we are forced to work with. This is especially important in settings where constant attention is required, such as for lifeguards or air traffic monitoring. Although important events in such fields are rare, the need for constant vigilance does take a sizable toll on workers, and it can push their attention beyond the limits that individuals can feasibly maintain.

“We need to be cognizant of the level of difficulty involved in sustaining attention when we ask others to perform tasks where they must be attentive for long periods of time,” Robison said. “It is possible that we put ourselves in harm’s way by relying too much on the human attentional system to accomplish feats that may not be achievable.”

The paper “Examining the effects of goal-setting, feedback, and incentives on sustained attention” has been published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance.

Biodiversity is a linchpin of productive, resilient crops

Greater biodiversity supports greater agricultural output, a new study reports.

Image via Pixabay.

The study looks at data from roughly 1,500 agricultural fields across the world. From American corn crops to oilseed rape fields in southern Sweden, from coffee plantations in India to the mango groves of South Africa and cereal crops in the Alps, one factor always has a positive effect on the productivity and resilience of crops: biodiversity.

The more the merrier

“Our study shows that biodiversity is essential to ensure the provision of ecosystem services and to maintain a high and stable agricultural production,” explains Matteo Dainese, Ph.D., a biologist at Eurac Research and first author of the study.

“For example, a farmer can depend less on pesticides to get rid of harmful insects if natural biological controls are increased through higher agricultural biodiversity.”

The study focused on two ecosystem services (the natural processes that keep ecosystems running without the need for oversight or costs on our part): pollination services provided by wild insects, and biological pest control. In short, they looked at the natural processes that fertilize crops and those that keep ravenous insects at bay through predation.

Heterogeneous landscapes (those with greater biodiversity), the team reports, can support greater populations and varieties of wild pollinators and beneficial insects. This directly leads to greater biological control of pests and crop yields.

Monocultures, on the other hand, lead to simpler landscapes and adverse effects for crops: there are fewer pollinators, both in overall numbers and in the number of species. Monocultures, the team adds, are the cause of roughly one-third of the negative effects pollinators experience from landscape simplification. If human control of harmful insects is also present, the strain on pollinators is even higher (the team notes that the loss of ‘natural enemy richness’ can represent up to 50% of the total effect of landscape simplification on pollinators).

If you boil everything down, the findings basically say that greater farmland biodiversity leads to more productivity and greater crop resilience in the face of environmental stressors such as climate change. Given that we’re contending with a two-pronged issue — on the one hand, we’re disrupting natural patterns, which impairs agricultural productivity, while on the other we’re trying to produce more food to feed an ever-growing population — the team believes that fostering farmland productivity should be a key goal of the agricultural sector.

“Under future conditions with ongoing global change and more frequent extreme climate events, the value of farmland biodiversity ensuring resilience against environmental disturbances will become even more important,” underlines animal ecologist Ingolf Steffan-Dewenter from the Department of Animal Ecology and Tropical Biology at the University of Würzburg, the initiator of the study within the EU project ‘Liberation’.

“Our study provides strong empirical support for the potential benefits of new pathways to sustainable agriculture that aim to reconcile the protection of biodiversity and the production of food for increasing human populations.”

The researchers recommend that we work to protect environments for which health depends on diverse biological communities, and try to diversify crops and landscapes as much as possible to foster biodiversity in areas that lack it.

The paper has been published in the journal Science Advances.

Have more sex and leave stress at the office to improve your work life

A new paper from the Oregon State University found that an active and healthy sex life can boost employees’ job satisfaction and productivity, evidencing the need for a good work-life balance, the authors report.

Image credits Michal Jarmoluk.

Getting busy between the sheets could be just the thing to make you enjoy your job more, says Keith Leavitt, associate professor in OSU’s College of Business. He and his team looked at the relationship between the work and sex habits of married employees and found that those who got some love at home unknowingly received a boost in workplace the next day — when they were more likely to immerse themselves in the tasks at hand and drew more enjoyment in their work.

“We make jokes about people having a ‘spring in their step,’ but it turns out this is actually a real thing and we should pay attention to it,” said Leavitt, an expert in organizational behavior and management and first author of the paper.

“Maintaining a healthy relationship that includes a healthy sex life will help employees stay happy and engaged in their work, which benefits the employees and the organizations they work for.”

Starting off on the right foot

Intercourse triggers the release of neurotransmitter dopamine, which is associated with the brain’s reward pathway, as well as neuropeptide ocytocine, which promotes social bonding and feelings of attachment. It’s a winner combo, which makes sex a natural and pretty fail-proof way of improving your mood. And best of all, the effects of these chemicals can extend well into the next day, the team explains.

To reach this conclusion, the researchers monitored with 159 married employees over a period of two weeks, asking them to complete two short surveys every day. They found that people who had sex reported more positive moods overall the next day — and an improved emotional state in the morning correlated strongly to more self-reported work engagement and job satisfaction throughout the workday.

The effect typically lasted for at least 24 hours, was equally powerful in both men and women, and was significant even after the team corrected for general satisfaction with the relationship and sleep quality — both very powerful ingredients of overall mood.

Image credits Sasin Tipchai.

Leavitt and his team also showed that bringing your work stress to home from work has a negative effect on your romantic endeavors. Employees that failed to disconnect work from their personal life were more likely to sacrifice sex, causing their engagement in work to decline over time. In a society where virtually everyone has a smartphone and after-hours responses to work emails are often expected, these findings underscore the importance of leaving work at the office, Leavitt said.

With this in mind, it may be time to rethink how our work and personal lives fit together, Leavitt says.

“This is a reminder that sex has social, emotional and physiological benefits, and it’s important to make it a priority,” he added. “Making a more intentional effort to maintain a healthy sex life should be considered an issue of human sustainability, and as a result, a potential career advantage.”

“Technology offers a temptation to stay plugged in, but it’s probably better to unplug if you can. And employers should encourage their employees to completely disengage from work after hours.”

Still, I’d give it some time before putting it down on my CV. Let the findings penetrate the job market a bit more, as it were.

“Just make time for it,” he concludes.

Well, it wouldn’t be right to argue with science, would it? Guess we just have to. For productivity’s sake.

The full paper “From the Bedroom to the Office: Workplace Spillover Effects of Sexual Activity at Home” has been published in the Journal of Management.




Poor air quality in the office might halve productivity


Image: Pixabay, Unsplash

It’s no secret that people nowadays spend most of their time indoors. In high-income countries, as many as 66% of jobs are in the service sector. If you fall in this category, you most likely work in an office environment, which might seem benign enough and boring, of course. However, not all office buildings are built the same. The various materials and furnishings can not only affect your performance at work, but also our health. A new study published in the journal  Environmental Health Reports quantified the effects of air quality and found employees working in environments with minimum pollutants in the air performed up to twice as better on cognitive tests.

Breathe in, breathe out

Depending on the kind of materials used to build and furnish an office space, the air inside might be contaminated with a variety of chemicals that leach  in gaseous form with both short- and long-term health effects. Then of course there’s the CO2 and nitrogen oxide leaching in from the busy streets below.

Some companies build their offices from the get go with a ‘green’ mindset, from employing materials that leach minimal volatile compounds, to energy efficiency measures, to filters that clean ambient air. If they’re not forced to, most developers aren’t that keen on introducing these measures, though. They might change their minds if they understand that air quality directly influences productivity, hence business.

For the study, 24 subjects were invited to go about their daily work routines in an office environment where the air quality was controlled for six days. These were work days in the middle of the week, since Mondays and Fridays are notorious for skewing the results of this sort of studies. In each day, the researchers changed the levels of carbon dioxide and volatile organic compounds to reflect those that can leak from construction materials, paint, furniture, outside air and so on. The workers had no idea that the air they were breathing was changed.

Every afternoon, each participant took a test that assessed their cognitive skills, which were directly applicable to their work setting. The results were surprising. When the air inside contained less carbon dioxide and volatile compounds per usual, workers performed  61 percent better on cognitive tests. When the air inside contained minimal pollutants, the workers performed 101% better.

The researchers found that CO2 was “particularly important,” William Fisk, leader of the indoor environment group at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, told Ars Technica. “For decades, nearly everyone had thought that carbon dioxide at the concentrations encountered in buildings had no effects on people,” he said.

It’s important to note that the results document short-term effects. It’s yet unclear if air quality affects cognitive skills and health in the long term. This is something Fisk and colleagues plan on investigating next.

Study finds global effect of temperature on productivity

A recent study published Wednesday in the journal Nature shows that there is a strong functional relationship between a region’s average recorded temperature and economic productivity — further warning of the damage climate warming would do to our economy.

Image via linkedin

The study compiled 50 years’ worth of economic data and temperature readings from over 100 countries and found a strong correlation between these two: regardless of a country’s wealth levels, human productivity seems to be highest for annual temperature values of around 13 degrees Celsius (55 Fahrenheit). In areas where the mean temperature value is higher than this, economic productivity declines “strongly,” the authors conclude.

“The relationship is globally generalizable, unchanged since 1960, and apparent for agricultural and non-agricultural activity in both rich and poor countries,” the study, led by Marshall Burke of Stanford’s Department of Earth System Science, notes. Solomon Hsiang and Edward Miguel, economists at the University of California, Berkeley, also participated in the study.

“These results provide the first evidence that economic activity in all regions is coupled to the global climate and establish a new empirical foundation for modelling economic loss in response to climate change,” they conclude.

Their findings means that unmitigated global warming could lead directly a more than 20 percent decline in incomes the world round, and increase economic inequality: Poorer, hotter countries will feel the effects worse than their colder, richer counterparts — “hot, poor countries will probably suffer the largest reduction in growth,” the authors note, also suggesting that countries such as Canada or Sweden will actually benefit from the change, as they move closer to the optimum mean value of 13 degrees.

“If you’re in a country where the average temperature is cooler than 13 degrees C, a little bit of warming could actually be beneficial,” says Burke. “On the other hand, if you’re already at 13 degrees C, a little extra warming is going to hurt you.”

Countries that fare considerably better are located in currently cold places — adding weight to the idea that northern countries will benefit from climate change. On top of easier shipping, resource exploitation, and tourism, there could be a productivity boost due to more favorable temperatures. Many tropical countries, in contrast, suffer economic damages in this scenario — getting hotter than they already are.

“Warming may amplify global inequality because hot, poor countries will probably suffer the largest reduction in growth,” the study concludes.

“The cross-country implications of the analysis is eye-opening,” said Rick Larrick, a professor at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, after reviewing the study for the Washington Post. “Climate change is not just an environmental issue but geopolitical issue.”

He also claims that while short term temperature swings might cause economic hardships, the study fails to take into account economic adaptation to a long term temperature increase.

“Using year-to-year changes is a good proxy for long term temperature changes, but countries may not be prepared to invest in mitigation on such a short cycle (it is unanticipated and temporary); in the presence of ongoing climate change, however, countries might be forward looking in terms of investing in mitigation,” he said by email for Washington Post.

But on what factors exactly is this relationship based on? The authors consider agriculture and human behaviour to be the main causes:

“We see that agricultural productivity declines, labor productivity declines, kids do worse on tests, and we see more violence.”

The paper draws on a historical analysis of 166 countries over 50 years, looking at GDP per capita and corellating them to the temperature fluctuations that these countries experienced. They only compared each country “to itself in years when it is exposed to warmer- versus cooler-than-average temperatures due to naturally occurring stochastic atmospheric changes,” to eliminate factors such as national wealth or culture.

“An economy observed during a cool year is the ‘control’ for that same society observed during a warmer ‘treatment’ year,” the authors write.

After identifying the temperature-productivity relationship, the authors created estimates for the effect it will have in the future, if steps are not taken to stem global warming:

“In 2100, we estimate that unmitigated climate change will make 77% of countries poorer in per capita terms than they would be without climate change.”

Previous work done by the three researchers showed that increasing temperatures lead to increased violence, and Hsiang found a relationship between warmer climate and poorer math test scores.

“We find that math performance declines linearly above 21C (70F), with the effect statistically significant beyond 26C (79F),” that previous paper reported.

Other research confirms that global warming will reduce wheat yields, among other detrimental effects on agricultural production.

But, even considering this large body of research is consistent with the new study, the paper is not without its critics. University of Sussex economist Richard Tol considers it “hugely problematic” in an email to the Washington Post.

“They extrapolate from modest warming between 1960 and 2015 to massive warming between 2015 and 2100,” he objected, among a number of other technical criticisms.

In an accompanying commentary on the paper, also in Nature, economist Thomas Sterner of the University of Gothenburg, Sweden was less critical but noted that the work will have to withstand academic scrutiny.

“The conclusion that temperature-associated costs will be higher than previously calculated will cause a stir, and should have stark repercussions for policy,” wrote Sterner. “The authors take great care to check the robustness of their findings but there will, no doubt, be attempts to look for other data and approaches, which may give different results.”

Another question that arises from the study is to what extent technology can overcome the adverse effects of warmer temperatures:

“Air conditioning absolutely can help, but the data suggests that it does not fully insulate you from the effects of temperature,” says Burke. “We do not find that technological advances or the accumulation of wealth and experience since 1960 has altered the relationship between productivity and temperature.”

It remains to be seen if the scientific comunity’s review of the paper is favorable or not.

Companies pay about $6000/year for each employee which smokes

A new study suggests that U.S. businesses pay almost $6,000 per year extra for each employee who smokes, compared to an employee which doesn’t smoke. Researchers claim this is the first study to focus on the cost of employing smokers vs non-smokers.

So why does this happen? By drawing data from previous researches, focusing on absenteeism, lost productivity, smoke breaks and health care costs, the researchers developed an estimate of how much all these factors cost, on average, per employee.

The analysis only focused on the private sector, but the odds are it works just as good (and even probably better) with the public sector.

“This research should help businesses make better informed decisions about their tobacco policies,” said Berman, who also will have an appointment in the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State. “We constructed our calculations such that individual employers can plug in their own expenses to get more accurate estimates of their own costs.”

“Most of the places that have policies against hiring smokers are coming at it not just from a cost perspective but from a wellness perspective,” Berman said. “Many of these businesses make cessation programs available to their employees. Most people who smoke started when they were kids and the vast majority of them want to quit and are struggling to do so. This is a place where business interests and public health align. In addition to cutting costs, employers can help their employees lead healthier and longer lives by eliminating tobacco from the workplace.”

So maybe ‘non-smoker’ is something you want to start adding on your CV.

"Hey, guys! Now back to work!"

Viewing photos of cute animals at work boosts productivity, Japanese study says

Interestingly enough, a group of cognitive psychologists at Japan’s Hiroshima University found that browsing through cute photos, such as those of baby animals like kittens, serves as a productivity booster. Although the lolcats peak is long gone, there’s still a significant wave of viral enthusiasm for sharing and collecting photos of cute animals – a practice often times associated with procrastination.

"Hey, guys! Now back to work!"

“Hey, guys! Now back to work!”

To test their hypothesis, the researchers separated 48 volunteer students into two groups, and asked them to play game similar to Milton Bradley’s “Operation.” After the first session of the game, students from the first group were shown various photos of cute baby animals, while the second was shown photos of adult animals. The first group fared better.

In a second test, the researchers split the volunteers into three groups. This time they were tasked with remembering and stating the number of times a given number appeared in a sequence. Again, a group was shown photos of baby animals, another photos of adult animals, and the other was shown photos of “pleasant foods,” including sushi and steak. Alright, moving on, apparently the volunteers which were entertained with photos of cute baby animals significantly outperformed participants from the other two study groups.

In a third and final test, 36 right-handed university students who did not participate in the previous experiments were selected. Again, these were divided into three groups, each stimulated by photos of baby animals, adult animals and neutral (food), respectively, and asked to perform a reaction time (RT) task. Participants were asked to indicate whether a stimulus presented on a cathode ray tube screen contained the letter H or the letter T by pressing the left or right key on a response pad as quickly and as accurately as possible. Curiously, here the cute animal viewing group scored the lowest. The researchers write that  “the narrowed attention may be beneficial to performance on tasks that require carefulness in the motor and perceptual domains, such as the tasks used in the first two experiments.”

The scientists theorize that this may be because caring for baby animals (nurturance) requires very tender treatment of the animals, as well as “careful attention to the targets’ physical and mental states as well as vigilance against possible threats to the targets.”

That is to say, in other words, that browsing through cute photos of kittens might boost productivity in a limited array of fields, and most likely turning this into a habit leads to procrastination, which we all know how well it goes hand in hand with productivity…

Still, I for one found the study very interesting, and you can all read it in much broader detail in the online version of the journal PLoS One, where it was published.