Stasher’s Stay at Home Specials #6: Things We Learned From the Biggest Productivity Studies

Stasher’s Stay at Home Specials #6: Things We Learned From the Biggest Productivity Studies

by George Mouratidis

During these insane times (AC – this article was written during the coronavirus pandemic), those of us lucky to be able to work from home are looking for productivity tips that would help us stay focused and, well, productive.

However, a mere glance at the vast majority of articles covering this topic shows that they are based mostly around the personal experiences of those who wrote them. This is not saying they are not good; in fact, there are some really great ones, including the one here on Stasher blog

In this article, we’ll turn to science for cold, hard data on productivity and try to come up with a few tips for all of us. 

1. Working from home is actually good for productivity

With the advancement of technology, working from home has become a possibility for a number of professions, but on the whole, most companies are still quite apprehensive about letting their employees work mostly remotely.

One big reason for this decision is the belief that productivity will drop as people start working from home. Investigating reasons for such a belief is a topic for another article; and it probably has to do with antiquated ideas of motivation, productivity, and office life. 

In reality, the opposite seems to be true. Namely, a two-year, 500-person study by Professor Nicholas Bloom from Stanford University actually showed that remote workers were not only more productive but also suffered 50% less attrition than in-office workers. The study did show, however, that many workers felt isolated and that they would rather not work from home all the time. 

2. You (probably) need more sleep

One of the biggest crises of the modern world that is almost never talked about (especially these days) is the global problem of insufficient sleep. The highlighted part is, by the way, the first half of the title of a paper published in 2018. Among other things, the paper also mentions that insufficient sleep has a detrimental effect on productivity, and it is by no means the only paper saying this.

For example, a study published in 2010 showed that employees with various sleep disorders are not just less productive but also take more days off and have generally worse performance. The study concluded that fatigue-related losses in productivity cost the participating companies just under $2,000 annually per employee. If you take just those with sleep disorders, the sum is much higher. 

The study also showed that people think they sleep fewer hours than they need.

EachNight’s survey of more than 2,300 people showed that even the method of waking up makes a difference. It showed that people who used an alarm (as opposed to waking up naturally) were more than twice as likely to be late for work, as well as to be reprimanded for poor performance. They also feel less focused and motivated at work. 

3. Environment matters. A lot.

The effects of workplace conditions have been subject to productivity studies since the bad old days when factory owners looked for ways to squeeze that last iota of productivity from line workers. While the reasons have become less sinister over the years, the subject of the workplace environment has remained attractive to researchers. 

For example, a lot of research has gone into studying the connection between lighting and alertness and performance. A lot of research. Natural light has been found particularly beneficial for mental health in the workplace, as well as productivity and performance, according to a 2014 study from Northwestern

Harvard researchers found that green buildings can boost productivity by raising people’s cognitive function and improving sleep quality. These green buildings boasted great ventilation, air filters, a great deal of plant life, non-toxic materials, and good natural lighting.

4. You should work less

Strict, long working hours made sense for massive factories that once drove the world economy (well, not even then really). However, simply transplanting this approach to office work of the modern age doesn’t make sense. 

This has been supported by numerous research, including what the researchers from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development discovered when they looked at the relationship between the numbers of hours worked per person and the GDP created per hour. 

Source: OECD

The chart shows very clearly that the output goes down as the number of hours worked goes up. 

This is one of the reasons why so many countries today are experimenting with shorter work hours and getting some great results. 

5. You should focus on one thing

Multitasking has been hotly debated for a while, which is actually quite surprising. The reason why this is surprising is that the science is absolutely clear on one thing: humans are mono-taskers. 

Well, at least 97.5% of us are, according to a 2010 study on supertaskers. “Supertaskers” are that 2.5 % of people who show no performance deterioration when doing two tasks at once. The rest of us? Not so great. 

Researchers from the University of London did a study that showed that multitasking lowers your IQ, producing a similar effect to a sleepless night. In some cases, this drop in IQ was even more staggering. 

Another study was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance (Vol. 27, No. 4) showed that multitasking makes us less efficient. The reason for this is that our brains need some time to switch between tasks, and when you’re multitasking, you’re simply switching too much. It has shown that doing one task at a time is more efficient since there is less switching. 

6. You should ask your colleagues for some space

One of the biggest hindrances to a productive day of work are, unfortunately, our colleagues. A survey by Luxafor showed that more than a third of people find interruptions by their colleagues as detrimental to their productivity. Both offline and online.

My God . . . those meetings really could all have been emails.
“My God . . . those meetings really could all have been e-mails.”

Some colleague-related distractions are simply necessary, but there are far too many situations in which they can be avoided.

Closing word

So, the science has spoken – work from home (but not all the time), sleep well, get some plants, convince your boss to let you work remotely, and get yourself one of those isolation tanks where you can work on just one thing for hours on end. 

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