Aug 29, 2018 in Viewpoint

The science behind a happy workplace

Using an innovative wearable device, researchers are uncovering new insights into what really makes for productive, happy employees. Interesting article from Adam Piore about research by Waber.

Anne Wernand
by Anne Wernand
This is a subscript of a photo. It shows two people working or brainstorming at a large open space with plenty of natural light.

In this paper, Waber aims to understand how workplace interactions related to job satisfaction, productivity and stress. In the past, researchers have argued that interacting with a larger, more diverse network of people is key to workplace productivity, promoting creativity by exposing workers to multiple viewpoints. 

But comparing the sensor data with the economists’ survey data, Waber found the opposite: Bankers belonging to a small, tight-knit group of co-workers who spoke frequently with one another — an indicator of what social scientists call social cohesion — were not only happier in their jobs, they also got more work done, shared ideas faster and divvied up tasks more efficiently. Just by tracking how face-to-face encounters within a group changed from one week to the next, Waber could predict changes in the bankers’ job satisfaction with up to 60 percent accuracy. The sensors were “orders of magnitude more predictive than anything that management researchers had previously collected,” Waber says. In subsequent studies, he found that the same pattern held true in other workplaces.

The importance of face-to-face contact

Many companies are adopting an open-seating plan, in which people choose desks based on availability. But Waber’s sensors revealed a flaw in that scheme: A few socially important employees controlled the flow of information, and critical interactions happened mostly at those employees’ desks. An open seating plan, the data suggested, would be crippling to the way information in the company flowed. Without assigned desks, Waber says, “People wouldn’t know where to find these socially important people. They might give up and not look for them.” This research expresses the importance of face-to-face contact and knowing where your important coworkers are.