Our Thoughts

The Science of Work

29th January 2019

An article in New Scientist summarises what science has taught us about work - which environments work best, what hours are most productive, how important it is to move, and so on. It's fascinating, and terrifying, how often standard practice is directly contradicted by the best available evidence.

The full piece is well worth getting hold of if you can (you can see a preview here), but we thought we'd pull out some of the highlights.


Being Productive

The rhythm of your day
People vary, but as a rule tasks requiring creativity, decision-making, and working memory are best tackled early in the day. Mundane tasks such as checking email should be saved for the afternoon slump that most people experience.  Finish the day by ..."writing a brief summary of the day's accomplishments or failures, amd a to-do list for tomorrow."

We can, and should, minimise distractions by switching off email and messaging, and putting our phones out of sight. Avoid music that you know well, esepcially if you're an introvert. On the other hand, distractions can actually boost productivity if you're doing repetitive tasks, and may benefit creativity as well. Similarly, task switching reduces productiivity but enhances creativity.

Arrange your desk
"Clutter has long been a bugbear of the managing classes", with some justification it would seem - stress leads to clutter, which reminds of uncompleted tasks and adds to our stress.

Take a break
The most productive people take more breaks than everyone else. We should be taking short breaks to move and rest our eyes every 20-30 minutes, and a 10-15 minute break every hour. Don't use breaks to check your personal email or messages, but do something to refresh your body and/or mind.

Don't work too hard
It's no surprise that overwork is bad for your physical and mental wellbeing, but did you know research shows that people who work too hard for too long are less likely to be promoted, and less secure and happy in their jobs?

Office layout
Open plan spaces tend to foster privacy rather than collaboration. Hot-desking might help suit spaces to the appropriate "task and mood" of each person, but in reality tends to foster territoriality.

Work flexibly
Flexibility is good. Home working boosts productivity on average, and even better is allowing people to choose (working at home isn't for everyone). However, giving too much flexibility (e.g. by allowing no limit on holidays taken) can create a competition to see who works hardest.


Staying Healthy and Happy

Move more
We sit for too long, and our bodies aren't built for it. Standing desks are nearly as bad, as it's a variety of postures and moving around we really need.

Manage your boss and other people
Most of us think we're more emotionally intelligent and better at working with others than we really are. If you have a work "nemesis", either avoid them or, if you can't, talk through your issues. For all the benefits of remote working, face to face interactions are essential to build trust. Good managers are so positive that, for people who work in multiple teams, having one good manager can offset the impact of another bad boss. Having a bad boss is bad for your health.

Stay awake
Airtight offices can lead to CO2 concentrations six times what you'd find outside, causing fatigue as well as headaches and respiratory tract irritation. Eyes get stiff from staring at a screen, so focus on something far away from time to time. Exposure to daylight will help regulate melatonin, so you sleep better at night and feel wider awake in the day.

Avoid germs
Yes, your desk is filthy. The average desk has 400 times more germs than a toilet seat. On the plus side they're mostly harmless, and they're mostly yours. The real danger zones are communal spaces at work and the commute, so wash your hands regularly and get some hand gel!

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