Rainy days, snow, and cold weather sour our moods and make us less productive, or at least that’s what most people believe. But when it was put to the test, however, two studies found the opposite to be true.
Researchers from Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard Business School, and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill showed that good weather actually makes individuals less productive. They theorized that when the weather is nice, people become distracted by thoughts of what else they could be doing outside. In one of their studies, they even controlled for this psychological effect by priming subjects with photographs of fun outdoor activities, such as boating and dining al fresco. Productivity on tasks dropped.
The researchers then ran two tests: one looked at two and a half years of data from a bank and daily weather reports, and the other took place in a lab where they had subject replicate a similar task to the ones the bankers performed. “Weather” in these cases consisted of precipitation, temperature, and visibility.
Before the studies were carried out, the researchers surveyed 198 adults and found out that they believe good weather increased productivity and bad weather decreased it. More than 80 percent were sure it was the case. There’s mixed research results about whether good weather puts us in a good mood, but the idea is that lovely days make us happier, and when we’re happier, we’re more productive. That’s what people believe.
The first study, as I mentioned, looked at two a half years’ worth of data from a mid-sized Japanese bank that processed mortgage loans. The primary task is data entry, or bankers copying information from one form into another. Each loan requires more than a dozen data entry fields, and 111 workers made the cut for the study. So there was a lot of data, 598,393 transactions, to be precise.
The researchers looked at how long it takes the bankers to complete their tasks. When it rained, the time it took bankers to complete their loan tasks decreased (which is good because faster is better). One standard deviation increase in rain related to 0.7 percent decrease in time. For temperature, the results showed an inverted U-shaped relationship, meaning when temperatures were extreme in either direction (bloody cold or blazingly hot), the bankers were at their best. As for visibility, same deal: Better visibility meant slower bankers. One standard deviation increase in visibility resulted in a 1.2 percent increase in completion time.
That first data assessment is a pretty good study of worker productivity, but when they tried to match up bad and good weather with errors made in the data entry task, but the error rate was so low that the results were inconclusive. At least that says something about the competency of these bankers!
So the researchers ran their own study where they could control for more variables and create a data entry task that would be hard enough to have more errors.
They recruited some university students and created a data-entry task that included transferring information from one field to another, but all the words were in Italian. Then they divided up the subjects and showed some of them picture of people playing beach volleyball, rowing in the Charles River, and having fun outside.
These test subjects also had to pick their favorite activity from those shown and describe how they would participate if they were in the photo. Talk about a tease.
Another group didn’t see any pictures at all and instead were asked to describe their daily routine. The students then had to complete the data entry task on either a sunny day or a rainy day. They also completed a memory test and filled out a survey.
During rainy days, the people who looked at pictures of outdoor activities did worse, so it seems like just the thought of what you could be doing on a nice day distracts people from being their most productive.
There is one issue that needs further explanation, however. Bad weather actually has been shown to decrease productivity, but in that of an organization, not individuals. Lee and her fellow researchers point to another paper (Cachon, 2012) that demonstrated a clear decrease in productivity from automobile plants during bad weather, looking and 10 years’ worth of data.
The decrease in productivity, however, seems to affected the system rather than the individual. For example, snow can cause delays in deliveries to a factory. If the parts don’t arrive, tasks that depend on them can’t get done.
Lee’s research, in contrast, looked at individual productivity and tasks that were independent of anything that could have been directly affected by bad weather. In other words, her studies ended up examining the cognitive effects of weather on productivity rather than external effects.
“[O]rganizations could assign more clerical work on rainy days than sunny days to tap into the effects of bad weather on productivity, assigning work that does not require sustained attention but does allow for more flexibility in thinking. Because we found that cognitive distractions led to higher error rates, individuals may wish to avoid working on a task in which errors would be costly when they have task-unrelated priorities. In addition, organizations may give individualized feedback to each employee about their own productivity and employ flexible working hours that could maximize productivity.” (Lee, 2014)
Cachon, G., S. Gallino and M. Olivares (2012). Severe Weather and Automobile Assembly Productivity. The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.
Lee, Jooa Julia, Francesca Gino, and Bradley R Staats (2014). Rainmakers: Why bad weather means good productivity. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99(3), 504-513.
Photo by lauren, CC.