Over the last two years, I’ve read around 100 research reports and papers about personal productivity—what makes individuals more productive, less productive, better able to focus, more likely to be distracted, and so forth. Every so often, I step back and look for larger patterns across the findings. Sometimes, two or three important findings have some larger idea in common. And that’s how I came to realize the importance of agency in being productive.
By agency, I mean having choice or being in control. Frequently, I get to the end of a paper about a research experiment and synthesize it as such: If the person is in control or feels in control, then they are likely to be more productive.
Here are three examples.
1. Leisure Time
Being in control of our leisure time greatly affects whether time off is valuable in the sense that it renews our ability to be productive.
Everyone has a well of resources that allow us to cope with stressors. When we work, we use up those resources. Time off, which includes everything from evenings and weekends to month-long vacations, allows us to replenish those resources.
However, we don’t get nearly as much replenishing power when we are not in control of what we do during that time off. When our time off gets filled up by obligations and unplanned negative events, such as a flat tire or a sick child, we don’t rejuvenate as much or sometimes even at all, depending on the circumstances.
Conversely, when we do things we enjoy during our time off, we get a greater return in terms of replenishment. Relaxing on a beach, or reading a book, or socializing isn’t inherently beneficial for anyone. But it is if you enjoy it and choose it. Introverts might not choose to socialize on their time off, and extroverts might not want to stay in bed with a good book. But when we choose to do an activity (or lack of activity) because we enjoy it, that’s when we are mostly likely to refill that well of resources that enable us to be productive.
2. Working From Home
Researchers have found that working from home can increase productivity by 13 percent on average (Bloom, 2014). But there’s one big caveat. It doesn’t work for everyone.
For the study that found a 13 percent increase in productivity, some of the subjects opted out of the arrangement as soon as the study ended, even though their employer was happy to let them continue. “They tended to be the poorest performers of the remote workers. They had tried it and figured out that it wasn’t right for them,” according to the lead researcher.
Some people simply don’t like working from home, sometimes because they find themselves easily distracted by chores or because they prefer having clear boundaries between work and home life. Whatever the case, the fact holds that working from home is likely to increase someone’s productivity only if that person chooses to work from home. People who prefer to work in an office are not going to be more productive if you force them to work from home.
We can make a similar argument about open-office plans. Workers in open-plan spaces are interrupted more frequently than those working in offices or cubicles (Al Horr et al., 2016). Additionally, they are also more prone to self-interrupting when in an open office environment (Dabbish et al., 2011)., which on the whole decreases productivity. The exception, of course, is people who like having an open office and who choose to work without walls. Proponents of open offices tend to be people who collaborate with others frequently during the day, rather than people whose primary work requires long stretches of quiet time.
3. Thermal Comfort
“The office is too hot.”
“The office is too cold.”
Productivity researchers never talk about an office being too hot or too cold. Instead, they talk about thermal comfort. The term “thermal comfort” acknowledges subjectivity. The office isn’t too hot or too cold; you are!
The point, if you haven’t by now guessed, is that in general, people are most productive when they are thermally comfortable, meaning when they get to choose the temperature that’s right for them. At least four good studies have shown that “dissatisfaction with thermal comfort leads to productivity loss” (Al Horr et al., 2016).
When Are We Better Off With Someone Else in Control?
While we often see great gains in productivity potential when employees have agency, there are times when it’s much better to let someone else be in control and make decisions, which I will explore more in a following blog post.
Al Horr, Y., Arif, M., Kaushik, A., Mazroei, A., Katafygiotou, M., & Elsarrag, E. (2016). Occupant Productivity and Office Indoor Environment Quality: A Review of the Literature. Building and Environment(105) 369-389.
Ariely, D. & Wertenbroch, K. (2002). Procrastination, Deadlines, and Performance: Self-Control by Precommitment. Psychological Science, American Psychological Society 13(3): 219-224.
Bloom, N. (2014). “To Raise Productivity, Let More Employees Work from Home.” Harvard Business Review, January-February 2014. Retrieved Feb. 27, 2017 from https://hbr.org/2014/01/to-raise-productivity-let-more-employees-work-from-home.
Dabbish, L., Mark, G., & Gonzalez, V.M. (2001). Why Do I Keep Interrupting Myself?: Environment, Habit, and Self-Interruption. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems: 3,127-3,130.
Image: Brody WorkLounge by Steelcase.