Friday, January 30, 2015

Does Working From Home Improve Productivity?

Stanford researchers Nicholas Bloom, James Liang, John Roberts, and Zhichun Jenny Ying have conducted an interesting new study regarding the benefits and costs of working from home.  The scholars conducted an experiment at Ctrip, a Chinese travel agency.  They randomly assigned call center employees to either work from home or work in the office for a nine month period.  What did they find?  Those employees who worked from home experienced a 13% performance increase.  A portion of that increase came from working more minutes per shift (i.e. they took fewer breaks and fewer sick days).  The other portion derived from taking more calls per minute.   The attrition rate for home workers dropped significantly in this study.  These workers also appeared more satisfied with their jobs.   Did quality suffer though?  It did not.  The home workers appeared to be more productive, while not sacrificing the quality of their work. 

Does this mean that home workers always will be more productive?  Not necessarily.   We have to be careful about generalizing these findings.   This study pertained to call center workers.  We may find that other types of work do not experience the same increases in productivity.  For instance, perhaps some forms of work require much more intense coordination among members of a team.  In those instances, home working may bring more challenges and may not lead to productivity increases.  It would be terrific to see a new study examining a different type of work. 

Using Stories to Persuade

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Do Treadmill Desks Enhance Job Performance?

Fast Company reports this week on a study by HEC-Montreal postdoctoral researcher Élise Labonté-LeMoyne and her co-authors, published in Computers in Human Behavior.  The scholars examined the impact of treadmill desks on attention and short-term recall.  One should definitely note that the sample size was very, very small.  However, the findings certainly are interesting and encourage further research in this area.  The researchers examined 18 subjects.  One-half of the participants used a treadmill desk and walked at 1.4 miles per hour while working.  The other half of the participants sat a regular desk.  The researchers described the task given to participants:  

The reading task was taken from Leger et al. (2014) and involves reading a lengthy text while periodically receiving emails. Participants were told to picture themselves in a scenario where they would have to report to their superior in 40 min on the content of the text and some of the emails. Some emails were pertinent to the topic at hand while others were irrelevant (e.g., co-worker’s birthday party, cafeteria lunch menu, etc.). Participants had to optimize their use of time and decide whether or not to open and read each email depending on its subject line. The task ended after 40 minutes. 

The people working at the treadmill desk performed significantly better (35% better) on a recall test after the 40 minute period.  Interestingly, the scholars also monitored the research subjects using electroencephalography (EEG testing).   Here are the results:

For the EEG, significant results were found for the recall task, specifically in the first half of the task...  The group differences appear mostly in the right temporo-parietal region. We observed significantly more theta activity in the seated group (p = 0.02–0.05) and more alpha activity in the walking group (p = 0.05). Previous studies had shown that good memory performance is correlated with a decrease in theta power and an increase in alpha power ( Klimesch, 1999). Past work also showed that an increase in gamma power in the parietal region is correlated with attentional processes ( Müller, Gruber, & Keil, 2000) and memory ( Lisman, 2010). Our results are therefore in accordance with improved performance by the walking group on a task that requires memory and attention.

Not everyone has access to a treadmill desk, nor can they secure one for their office.  However, you might want to think about how much time you spend walking or standing during the day.  Do you have to be seated for all your work?  Could you walk or stand at times, and might that affect performance on the job?  I'm curious to see more research with a larger sample size to build upon this interesting study.  

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Does Having an Easy Grading Boss Actually Enhance Your Job Performance?

Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman published a thought-provoking piece in Harvard Business Review this month.  Zenger and Folkman run a leadership development consultancy.   They conducted research on supervisor evaluations of subordinates.  They noticed that some managers are much harder graders than others (not surprisingly).   Moreover, they discovered that, "People who work for easy graders are perceived to be more effective leaders by their colleagues than those who work for hard graders."  What did the conclude from these data?  Zenger and Folkman argue that, "perhaps the ratings are in some way self-fulfilling, and the leaders who see the best in their people actually make them better, while those who look more critically make their subordinates worse."  

What do I make of these findings and interpretations of the data?  First, I will acknowledge that prior research does show that this "self-fulfilling prophecy" effect does exist.  However, I would be careful about how these data have been interpreted.  First, Zenger and Folkman examined 360 managers, and then identified 50 easy graders and 31 hard graders. Why not equal amounts of easy and hard graders?  Why these particular breakpoints for looking at the managers at the extremes in their dataset?  They may have a good explanation, but they do not provide it in the HBR article.  Second, they fail to prove that objective differences in performance do not exist among the groups of employees in their study.   Perhaps the hard graders have lower performing units for a variety of reasons.  Third, they do not address the fact that they have simply measured how colleagues perceive the employees in this study.  They do not actually measure performance objectively.  Thus, it could be that easy graders talk about their employees in a very positive way, thereby influencing how colleagues perceive these employees.  The same may occur for hard graders in the opposite direction.  Thus, employees do not become awesome because their managers think they are awesome. Instead, colleagues come to believe employees are awesome because their managers talk so positively about them within the organization.   For these reasons (and others), I would be careful about the conclusions and interpretations being made by these researchers. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

What Happens to Hierarchical Teams in the Himalayas?

On this blizzard day, it only seems appropriate to draft a blog post about mountaineering in the Himalayas.  As many of my blog readers know, I've written in the past about why and how expedition teams behave on Mount Everest.  With regard to the infamous 1996 tragedy involving the Mountain Madness and Adventure Consultants expeditions, I argued that the teams lacked psychological safety.  As a result, people did not speak when they had concerns about the teams' plans, climbers' health, and the mountain conditions.  I explained that the status hierarchy in the teams diminished psychological safety (though other factors also decreased psychological safety).  The failure to speak up contributed to the tragedy on the mountain in May 1996, though it certainly was not the only cause of the deaths that occurred.  

Now, in a new paper, Eric M. Anicich, Roderick I. Swaab, and Adam D. Galinsky have written a paper about expedition teams in the Himalayas.  They find that hierarchy has positive and negative effects on expedition teams.  It may help teams reach the summit, but it may also kill people.  In fact, that's exactly what occurred in 1996.  Many people reached the top, but a number of climbers died.  It reminds me of what mountaineers David Breashears and Ed Viesturs have told me repeatedly: getting to the top is optional; getting back down safely is mandatory.  In fact, many people die coming down the mountain, rather than on the way to the summit.  Thus, while getting to the summit may seem like an accomplishment of these hierarchical teams, I'm not sure that's the case.  Getting to the summit is not a success.   Getting back down safely is the real measure of success.  Here's an excerpt from the abstract of their paper:

Specifically, we offer empirical evidence that hierarchical cultural values affect the outcomes of teams in high-stakes environments through group processes. Experimental data from a sample of expert mountain climbers from 27 countries confirmed that climbers expect that a hierarchical culture leads to improved team coordination among climbing teams, but impaired psychological safety and information sharing compared with an egalitarian culture. An archival analysis of 30,625 Himalayan mountain climbers from 56 countries on 5,104 expeditions found that hierarchy both elevated and killed in the Himalayas: Expeditions from more hierarchical countries had more climbers reach the summit, but also more climbers die along the way.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Pinerest Aims to Target Men

In today's Wall Street Journal, Yoree Koh writes about Pinterest's attempts to target male customers.  According to the article, "About 42% of online U.S. women use Pinterest, according to a Pew Research survey released this month, a coveted audience with enormous spending power."  The articles goes on to say that the company is trying to solve a problem that has plagued it for some time, namely its inability to attract male customers.  Koh writes:

"But Pinterest’s success with women has also created a conundrum for the business. The company has outsize aspirations to become the go-to place for discovery on the Web. And yet the other half of the world’s population has largely stayed away from the site in part because of the stigma that Pinterest is a clubhouse for women.  “We’re really trying to unpack and understand that so we can communicate to [men] that Pinterest is absolutely for you,” said David Rubin, who joined as head of marketing in July from Unilever PLC, where he worked on women’s beauty and helped launch the Axe men’s deodorant brand."

I find this "problem" rather intriguing.  What they see as a problem I see as a great strategy.  Pinterest has been laser focused on the female demographic.  They have done an amazing job of building an integrated system of activities and capabilities that serves that target market.   Why not focus on how to monetize the audience that it has and turn that audience into sustainable profits?  Why not be willing to say that they are not about serving male customers (primarily)?  Why try to be all things to all people?  Perhaps they don't have a male problem.  Perhaps they are about to create a strategy problem for themselves. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

How to Communicate with an Audience

Here's Stanford's J.D. Schramm on how to communicate effectively with an audience.  J.D. was my colleague when I served as a visiting professor at NYU's Stern School of Business.  He's a terrific teacher in the field of business communication.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Tips for Being a Good Boss: Recognize That You Are Now on Stage

In college, two roommates (Brian Gaspardo and Tony Khazen) and I ran the "Leverett House Grille" - a late-night, student-run pizza and burger joint for fellow students.  We sold pizza, burgers, fries, ice cream, milkshakes, and soda from 9pm-1am each weeknight.  We had a ton of fun, and we learned a great deal about how to manage a small business.  One day, a friend named Joanne Chang approached us with an idea.  An applied math and economics double major, Joanne loved to bake in her free time.  She offered to bake chocolate chip cookies that we could sell at the Leverett House Grille.  We split the profits.  

What happened to Joanne after graduation?  After a stint at Monitor Consulting, Joanne has gone on to become one of Boston's finest bakery chefs and a celebrated cookbook author.   Flour Bakery and Cafe, which she founded and manages, has four locations in greater Boston.  She also co-owns Myers + Chang, an Asian restaurant located in downtown Boston.   Her two cookbooks became national bestsellers, and her third book will be released later this year.  In 2013, Joanne was honored as a prestigious James Beard Award nominee.  Joanne is a terrific chef, but she's also proven to be a highly successful entrepreneur and business leader.  This week, Fortune featured a column about Joanne.  In the article, Joanne offers five tips on being a good boss.  They are all great tips.  I especially loved Tip#4: 

4. Recognize that you are now on stage.
As the boss, it’s no longer all about you—your focus is on everyone around you. Everything you say and do is being watched by the staff and seen as having a stamp of approval. Your role is to tackle every single day with optimism, focus, determination and a dedication to providing your team with whatever they need to succeed at their jobs. When I was first a boss, if I had was having a bad day I would get quiet and withdrawn. Bakers would nervously ask me if I was mad at them, and I realized that I couldn’t be in a bad mood and not have them think they had done something wrong. Don’t be insincere or fake…but keeping a game face on as a boss is crucial to ensuring a stable team.