The Dark Matter Of Workplace Culture
How can businesses start to engage their underwhelmed employees – and what does any solution have to do with endorphins?
Bruce Daisley goes in search of Sync, the hidden ‘dark matter’ that binds employees into a successful workforce.
What makes one company more successful than another? Is a committed motivated workforce a differentiator between two competing firms? Damn right it is. Gallup’s Workforce Survey records that only 8% of the UK workforce is engaged at work, with twice that number being actively disengaged in their jobs. Researchers at Warwick University found that a more engaged workforce was significantly more productive than one that wasn’t. If all those disengaged people could be made to care about their colleagues and their work, then improved success awaits.
As they seek the special sauce that can unlock this discretionary effort, psychologists find themselves studying what makes people more connected to each other. And yes – there seems to be a ‘dark matter’ that lies at the heart of us feeling bonded to others. Let’s call it ‘Sync’ – a hard-to-replicate connection that, by triggering higher endorphin levels, builds teamwork.
Where do we find Sync?
Since it’s hard to measure endorphin levels, we instead measure the secondary effects of higher endorphins. Researchers have found that when we have higher endorphin levels, we’re more able to withstand pain, which means that scientists have taken to inflicting hurt in order to see how happy subjects are. Normally, this involves putting an inflatable cuff around someone’s arm and seeing how much pressure they can tolerate. With this method of measuring endorphins, we can start to create Sync.
Researchers put Oxford University rowers into teams to train. They found that those who rowed together in a ‘virtual boat’ (which required them to all pull in time, as a team) were able to withstand twice the pain of those who rowed comparably hard but alone. Being in Sync with others created massive doses of endorphins that made the whole team more resilient. Dancing together has exactly the same effect, as does singing in a choir.
Why does any of this matter? Because, in the choir case, researchers found that being in Sync – even with strangers – built a sense of collaboration. It made the choir feel more engaged, and that’s the type of engagement that’s in such a short supply in modern workplaces.
Making the most of Sync
Having identified that Sync is the dark matter of modern offices, what can we do with it? I know what you’re thinking… “No amount of science is going to get Diane in accounts dancing.” But finding ways to unlock Sync is the secret to modern workplace culture. The good news is that psychologists have found several ways to trigger endorphins to these levels.
Professor Robin Dunbar has observed that mutual grooming in animals seems to have this effect and, thankfully, the good news is that in humans, a similar boost is activated by workplace laughter, while even a face-to-face chat creates a boost. Workplace laughter isn’t even dependent on hilarious jokes either, with research suggesting that we all laugh more merely by being in company.
The challenge of this discovery comes when we appraise how the modern workplace has evolved. Most readers probably sit in an open plan office filled with people wearing headphones. It’s worth cautioning that headphones are merely a symptom of information overload. With an average burden of 16 hours of meetings per week and 140 emails per day, many workers put headphones on as a means of getting their work done. But that work overload and headphone combination means that we’re squeezing out the natural Sync that workplaces normally generate.
MIT Professor Alex Pentland was a pioneer of measuring the impact of this on the productivity of work. According to his measurements, emails and meetings both accounted for only around 2% of workplace productivity, while face-to-face discussions and interactions accounted for almost 40%. So Sync actually gets things done at work.
When we’re scoping out the next ten years of work, what decisions should we make? I say that we need to work out ways to reduce the amount of time spent in meetings and dial up the space for discourse. Understanding the science of what improves workplace productivity is a vital next step. In the search for greater success, finding ways to laugh together might just be the way to unlock the dark matter bonding the workplace together.
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