On a recent episode of How To!, Ben Waber, an organizational scientist and author of People Analytics, shared some surprising tips on how to turn your kitchen into a corner office. Waber is obsessed with workplace design and his company, Humanyze, has compiled research from major companies across the world to study how employees’ interactions influence their work output. In this episode of How To!, Ben reveals some of his biggest findings to make you, and your co-workers, happier—and more productive. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Ben Waber: We have data from employees at some of the largest companies in the world that explore the social landscape within and outside of our companies. Randomly chatting with people at the coffee machine, forming relationships with people in other parts of the organization, going out for a walk—these things are extremely important.
Charles Duhigg: In one study, you discovered how small design choices can have a huge impact on the work people get done, right? It started when you were tracking the worker movements of a large company that employed a number of software developers.
A lot of people think about those folks as someone who sits in a corner drinking Mountain Dew and no one talks to them. I’m a former programmer. I like Mountain Dew. It’s a stereotype for a reason. At the same time, it’s an incredibly social job. Your code depends on the code of hundreds or thousands of other people and if you don’t communicate with them, bugs pop up. At this company, you saw something really weird: The teams that completed their code on time almost always had lunch in groups of 12. But in the lower-performing groups, people almost always were eating lunch in groups of four and sometimes three. Why?
We went to the cafeteria at this company and quickly saw what the answer was. There were two sets of doors into the cafeteria. By one set of doors, all of the tables were big and had 12 seats. But by the other set of doors, all the tables were small and had four seats. When you sit at one of those big tables, then other people sit next to you and you’re likely to talk to them.
Those conversations, it turned out, were really useful. Because the more people you talk to at lunch, the more willing you are to reach out to them later on when you encounter a problem they might be able to help with.
You’re talking about a roughly 10 percent difference in hard performance metrics just from sitting at that different table, which is crazy. It really demonstrates just how important these small changes to our workplace are. The way our environment functions can really shape the way we work in subtle ways and make a really, really big impact on the output of the entire group.
You’ve said that the biggest issue with working from home is that all the casual connections that normally occur inside an office become much harder when we’re not bumping into other people.
If you think about what gets lost when you work from home in a single day it’s these informal interactions with other people at work—at a cafe space in your office or maybe at Starbucks— when you start chatting with someone else who you might not know that well. You wouldn’t think to send a meeting invite for lunch with that person.
So at your own company, after everyone started working from home, you started randomly scheduling Zoom lunches between people, to try and recreate the informal conversations that would have happened back at the office.
It’s actually really nice to get to talk to them and the interaction across teams has increased since people went to work from home. At the end of the day, these interactions drive not just our performance, but the performance of the entire organization and, really, your enjoyment of work. We should spend more time on that.
Another thing you’ve mentioned is that, when we’re in an office, our days are usually divided into different parts that often take place in different places—like there’s the conference room and the cafeteria. Now that we’re at home all the time, we have to think about how to still make each part of the day feel different.
Yeah. I mean, it’s something that we’re seeing in the data—the workday is extended. People are spending more time on these digital tools. I think it’s hard for a lot of people who feel like, “Okay, I just need to sit at my computer and keep working at this stuff.” But that is much less important than this other stuff—chatting by the coffee machine with someone or going for a walk—that we traditionally think of as not really work. But no, this other stuff is a core part of work today and it just isn’t appreciated like that. If an organization cares about its actual performance, then it really is incumbent on them to be supportive and proactive in trying to help people step back and take breaks and not burn out.
But we’re no longer going out for coffee because all the coffee places are closed. How do we replicate that at home?
This is one of the key challenges. What I would say is that scheduling time for yourself, even during what is traditionally considered the workday, is a really good use of your time and one that is very defensible and should actually be encouraged. Maybe for you it’s, “I’m going to take a bath or shower in the middle of the day just to clear my head” and that actually does it for you.
For those of us who can work from home, we’re really lucky for a number of reasons. Obviously we’re at less of a health risk than people who can’t work from home. We still have jobs. But that really shouldn’t turn into guilt. We do need to take care of ourselves, and we also need to take care of our social groups at work.
That brings me to the last big question that I was wondering about—what are the lasting consequences of this period of working from home?
I think that a lot of this artificial separation between our personal and work lives—we’re this slovenly person sitting around in our sweatpants at home, but then we wear a suit and tie or whatever and we go into the office—is a false dichotomy. We’re the same person. People can have multifaceted lives, but we try to hide those things from each other.