Habits in the Workplace
How habits affect worker performance, and how to foster more productive worker habits
By Dylan Rose
The modern business is characterized by bureaucratic efficiency and a never-ending fixation on the “bottom line.” The goal of the modern organization is to maximize profits, and the standard approach toward this end is to improve operational processes and minimize costs in the value chain. Yet they seem to be neglecting a key component to their success: their employees.
A better way: psychology!
Modern entrepreneurial leaders can use the tools provided by psychology to make socially responsible improvements to the efficiency of their businesses by learning to understand the behaviors and habits of their employees and improving employee productivity through habit modification.
Where do habits help?
Moving forward, we will assume that social responsibility – along with growth, efficiency and maximized profits – are all desirable to entrepreneurs. Understanding habits can help us in all of these areas.
Understanding employee habits
Many corporations fail to grasp how beneficial understanding the habits of their employees can be. If a company is trying to determine whether to move forward with a new training program or to create a new supervisory role to oversee day-to-day operations, a solid understanding of employee habits will give the company a strong indicator of how employees will react to the change – and to what extent accommodation needs to be considered.
With this knowledge, you can generate realistic expectations for change. If your workers have been using a particular piece of software for a routine task for the past several years, you can expect that a very strong habit and sense of familiarity has been developed between the workers and the software.
If you decide to switch to new software that has been proven to outperform your current system, you can quite confidently predict that there will be a considerable length of time of decreased worker productivity due to employees resisting the change to the new software and having to mesh their old habits with the new system.
This is simply because they are human, and humans take time to adapt to the unfamiliar. This knowledge can help a corporation manage its expectations and plan accordingly.
How about coffee?
Understanding habits can also help us innovate and improve processes. If, for example, you notice that many of your workers make use of the coffee machine around the same time – resulting in an empty coffee machine and a cluster of bodies waiting for the next batch in the break room outside of their scheduled break time – you might respond a few different ways.
You might purchase a second machine to cut down on wasted time. You might, instead, implement a strict, staggered break schedule and insisting that employees get coffee on their own time. One of these solutions accommodates the habit, and the other enforces a control structure that is likely to negatively impact morale.
A better way
Maybe this isn’t even a problem. Maybe it’s an opportunity. Maybe, while they wait for their coffee, the employees strike up small talk. This simple interaction relaxes workers, fulfills a social need, and boosts morale. You could view this habitual breakroom ecosystem as an asset, and may even capitalize on it.
Perhaps you discuss the situation with your management and have them break up some of their planned office meetings into smaller, casual five-minute segments (about the length of time a pot of coffee takes to brew) and join in on the breakroom conversations.
They can direct the flow of conversation and knock out the meetings where they stand. This maintains the social benefits of these impromptu coffee break conversations, while additionally fulfilling the purpose of cutting down on time spent in formal office meetings.
The beautiful thing is that you can do more than just reacting to habits. Habits are malleable. So long as you use the right tools, you can work toward modifying the habits of employees in a fashion that is beneficial to either the organization, the employee, or both.
The Habit Loop
In his book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg introduces the habit loop. Duhigg teaches us that habits are a three-part loop: a cue, a routine, and a reward.
The cue triggers your brain to go into automatic mode and tells it which habit to use. The routine, is a series of tasks that are performed, either physical or emotional. The reward tells your brain whether it should dedicate this loop to memory. Over time, iterations of this combination of cue, routine, and reward build up a neural connection between the cue and reward so that the entire process becomes more and more automatic.
Given enough time, we begin to anticipate a reward the moment we experience the cue. At this point, we have established a craving, and will experience a feeling of anxiety if we experience the cue, perform the routine, and do not receive the reward.
The craving is important, because if there is no craving, then the connection between the cue and reward is weak, and so the potential to carry out the routine is lower; the craving drives the habit loop.
Most of what we do is habit
The habit loop is a powerful tool for change. Often, when textbooks, magazines, self-help books, and thought leaders speak about behavioral change, what they’re really referring to is habit change. Much of what we do in a day is habitual. In fact, one study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that between one-third and one-half of our daily activities fall under the category of habits (Wood, Quinn, & Kashy, 2002).
If so much of what we do is habit, then there is a great deal of potential for behavioral adjustment if we can target habits. To gauge exactly how much this sort of habit change can potentially affect your productivity, consider Pareto’s rule, or the 80/20 principal. Originally introduced by Vilfredo Pareto, the 80/20 principal postulates that “80% of your results come from only 20% of your efforts” (Joseph, 2011).
The Golden Rule of Habit Change
Thankfully, habits are not as difficult to change as we think. Although it is true that a habit cannot be changed overnight, and it truly seems that bad habits don’t generally completely go away, we can still effectively, consistently modify our habits if we employ the Golden Rule of Habit Change. As stated by Duhigg, “You can’t extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it.”
The idea is simple – identify the cue, keep the reward, and change the routine. Since the cue and reward are linked directly, you can use the same neural pathways that are already associated with a habit to generate a completely new habit by simply changing the routine. Over time, the brain will start to detect the cue, anticipate the reward, and select the new routine as the path to obtain the reward.
Using our knowledge of the habit loop and the golden rule of habit change, we can begin to recognize patterns of destructive, unproductive, or otherwise unhealthy habits in the day-to-day routines of our employees.
Back to Coffee
Recall the coffee scenario from earlier. With this new perspective, we can dig deeper and consider that our employees might have unhealthy sleep patterns, lead a sedentary lifestyle with a sedentary office job, subsist on a poor diet, or any combination of the three. Such a lifestyle leads to low, easily depleted energy levels.
Naturally, our employees started reaching for caffeine as a quick fix. Everyone’s shift starts at the same hour, so it is not unusual that they all feel the daily drain kick in and go for the coffee around the same time. Perhaps we see this as an opportunity for a behavioral change that can improve the wellness of our employees’ lives and improve their productivity as a result.
The Habit Loop at Work
The cue – the worker feels drained. The routine – the worker goes for a cup of coffee and gulps it down. The reward – the worker receives a shot of caffeine. In short: the worker feels drained, drinks coffee, and then feels alert. So long as workers are tired in the morning, the cue will always be there, and there are many other ways to become alert than coffee.
Perhaps we stock the breakroom with healthy, nutrient-dense snacks and encourage workers to pick up a snack to complement their coffee. Over time, we can recommend that they forego the coffee and stick to the snack for a healthy boost to energy as well. Over even more time, we may even see workers stop bringing bags of chips to work and reach instead for the snacks that we provide when they feel hunger strike them.
This kills two birds with one stone: provides our workers with healthier options while increasing their energy levels.
Alternatively, we could encourage workers to walk around the office, engage in a light jog, or take a moment to attend the company gym in the mornings. If they followed this path, they might begin to associate the cue of feeling tired and the reward of becoming alert with the routine of engaging in physical activity. Rather than a caffeine high, they will experience a natural rush of hormones, increased heartrate, and expanded lung capacity.
Although it is true that our understanding of the workings of the human brain are far from complete, we are not as blind as we once were. The modern entrepreneur has a vast array of tools gifted to them from psychology. If they would only choose to use them, they would likely see a respectable return on their investments, both in time and in capital. Even in today’s mega-corporation, ever-gazing on the bottom line, there is still room to utilize these tools in a socially responsible manner.
If, at minimum, one-third of our daily activities are dictated by habits, then it is essential that entrepreneurs learn to understand the habits of their employees. They must cut down on the time spent on unproductive and unhealthy habits by exercising habit modification. The tools presented in this article are a good place to start, but the growth of the pace of scientific advancement does not appear to be slowing down. As our understanding of the human brain grows, so too will the toolset that entrepreneurs can utilize to improve the efficiency of their businesses.
Duhigg, C. (2012). The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. New York, NY: Random House.
Joseph, C. (2011). Developing positive habits in the workplace. The IUP Journal of Soft Skills, 5(1), 37-44. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1853345
Wood, W., Quinn, J. M., & Kashy, D. A. (2002). Habits in everyday life: Thought, emotion, and action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(6), 1281-1297. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1991