The small things that make for a happier workplace

A new book based on a wealth of research looks at the small changes that can make all the difference to our performance.

Happy women outside, mental well being


There has been a lot around about mental wellbeing at work during the pandemic – lots of initiatives and programmes and workshops. But what if there were fairly simple things you could do that could make a difference?

A recent book based on a wealth of research studies aims to investigate those hidden factors which often go unrecognised or unseen that can have an important impact on how happy we are at work.

The book, Whatever works, is written by psychologist Professor Thalma Lobel and is her second popular book. Professor Lobel says that after years of writing academic papers for professional research journals, she had long wanted to write something for the general public. Her first book Sensation, about the amazing extent to which our external environment profoundly shapes our thoughts, emotions and decisions, was an international success. She toured the world promoting it and received lots of feedback.  It inspired her to write her latest book on what influences the way we perform both at work, although it has implications for our home lives too.

Professor Lobel, who is currently based at Tel Aviv University, says that what distinguishes it from other books on work performance is that it focuses on the small things that influence our performance and decision-making, from reducing stress to the role of music at work and the best temperature and lighting at which to do a particular work task.

For instance, she notes that the optimal room temperature for performance is probably slightly cooler than most would expect, especially if you want to concentrate, but a warmer room can help in business negotiations. Moreover, women and men function differently at different temperatures, with women favouring warmer ones. She puts the optimal temperature at between 21 and 22 degrees and says cognitive performance suffers more when it is too warm than when it is too cold, with complex tasks more affected than simple ones.

From what to wear to the disruptive nature of phones on the desk

The book covers everything from open plan offices [not so good for concentration; Professor Lobel recommends headphones and the provision of private spaces, giving employees a fan or lamp so they can control of light and temperature to some extent] to lighting [a mood booster] and the need for taking regular breaks, especially in nature, to improve focus and mood.

There are sections on what to wear, how to act at interview [subtly mirroring the interviewer’s gestures] for best effect, the impact of mobile phones on performance and more. Professor Lobel cites, for instance, a study where one group had to leave their mobile phones outside the room, while another group brought theirs into the room, but not to the table and a third group had their phones on the table. They were each given cognitive tasks to perform. Those with their phones on the table performed worst. Professor Lobel recommends putting your phone in another room or a drawer if you want to focus rather than having it with you. Even if it is turned off it affects concentration, she says.

One of the most surprising things she found when writing the book concerned bonuses. Research shows that if you offer a small bonus or a gift, those who are given the gift – nicely wrapped – perform better. The gift suggests a sense of appreciation.

Another chapter covers the way people dress. Professor Lobel talks about a study of three violinists. One was dressed very casually, one slightly smarter and the other in concert dress. The music was the same in all three cases, only the dress was different. Their performance was judged by music experts. The woman in the concert dress was judged to have performed the best. Another study asked one group of people to dress in a white doctor’s coat and the other in a jacket and gave them cognitive tasks to perform. The ones in white coats performed better. Yet another study  divided those in white coats into two groups – one was told it was a doctor’s coat; the other that it was a painter’s. The first group performed better.

Professor Lobel says that how we dress, even for Zoom calls, affects our performance at work and how others view us. She cites another study where people were shown pictures of two women. One was dressed in a knee-length skirt and shirt buttoned up; the other in a shorter skirt with one button undone.  Some people viewing the pictures were told the woman was a secretary while others were told she was a senior manager. The woman with the unbuttoned shirt was judged more harshly when those viewing the pictures thought she was a senior manager.

Stress reduction and creativity

Professor Lobel adds that research shows that it is important to take regular breaks during the day – after 1.5 or two hours – in order to be able to focus better. When it comes to stress reduction, spending time in nature is strongly recommended. Studies show spending even a half hour sitting in nature can lower people’s blood pressure. Professor Lobel says even if you can’t go out to a park or the garden, you can open the window with a view on nature or, if that is not possible either, you can look at pictures of nature on your computer or listen to birds singing.

Another issue she covers in the book is when is the best time of day for different types of people to do different work tasks. Everyone has their optimal time of the day, she says.  If possible, tasks that demand attention and analytical thinking should be done at the optimal time. However, tasks that require creativity and new ideas are best performed at your worst time of day. “In other words,” she writes, “when your mental machinery is slack rather than standing upright at attention and being hyperalert, the creativity flows. A creative tip that is as productive as it is counterintuitive.”

There is indeed a whole chapter on creativity, which looks at the impact of colour on creativity. Research shows that red, for instance, is a good colour for tasks that demand systematic and focused attention, such as memorisation, but it is to be avoided for tasks that are creative or demand analytical thinking.

Professor Lobel hopes her book will lead to change in the way we view the everyday things in our work setting – whether at home or in an office or other workplace – and result in simple actions that can make a difference in our performance. She thinks the pressure to change will come from better informed employees. By arming employees with the information in her book on the difference small changes can make, she believes smart employers will have to take note. “I hope that employees will push for change as a result of my book,” she says, “and that smart employers will be open to it because they will have happier employees who perform better.” 


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