“I see you hanging out by the coffee machine a lot—you must not have enough work to do.”
This comment, accompanied by raised eyebrows or a not-too-friendly tone of voice, probably sounds familiar to a lot of office workers. Many bosses feel that socializing at work is wasted time that decreases productivity. Ben Franklin would have agreed. “Lost time is never found,” he warned.
However, recent research shows just the opposite. It turns out that socializing at work increases productivity. In a Fast Company article, the results of research by MIT Professor Alex “Sandy” Pentland were reported. It turns out that when people in work groups talk to each other a lot (showing high engagement with each other, irrespective of the kind of work they do), they are more productive than groups that don’t interact as much.
Pentland cited research done at a Bank of America call center. He persuaded a manager at the facility to change the policy in the office allowing only one individual at a time to take a coffee break. When the bank allowed two people at a time to take a coffee break, the least-productive groups increased productivity by 20 percent.
A simple community building tactic that worked for a software company, according to Pentland’s research, was making the lunch tables in the cafeteria longer so that employees who didn’t know each other would have more interaction. That cost-free idea ended up increasing productivity by 5 percent. Pentland concluded that social time can account for a whopping 50 percent of improvements in communication.
However, community-building activities planned by managers, such as holding a beer night for employees after work once in a while, didn’t work to build productivity. Neither did meetings. Activities that were informal and spontaneous turned out to be the best for increasing the flow of communication, which in turn increased productivity.
Procrastination can be helpful
It’s noteworthy that in the same issue of Fast Company there was another article about the benefits of procrastination, another of Ben Franklin’s pet peeves. “Don’t put off to tomorrow what you can do today,” he said, and that has been passed down through generations of Americans. (It’s especially popular in New England, where I spent my teenage and college years).
According to business journalist Lydia Dishman, who wrote the article, procrastination is another counterintuitive way you can increase, not decrease, productivity. She experimented for a week with postponing work she knew she had to do to, “embracing procrastination,” as she put it.
Nothing terrible happened. No bolts of thunder from on high, no missed deadlines, no all-nighters. She put off deadlines until the last possible moment while letting herself lose focus on the work she had to do. She took walks to get away from the office, read, stared into space, spent time on social media, made personal phone calls, and took the opportunity to answer colleagues’ requests for help or information.
At the end of a workweek, she discovered two things: She got more done if she procrastinated, not less, and it’s not so easy to just ignore deadlines. Every time she allowed herself to take a break from the work at hand, she inevitably found herself going back to it afterward with more focus.
Dishman’s description of what happens when you try not to be distracted jibed with my own experience. She pointed out that when you’re working on an important task and you see an email fly in asking for help, you typically feel torn—you jump from the work to the email, start focusing on the email, then pull yourself back to the work again before dealing with the email.
This shifting back and forth—generally due to the guilty feeling that you have real work to do and can’t afford to spend time on email interruptions—can be more disruptive than just allowing yourself to take a break from the work to deal with the email, which doesn’t really sap your creative energy or take that much time away from your work.
She also commented that research shows that people who help others at work are happier. (One would assume that happier people are more productive at work.) The research, done by Professor Donald Moynihan at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s LaFollette School of Public Affairs, showed that altruism at work “is not a form of martyrdom, but operates for many as part of a healthy psychological reward system.”
It’s not a waste of time
In conclusion, bosses should give some slack to employees who spend time socializing with one another, and the employees should be a little easier on themselves about putting off dealing with deadlines.
Because procrastination at work actually helps productivity, don’t feel guilty about the time you spent reading this article. As a matter of fact, feel free to take some time away from that important project you’re working on to chat up your office colleagues, all in the name of community-building communication and increased productivity.
A version of this article first appeared on the BridgeBuzz Blog.