Use behavioral economics to stay sane while working from home

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Most of us have settled into our new stay-at-home lives, though I hope none of this ever really feels normal to us.  Still, the business of business carries on, best as it can. So we must all try to do the same. I’ve spent the past couple of years contributing stories to about cognitive biases — shorthand tricks our brains use to make quick judgments. These often lead us astray, but as I explain in our “Know Your Nuggets” series, learning about each bias can help you avoid it, or even use it to your advantage. Many of these nuggets apply as we’re working from home, so I recently penned a piece that aims to help workers apply behavioral science learning to our new reality.  A sample of the piece is below. Please read the entire column at the website.

If you suddenly feel like you’re living in a Brady Bunch or Hollywood Squares episode, you’re not alone. Stay-at-home work has ushered in the age of Zoom and Zoom-like teleconference calls. Many of our day jobs have been, quite literally, shoved into little boxes. It’s not easy. Behavioral science can help.

Operational Transparency

Operational transparency is a concept that basically means people feel better about a product or service when they can see it being made. As a quick refresh, the landmark study of operational transparency involved college cafeteria servers. When students could see servers preparing their meals, they rated the food 22.2% better.

Similarly, people are more patient when they must wait if they can see progress with their own eyes. Uber says “connecting you with eight nearby drivers” and shows animations zooming around nearby streets on its app for this reason. And operational transparency works both ways. When a clerk at the DMV disappears behind a counter with your paperwork, you get frustrated waiting for her to return. You probably make up stories in your head about her playing a quick game of darts in the back while you twiddle your thumbs.

Some behaviorists call that second problem the “spiral of invisibility,” and people who work in software development know it well. Groups working on disparate parts of a large project often feel like *other* groups are doing nothing when there’s no work product to review.

Perhaps many employees working at home are feeling that way in the age of Coronavirus. It’s hard to witness progress when you aren’t working in the same office. That’s why remote workers should go the extra mile to give detailed progress reports and small updates about what they’re doing, both to managers and to co-workers. Brief acknowledgements through the day can go a long way towards avoiding the spiral of invisibility.

Short notes like, “Yes, I’ve got that,” or “I haven’t had time to digest your email yet,” or “I’m 50% finished with that proposal,” can help head off co-worker anxiety at the pass. It might seem forced at first, or even redundant. That’s OK. Don’t forget: It’s easy to assume the worst when you can’t see someone at work. Transparency can help you maintain normalcy.

Social Proof

On the other hand, managers should understand a host of new team dynamics that can take hold during teleconference calls and the times in between. This is an opportunity to set the right tone though the simple power of social proof. In life, we do a lot of things because everyone else is doing them. We dress to match the other people at an occasion; we take off our shoes when we walk in someone’s house because we see a pile of shoes at the door.


On a related note, many workers crave the kind of social proof and positive reinforcement that comes with small gestures of acknowledgement throughout the day. As more time passes and workers remain at a distance, it’ll be easy for some to feel invisible. Make the extra effort to say thank you and offer positive feedback. Public recognition is likely to drop dramatically during telework, unless managers take pains to offer praise during group conference calls. That small effort will be vital to employee morale.

Concrete Planning

Finally, concrete planning might be more important than ever while trying stay productive during these unusual times. Workers who are entirely out of routine must develop a new one: up and dressed by 830, at the home office by 9, a brief walk at 10:30, lunch at 12:30, and so on. Goals can’t be vague. Telling workers they must “maintain professional hours” probably won’t work well. Telling them to write and email a status report each day by 10 a.m. is much better. Behaviorists talk about “implementation intentions,” and those intentions will be critical as employees face new obstacles to getting their work done. These might involve some uncomfortable conversations – “My Internet is just too slow for these calls. Will the company pay for an upgrade?” – but have them anyway. It also wouldn’t hurt to ask employees not to email co-workers after work hours, as the temptation with telework is to never shut off the home office.

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About Bob Sullivan 1508 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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