In 2008, professors and behavioural economists Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein published their seminal book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. They defined a nudge as: “any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives".

Behavioural economics, of which nudge concept is a part, is bringing wonderful insights in how we humans act and make decisions. Companies will do well to systematically harness and incorporate these insights in the workplace. Here are five nudges worth considering:

Breaking Silos

In Work Rules!, Laszlo Bock, Google’s former head of People Operations, shares an interesting nudge: Google increased cooperation in a leadership team experiencing discord, by creating a quarterly survey with just two questions: “In the last quarter, this person helped me when I reached out to him or her"; and “In the last quarter, this person involved me when I could have been helpful to, or was impacted by, his or her team’s work."

Every member of the team rated each other, and the anonymous ranking and results were shared with everyone. People knew where they fell in the ranking, but they didn’t know where anyone else fell. Without any further intervention, the less-than-ideal co-operators worked to improve the quality of their collaboration. Remarkably, in eight quarters the team went from 70% favourable on these questions to 90%. The above is a wonderful way to use the power of social comparison to drive soft skills change.

Reduce meeting time

In Finding Time: How Corporations, Individuals, and Families Can Benefit from New Work Practices, Leslie A. Perlow shares how she helped to create “quiet time" in a team at a Fortune 500 company. The team —a group of 17 software engineers—were behind on delivery of a product. On review, it was found that it was not the work volume per se but the constant interruptions that was affecting their work. At Perlow’s suggestion, the team decided to experiment with “quiet time" from morning till noon, three days a week— Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. To ensure violations were minimum, the group framed guidelines akin to interrupting someone in a closed-door meeting. To ensure top-of-mind recall, signs were hung around the office and on chairs “Today: Quiet Time until noon. Tuesday (Date)". The plan worked.

A nudge is something that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options-

Though not strictly a nudge, this technique is worth considering in today’s interruption-riddled workplace and excessive meetings. Companies should experiment with “meetings-free" periods—first intra-department, and later inter-department.

Control emailing

Boston Consulting Group (BCG), in its paper The Persuasive Power of the Digital Nudge, informs of a policy it has implemented in its email system, to enable leaders to be more considerate of employees’ life outside work. The policy causes a pop-up window to appear whenever leaders attempt to send a message after office hours. The pop-up has the message, “You are trying to send an email to BCG users outside normal office hours. Please choose one of the following options: a) Mark email as low priority; b) Defer sending until next business day; c) Send email as is; or d) Cancel.

The nudge is a beautiful use of technology to rein-in leaders from blurring the lines to life outside work.

Workout at work

Staircase climbing has many health-benefits—from strengthening bones, to increasing longevity. To increase stair usage, researchers led by Gaurav Suri of Stanford University experimented with a series of posters placed near the escalator outside two railway stations in San Francisco.

The study of 9,000 pedestrians, reported in Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 2014, found that a directive poster had a better impact when placed at the stair or escalator when a person’s processing time is limited. For example, “Stair climbing improves health. Take the stairs." On the other hand, posters with an autonomy tone, had a greater and longer-lasting impact when placed some distance (60 ft) on the approach to the escalator, allowing pedestrians time to absorb the message and make the decision. Such posters read, “Stair climbing improves health. Will you take the stairs?"

Nudges are ideally suited to experimentation, so can be tested on smaller populations to fine-tune results-

With most offices now in high-rises, companies can replicate this in the workplace too. Where the office is in a complex, an autonomy sign can be put on the path to the escalator. Where the office is in a stand-alone building off the kerb, a directive poster near the escalator would be more impactful.

Reduce Printing

Cass R. Sunstein in Choosing Not To Choose, advocates the use of default rules to promote desired outcomes. He says, “Sensible default rules, making it unnecessary for us to choose, help to make our lives both better and more free." One of the examples he shares is of Rutgers University, New Jersey, US. In 2008, the university changed its default printer setting from “print on a single page" to “print on front and back." In the first three years of the new default, paper consumption was reduced by well over 55 million sheets, which amounted to a 44% reduction, the equivalent of 4,650 trees.

Today, a considerable amount of printing happens for internal work, for which double-sided printing would be okay. As such, companies can enable double-sided printing as the default option. With gradual use and some errors, users will learn to “deselect" the default option, when required.

Implementing Nudges

The above five ideas were achieved through different type of nudges; sharing the facts, implementing a rule, using a system reminder, priming before the event, and changing the default option. Which of these do you think you can use, to optimize your office and nudge your colleagues towards better behaviour? The best advice comes from Bock: “Our approach is to take compelling academic findings, mix in some of our own ideas, and then see what happens when you try them on thousands of people going about their daily business... Nudges are an incredibly powerful mechanism for improving teams and organizations. They are also ideally suited to experimentation, so can be tested on smaller populations to fine-tune their results."

Anil Karamchandani is the author of 21 Office Situations & How to Deal with Them.

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