work friendships blockheads

Is your coworker also your close friend? Or is your close friend also your coworker?

Office friendships can be a great source of pleasure and support, but they can also be a challenge to navigate. Many have ambivalence toward forming deeper friendships with their colleagues for a number of reasons. Perhaps they worry about the potential for distraction, influence on decision making, or awkwardness during performance reviews. Despite these legitimate concerns, research on workplace friendships suggests they are crucial to both personal health and organizational success.

Friendships Alleviate Stress

In a breakthrough 1995 study, Christine Riordan and Rodger Griffeth found even the possibility of friendship formation increases both job satisfaction and organizational effectiveness. This finding takes on particular importance when considering that in 2014, 80% of Americans stressed over at least one thing at work. Furthermore, a 2013 Lifeboat report found a whopping three-quarters of Americans are not truly satisfied with their friendships. By more than 2:1, respondents said they would prefer a smaller number of deeper friendships to a greater number of friends. Given the increasing blur between work and home life, the office seems like a promising place to form deep friendships.

Friendships Foster Loyalty

In a recent post for Harvard Business Review, Riordan asserts that office friendships foster group loyalty. This, in turn, leads to shared commitment and discipline toward one’s work. Similarly, a 2012 Gallup report found that 50% of employees with a best friend at work felt a strong connection with their company. Meanwhile, only 10% felt this connection without one. In fact, “good relationship with coworkers” was the most frequently cited reason in a 2013 survey for 2,223 people planning to stay in their current job. Three studies by workforce intelligence company Evolv found employees referred by friends are less likely to quit and more productive.  Consequently, employees trained in a “friendly” culture stayed with their employer twice as long as those who were not.

friendly statue

Friendships Improve Performance

In “The Best Place to Work,” psychologist Ron Friedman asserts that having close friends at work brings with it a number of benefits, like combating loneliness. Prolonged loneliness makes it more difficult for people to relax and fall asleep. In turn, this can lead to diminished cognitive function such as impaired memory formation and learning ability. Surrounded by friends means spending less time worrying about fitting in and pay more attention to our work. Personal connections between colleagues also boost motivation, because poor performance at work means letting down friends.

Friendships are not the only way to enhance productivity or boost engagement in the workplace. However, friendships are unique because their strength endures, and even grows when other standard retention incentives wane in a bad economy. Friends are an invaluable resource in the workplace. They provide an emotional support system and a network for helping to more efficiently execute one’s job. Friedman acknowledges making new friends can be scary because of the shared risk involved in disclosing personal details with an acquaintance. That being said, the above trends should encourage anyone who is hesitant about opening up to coworkers. The message is clear: a little vulnerability in the break room can go a long way.

PerkSpot Cubs Game

PerkSpot takes an afternoon off for a Cubs game.

It’s 9 pm on Tuesday. You had a great day at work and an even better session at the gym. You made it home in time to cook a healthy dinner instead of picking up from the Thai place around the corner. It’s been too long since you did any pleasure reading and you’re looking forward to cracking open that new novel for a while before getting to bed early.

It’s now 12:43 am. The only light in your bedroom is the pale glow of your laptop.  Your contacts are drying up because you haven’t blinked much in the last two hours. You only read four pages, but you did add thirty-odd titles to your Netflix queue and viewed every last one of your best friend’s Facebook photos in reverse chronological order.

You’re not alone.

sleep strategy counting sheep


In June 2014, researchers at Utrecht University in the Netherlands coined the term “bedtime procrastination” in their study of why people often fail to go to sleep at their intended time despite the absence of external circumstances preventing them from doing so. 84% of the sample reported feeling that they slept too little at least once a week. 30% reported sleeping 6 hours or less on weeknights — far less than the 7 to 9 hours recommended by the National Sleep Foundation. A recent Gallup poll found that Americans currently average 6.8 hours of sleep a night. 40% sleep less than 7 hours a night. In the 1940s, this number was only 11%.

The ongoing trend in 21st-century sleepiness is particularly alarming because sleep is as essential to physical and mental health as oxygen and water. During sleep, your body repairs and restores itself on the cellular level. Sleep is also critical for allowing the brain to embed the things we’ve learned and experienced throughout the day.

sleep strategy laptop glow

The Science of Sleep

It should come as no surprise, then, that excessive sleepiness is linked to slow thought processing and diminished capacity to assess information, resulting in compromised problem-solving skills, impaired judgment, and decreased productivity in the workplace. Longterm lack of sleep is known to increase one’s risk for a myriad of health problems including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, mood disorders, weakened immune function, and risk for alcohol abuse. Poor sleep quality is also linked to longterm loss of grey matter, which makes up brain regions responsible for muscle control, sensory perception, memory, and decision making.

If you often find yourself inexplicably awake during the wee hours, psychologist Ron Friedman suggests doing a “nighttime audit” of how you spend your time after work. Simply log everything that happens from the moment you head home until you go to bed. After a few evenings, evaluate your data: why don’t you get to sleep at your desired time? Are you out late for social plans? Taking care of unfinished tasks? Perhaps you just enjoy the personal time and the world feels calmest several hours after the sun goes down.

Once you identify your motivation for staying awake later, see if you can find some activities in your post-work routine that doesn’t further your goals, and reduce time spent on these. If you stay up late to read but record that you spend 1.5 hours per evening texting and video chatting with friends, see if you can limit that time to 45 minutes and/or set a firm deadline in your evening when you will unplug from your communication devices. You may find it helpful to set a reminder when it is time to power down for the night.

sleep strategy alarm clock

Time management isn’t always the main obstacle for the chronically under-slept. Sometimes we simply don’t feel tired even when we know we should. If you don’t struggle to get under the sheets in time for 7-9 hours of shuteye, here are some tips that may help you fall asleep.

Minimize blue light exposure:

All of our screens emit blue light. Exposure to these blue wavelengths suppresses our natural production of melatonin, a hormone that makes us feel sleepy. Studies have found that using amber tinted blue-blocking glasses can counter this effect and create a “physiological darkness” that improves sleep quality and mood.

Use bright light to your advantage:

Avoid bright light in the evening and expose yourself to sunlight when you wake up in the morning. This will help your body maintain its circadian rhythms and balance your sleep cycle.

Avoid eating 3 hours before sleep:

Dr. Jamie Koufman notes that working adults’ eating habits are becoming increasingly worse for sleep health. Many adults don’t eat much throughout the day. They cram in one huge meal in the late evening due to long work hours and further delays caused by shopping and exercise. A healthy adult body takes several hours to empty the stomach. Going to sleep before this process completes often leads to acid reflux, indigestion, and heartburn. Prolonged reflux disease can increase one’s risk for esophageal cancer.

If you must eat before bed, try these:

A growling stomach can make it just as difficult to fall asleep as acid reflux. Rather than starve yourself, check out the National Sleep Foundation’s list of bedtime-appropriate snacks.

Regulate your caffeine intake:

Although you may only feel its effects for a short period right after you drink it, caffeine has a half-life of 5.3 to 5.7 hours. This means that nearly 6 hours after you have a cup of coffee, half of its caffeine is still present in your body. Ingesting 200mg of caffeine — the equivalent of 16oz of coffee — in the early evening is shown to reduce sleep efficiency and disrupt the natural stages of sleep. If you routinely drink coffee near the end of the day, consider switching to tea.

Exercise promotes efficient sleep:

Moderate to vigorous exercise for 150 minutes per week is shown to improve sleep quality up to 65%. Participants in this study also reported feeling less tired during the day than their less active counterparts even when they slept the same amount the night before.

Turn down the thermostat:

The National Sleep Foundation recommends 60-67 degrees for the optimal sleep temperature. Your body decreases its temperature to initiate sleep, so you will fall asleep more easily in a cooler environment.

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We recently published a piece explaining how happiness promotes productivity and highlighted several cost-effective perks for employers to boost employee happiness. Similarly, employers can also harness empathy and altruism to increase happiness in the workplace.

What are Empathy and Altruism?

Simply put, empathy is the ability to recognize, understand, and share the feelings of another person. Altruism is the selfless concern for the well-being of others. While two distinct social phenomena, empathy and altruism relate when put into the context of the 21st-century workplace. Both behaviors fall under the idea of “positive affect” and “companionate love”.  Researchers employ these traits when investigating the implications of positive emotions in the office.

Empathy and Altruism in the Workplace

Empathy and altruism in the workplace foster greater levels of office camaraderie and encourage employees to make more selfless choices. A study at the La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that altruists are more likely to be committed to their work and less likely to quit their jobs. Examining the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, which surveys 10,000 Wisconsin high school graduates from the class of 1957, researchers demonstrated that those who routinely help others are happier than those who do not.

altruism collaboration

A recent Catalyst study led by Jeanine Prime and Elizabeth Salib found a positive association between selfless acts by managers and increased innovation by employees. Furthermore, employees who observe altruistic behavior in their leaders are more likely to feel included in their work teams and engage in team citizenship behavior, such as picking up slack for an absent colleague. These findings resonate with previous research confirming that observed altruism results in individual status gains among groups. This provides a greater potential for elevated status as the personal cost of an altruistic act increases.

The Business of Empathy and Altruism

Another study similarly asked employees to rate their CEOs in terms of four traits: Integrity, Compassion, Forgiveness, and Responsibility. Executive development firm, KRW International, reports that CEOs earning high character marks had an average return on assets of 9.35%. This is nearly five times the 1.93% of their low ranking counterparts. While dramatic, this margin is not all that surprising. Stanford University research psychologist Emma Seppala cites neuroimaging research. The study confirmed how our brains respond better to bosses who have shown us empathy. And, as a result, this established a link between workplace trust and performance.

Business writer Jayson Boyers aptly notes that “relationship-focused success expands capacity and potential, and empathy is a business skill that actually grows when practiced and shared.”. Empathy and altruism are skills we develop, rather than static personality traits. This notion is key for businesses hoping to incorporate a positive emotional outlook into workplace culture.

altruism social networks

Empathy and Altruism in Practice

While in practice it may seem overwhelming, the research of James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis is encouraging. Fowler and Christakis studied 5,000 people over 20 years and discovered people surrounded by happier people tended to be happier in the future. According to Fowler, “We found a statistical relationship not just between your happiness and your friends’ happiness, but between your happiness and your friends’ friends’ friends’ happiness.” In lay terms, practicing altruism and empathy is statistically more likely to produce an outward ripple through your social network that will find its way back to you via the growing compassion of your peers.

In the coming weeks, we encourage you to be attentive to opportunities to practice your compassion. Turn an earnest mistake into a teachable moment or a disagreement over strategy as a chance to broaden your perspective. If you notice an overwhelmed colleague this week, consider offering to pick up their lunch. Altruism and empathy are one of the most effective means of improving emotional culture. Plus, they also produce tangible benefits in the workplace. The best part: the only limit to how much you get is how much you give.

open-plan office Today, roughly 70% of U.S. offices have few to no partitions, according to the International Facility Management Association. The open-plan office is traced back to “office landscaping,” a design technique pioneered by German consultants Quickborner in the 1950s. Conventional wisdom holds that the absence of walls fosters camaraderie among coworkers. It even spurs impromptu conversations which blossom into innovations. This is, of course, in addition to the fact that a greater number of workers fit in an open-plan office, making it more most cost-effective for many businesses.  

The Open Office Today

Although popular for decades, the open-plan office has been the subject of recent spectacle. This is, in part, thanks to the high-profile workplace architecture of established tech giants like Google and Facebook, as well as relative newcomers like Airbnb. In today’s open-plan office a sea of organically arranged half-height cubicles is no longer what you’ll find; it now includes arcades, basketball courts, full-size pirate ships, and hydrogen-bomb-proof greenhouses. The recent past has seen a boom in startups looking to emulate established companies who project their success through creative office aesthetics. In fact, one of the side effects is a growing tendency to associate innovation and financial solvency with spaces that blur the distinction between conference room and playground. This tendency, coupled with the firmly entrenched belief in the open-plan office for harnessing employees’ creative potential, has effectively made an open-plan office a prerequisite for success. Although most businesses don’t have the resources to build an indoor tree house, many do have the ability to implement smaller environmental changes that work toward the same goal. For example, a cluster of individual cubicles could be replaced with communal tables to form a shared workspace. The quiet nook where employees pause for a moment of respite may now be occupied by a foosball table. There is arising tide of businesses seeking increasingly creative ways to give their workspaces a playful, egalitarian edge. Which leaves us wondering: does the underlying philosophy of the open-plan office actually hold water? open-plan office workplace design

The Impact on Productivity

The growing consensus among business writers is a surprisingly resounding “no.”. Some authors call for more walls in the workplace, citing numerous studies that suggest open-plan offices hamper productivity and reduce physical health. A survey of available research on the open-plan office reveals a rather substantial number of studies (particularly since the 1980s), with a striking level of consistency across their findings. To point out a few major trends, workers unsatisfied with their office environment blamed noise distractions and lack of privacy. This was especially true for those performing managerial and technical tasks. In particular, irrelevant speech contributes directly to mental workload and slows completion rates. Irrelevant speech conditions also result in higher workload ratings. A two-hour noise simulation correlated open-plan conditions with decreased motivation and impaired memory function. A similar study found that workers are less likely to make ergonomic adjustments in open-plan environments. (9) This is noteworthy when considering that poor posture in the workplace is strongly associated with a myriad of physical health problems including spinal disorders and cardiovascular disease. This snippet of negative data may paint a rather bleak picture for the state of the open-plan office. However, the trends do suggest concrete ways to optimize work environments, like increasing privacy and reducing ambient noise. Furniture specialists Steelcase have done promising work on this front. Two major studies they conducted with global research firm IPSOS found only 11% of global workers satisfied with their work environments, and 95% of North American workers desired additional private space in the office. Inspired by these findings, Steelcase designed five “Quiet Spaces” to easily incorporate into open-plan offices. The five spaces range from 48 to 100 square feet to accommodate both personal and collaborative uses. open-plan office workplace design

Making a Move Towards an Open Office

Emerging design trends clue us into what many more offices may look like in the future. The office should strike an attentive balance between a fluid, open work-space and smaller areas dedicated to privacy and focus. We achieve this at PerkSpot with our quiet lounge (complete with adjustable lighting!). In addition, we boast of three fully enclosed rooms for employees to use however they see fit. Therefore, it may be time for many businesses to consider evaluating their office design. Although, making productive changes won’t require anything as dramatic as enlisting the architectural prowess of Frank Gehry. Increasing employee access to privacy can be as simple as arranging several bookshelves to form a sequestered space. We don’t have to abandon the ideal image of a sprawling, quirky space where every employee is as friendly as they are productive; where a company’s typography themed desks are as cutting edge as the service it provides (or perhaps vice versa?).   We just have to remember that an office’s design should address the needs of the employees first. These typically include the ability to work in relative privacy when collaborating coworkers becomes a noisy distraction.

Emerging research suggests that exercise is just as important for your mind as it is for your body. Numerous studies find that different types of exercise affect the brain in an equally varied number of ways. Both promote cognitive function and preserving brain health.  Let’s discuss the science behind this research and dive into a few examples that have positive implications for productivity.

exercise can make you more productive

What Science Says…

Studies show exercise can increase the presence of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) in the brain. BDNF is a critical protein for the brain’s ability to heal, adapt, learn, and form memories. Until a study led by cell biologist Bruce Spiegelman, researchers remained uncertain about how exercise actually induces elevated levels of BDNF. Spiegelman and his team discovered that irisin, a hormone secreted by muscle cells after endurance exercise, is essentially a “chemical messenger” that promotes expression of BDNF, as well as genes linked to learning skills and memory formation. The discovery of irisin has enabled the scientific community to research the effect of exercise on cognitive function with more precision than ever.

A Georgia Institute of Technology study found that intense resistance training for periods as short as 20 minutes can boost episodic memory (memory of specific past events) by 10%. A study by David Jacobs linked aerobic fitness during one’s 20’s and increased memory performance later on in life. Two studies by the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois (one on children and one on adults age 60+) measured increased white matter integrity in those with higher levels of aerobic fitness. White matter has been deemed a “superhighway” connecting the brain’s regions; more compact white matter is associated with increased attention and faster cognitive function.

Exercise for Your Mind

While we still have years worth of research before we fully understand how exercise impacts the brain, it is clear that many forms of voluntary physical activity enhance mental performance and protect against neurological disease. The latter is certainly an important trend for the 21st-century American worker. We see this as the average retirement age has slowly but steadily increased for the last two decades.

On a related note, exercising for 150 minutes per week improves sleep quality up to 65%. This is especially significant when considering that poor sleep quality may lead to long-term loss of grey matter. This important substance makes up brain regions responsible for muscle control, sensory perception, memory, and decision making. Furthermore, scientists attribute the lack of proper sleep with mental fatigue in the workplace than one’s actual workload. By boosting cognitive function and reducing mental fatigue, exercise can effectively lighten your workload without actually reducing your output!

We here at PerkSpot know that starting a new exercise routine can be a challenge. That’s why we offer PerkSpot Health and Wellness. Your employees save big on local gym memberships and nutrition programs, and your business benefits from healthier, happier workers!

invest in happiness

It is a corporate truism that happiness begets productivity. There is a slew of data to support this idea, such as the extensive work of Teresa Amabile or this Gallup poll by James Harter. More recently, perks have emerged as the choice tactic for companies seeking to boost employee happiness. So much so that companies, from entrepreneurial startups to established enterprises, hire perk managers to engineer creative perk programs.

We here at PerkSpot know that not all perks are created equal.

We are also aware that not every business can afford a $10,000 per employee desk allowance or a month-long office adventure to Thailand. We’ve dug deeper into the wealth of research on the happiness-productivity model and hope that our findings will suggest some cost-effective ways to invest in workplace happiness that will ensure your highest ROI. A number of recent studies point out that broader psychological factors have the strongest implications for increased workplace productivity. Professor John Zelenski demonstrated that “positive affect” is more strongly tied to high productivity than either “job satisfaction” or “quality of work life.”. In another study, Thomas Wright found that increased job satisfaction yields increased productivity only when employees already have a high level of psychological well-being (PWB). Employees who score low on “life satisfaction” stay home an average of 15 more days a year, states Gallup Healthways. Another Gallup study showed that retail stores scoring high on employee life satisfaction generated $32 million more in earnings than less happy competitors. The data suggests managers should focus on perks that promote more general psychological factors like life satisfaction and psychological well-being. An office ping-pong table may seem sure to increase employee happiness. However, MetLife’s Benefits Trends Study suggests that offering a financial education program may be more effective. According to the study, 54% of employees worry about their financial security; while 51% of employers strongly agree employees are less productive when they worry about personal financial problems. 57% of employers agree that offering financial education to employees has a positive impact on productivity.

Don’t underestimate the benefit of perks that cost you nothing.

A recent study by Nicholas Bloom and John Roberts focused on China’s largest travel agency. They found employees permitted to work from home were 13% more productive and 50% less likely to leave their jobs. Considering the cost of replacing an employee can range from 90% to 200% of their annual salary, this is significant. In fact, FastCo.Design says you may see similar upticks in productivity from changing your office environment. They suggest converting a portion of your office into spaces akin to employees’ homes (think sofas, café tables, etc.). Increased time with family and friends can strongly reinforce the high levels of psychological well-being that promote job satisfaction. It’s no surprise, then, that the Society of Human Resource Management reports that 30% of employers offer discounted tickets to movies, theme parks, museums, and more in order to encourage more family outings. We hope that our research sheds some light on the burgeoning world of workplace perks. Perks geared toward enhancing employees’ lives outside the office can result in the largest jump in job satisfaction and productivity. The above examples suggest some cost-effective starting points for anybody looking to build a perks program into their office culture. Want more insights like these? Subscribe using the form to the right!