How to design your department like a behavioural scientist

From redecorating desks to bosses speaking last, experts give tips for a well-run office

Every now and then, the media publishes a list of the world’s best-designed offices — all of which are invariably from the private sector.

Zappos’ “holacracy” model rid the company of managerial roles, giving employees more autonomy in their work. Google’s offices are designed to provoke casual encounters between employees, which can improve productivity by 15%. Amazon’s full-time horticulturalist fills its workspaces with greenery to boost employees’ wellbeing.

Government offices, meanwhile, have changed little in decades. “We’ve barely scratched the surface on what governments can do to empower and motivate their employees,” said Robbie Tilleard, senior advisor on productivity and economic growth at the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team (BIT).

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Research on organisational design is still in the early stages: most studies on the subject have been conducted in a lab, rather than in large-scale field trials. But it’s still worth considering changes — many of them low- or no-cost — that could improve public servants’ productivity and happiness. We spoke to behavioural scientists to find out how.

Make meetings less hierarchical

Senior staff dominate meetings, whether they mean to or not: when an experienced executive expresses an opinion, junior employees often feel they have to fall in line.

One way to avoid self-censorship is by having people speak in reverse-hierarchical order, said Kate Phillips, behavioural insights principal at the Department of Premier and Cabinet in Victoria, Australia. “The further you move up the hierarchy, the broader and smaller your knowledge becomes, so this approach provides the best-quality information to consider,” said Phillips.

The UK’s BIT, meanwhile, runs “think groups” during meetings: rather than having a leader stand at a whiteboard, team members join a Google Doc anonymously and brainstorm online for 15 to 30 minutes. Employees can’t tell whether suggestions come from the most senior or junior person on the team. The pressure to conform is easier to resist when people aren’t face-to-face, said Tilleard.

Be strategic about criticism

Often, people are blinded by their own biases, which makes it difficult to see how a policy or program could fail. The UK’s BIT uses “collaborative red-teaming” — a strategy borrowed from the military — to look at all possibilities when designing policy. The red team is tasked with finding weaknesses and examining worst-case scenarios.

Australia’s Behavioural Insights Unit takes a similar approach. To fight confirmation bias, they run “pre-mortems”: discussions in which the team imagines that a project has failed horribly, and ask why and how it could have been prevented. They also require team members to make arguments against their own position. “This normalises sharing information that wouldn’t normally be aired, because people don’t like to deviate from the group,” said Phillips.

Switch up décor

Small changes can make a big difference to wellbeing. Red, green and blue colour schemes have been shown to improve employees’ happiness in early tests. A survey-based study in 2011 found that furniture that is more curved and rounded, rather than straight-edged, is associated with positive emotions.

The easiest way to make employees happy, according to research by psychologists Alex Haslam and Craig Knight, is to let them personalise their space. Haslam and Knight studied which desk decorations made workers more productive and happy. They tested four different layouts — from bare-bones, spotless desks to messy ones littered with photos and knick-knacks. They found that those who got to choose their own decorations produced 30% more work than those with the minimalist layout.

And be careful not to alienate employees with nostalgia. Decorating an office with images of former executives — which tend to be older white men — or naming offices after them can leave people feeling out of place, warns Kate Glazebrook, CEO and co-founder of Applied, a blind recruitment tool developed by the UK BIT. “Even these small, unconscious things can make people feel that this is not the workplace for them.”

Encourage collaboration — but reconsider the open plan office

“Some organisations try to facilitate more of the serendipitous, around-the-water-cooler interactions, because they know that they can spark the realisation that the other person has something they can bring to their work,” said Glazebrook. Data analysis from the private sector found that getting employees to “collide” in this way leads to greater creativity.

Another survey of 16 organisations found that up to 78% of employees’ close networks are with people on the same floor. “Distance matters, and technology isn’t a panacea to this. Typically, we speak more to those within a reach of 20 metres,” said Tilleard. “Research shows that moving employees to the same floor increases their chances of overall contact and collaboration.”

Hot-desking and open-plan spaces can help break down these differences, especially if your team is small — the ideal size is nine employees, said Glazebrook — and you offer access to quiet space. But there’s also evidence they lead to reduced motivation, increased stress and, in some employees, alienation from their team.

Many of these changes are easy for departments to make on their own. But if they want to improve public servants’ happiness — and productivity — on a larger scale, they might consider hiring or working with a behavioural expert on a permanent basis. “We need to do more thinking about the role of a behavioural scientist within government organisations,” said Phillips. —Jennifer Guay

(Picture credit: Unsplash/Yann Maigan)

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