All posts by Brian Wansink

Brian received his PhD from Stanford and worked as an MBA professor at Dartmouth, Wharton, University of Illinois, and Cornell. His first books Asking Questions and Consumer Panels uncovered many secrets about habits and human behavior. He used these insights to help people eat healthier by writing the books Slim by Design and Mindless Eating, published in over 20 languages. He now focuses on discovering new ways to help people become more effective, communicative, productive, resilient, responsible, and creative.
Crucial Conversations QA

Working or Shirking from Home?

As the coronavirus sends more of us home, business casual dress goes from slacks to jeans to sweats to pajamas.

Before the coronavirus, a lot of companies were hesitant to let people work from home. “Working from home” rhymes too closely with “Shirking from home.” It includes surfing, posting, grazing, running errands, crushing Candy Crush, calling your brother “just because,” rereading online stories about the coronavirus, updating your LinkedIn resume, spacing out on conference calls, and telling your boss, “I’m still waiting for Bob to get it to me so I can work on it.”

But what if working from home looked different? What if working from home made you 13% more productive, made you feel more satisfied with your job, and made you half as likely to quit?

This is exactly what was found in a 2015 Stanford study of a large Chinese travel firm called CTrip1. Researchers randomly split 249 call center employees from Shanghai into two groups. For nine months, half of them kept working at their desks as usual, and the other half were told to work from home four days a week (one day a week they came into the office). Then the researchers measured everything from the number of calls they made, to job satisfaction, to breaks taken, to sick days… everything but Facebook Likes and Candy Crush scores.

One conclusion: Working from home can make people more productive.

But wait. Before you try to sell the conference table on eBay, there’s a huge caveat from this study (aside from country and culture): These workers had very specific measures of productivity—phone calls per minute and the amount of time spent on the phone.

Whereas those in customer service, copywriting, or design might have very specific measures of productivity (dollars, calls, pages, or projects), other workers might have to deal with more collaboration and face-to-face meetings. For them, working at home can be challenging. It requires accountability, better work habits, and a general ability to get things done when there are roaring distractions all around.

Since working at home requires a discipline muscle that many of us need to strengthen, it’s easy to let our first days or weeks at home be structured by meetings and not our mission. That is, we might view the phone or web meetings on our calendar as the “Big rocks” of our day instead of seeing our biggest projects as our biggest rocks. After you conduct a weekly review of the projects that are most pressing, these suggestions might help.

  • Identify the three biggest project tasks you need to complete each day (not including meetings).
  • Make a promise to complete these tasks and deliver results to another person (boss or coworker).
  • Check in for a follow-up after making the delivery.

This is the productivity side of working at home. But there’s another side to working at home that has been widely ignored. It’s the human side.

There’s a story of three people who find themselves stranded on an uncharted desert island. Sort of like Gilligan’s Island, but without commercials. After years of learning how to smoothly work together to survive, the trio one day finds a bottle with a genie in it. The genie grants each person a wish. The first wishes to be back home in California, and—poof—she’s gone. The second wishes to be reunited with his family in Texas, and—poof—he’s gone. The third person looks around the empty island and says to the genie, “You know, I miss my two friends. I wish they were back.”

Here’s the rest of the story about the Chinese workers. After nine months of working at home, the study was over. The workers were told they could continue working from home four days a week or they could come back and grind it out in-office for the full five. Slightly more than half of these workers wanted to come back and work in the office. They reported they were too “lonely.”

There’s a human side to working at home. We can use our VitalSmarts tools to strengthen our communication muscle and our productivity muscle, but we might still feel like something is missing.

Leaning in (versus spacing out) during meetings might help and checking in or following up after finishing a project piece might help. But this human solution will need some personal thought and personal tailoring for each of us. If we’re feeling restless after four days at home, the human side is where we might want to look.

And maybe call your brother “just because.”

All the best,

1Nicholas, Liang, James, Roberts, John, Ying, and Zhichun Jenny. “Does Working from Home Work? Evidence from a Chinese Experiment *.” OUP Academic. Oxford Academic, November 20, 2014.

Crucial Conversations QA

Who’s the Smartest Team in the Room?

We’re excited to welcome a new contributor to the Crucial Skills Newsletter. Please enjoy a special introduction to Brian Wansink from author Joseph Grenny. We also encourage you to review VitalSmarts’ support of Brian Wansink here.

A Message from Joseph Grenny

If you haven’t met him yet, I want to be the first to introduce one of my newest VitalSmarts colleagues. I met Brian Wansink 15 years ago as part of our research for the book Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change. We became fast friends. What has struck me most about Brian is not just that he is a renowned scholar whose hundreds of scholarly papers have been cited tens of thousands of times. It is not just that he is one of most clever and creative social scientists of our time. It is that he is a man of deep character and purpose. Fifteen years gives you a chance to see how people deal with the crescendos and diminuendos of life. You learn as much about a person from either extreme. Not only am I grateful for the way Brian’s research has improved my own life, but I am grateful for the inspiration he gives me to be a better man. Friends, meet Brian Wansink.

Who’s the Smartest Team in the Room?

Congratulations. You’ve just been asked to assemble the smartest team in your organization. This will be the Einstein, Ninja, Go-To, Delta Team that will have to solve the toughest problems you face: increase growth by 70%, cut costs by 25%, rebrand the company, and be prepared to act in case the CEO’s spouse repeatedly staggers up to monopolize the Christmas Party Karaoke again next year.

Who would you choose to be on your Brainiac Committee? You could line everybody up by their IQ scores and pick the ones at the head of the line, or you could pick people who have a cool British-sounding accent, or you could pick that one person on the second floor who was a runner-up nominee for the Supreme Court. But according to an article in the journal Science,1 if you really want the smartest team that will make the best decisions, you should use a different approach.

The article dives deep into collective intelligence. The authors analyzed 699 people who were working in teams of two or five to solve a wide range of problems like brainstorming, moral judgements, and negotiation.

As it turned out, two things differentiated the teams that made the smartest decisions from the rest. First, teams where one or two people did most of the talking made less intelligent decisions than groups where everyone spoke up. Sound familiar? It’s Crucial Conversations 101. It’s “Learn to Look” and “Make it Safe.” Making these two skills a part of your culture could increase your Meeting IQ.

Second, teams with higher percentages of females made better, more effective decisions. They were more sensitive about getting input from everyone, better able to reach compromises, and generally more effective. This is consistent with an earlier 2006 study by Wellesley professor Sumru Erkut, who showed that having two or more women on a corporate board brings “a collaborative leadership style that benefits boardroom dynamics by increasing listening, social support, and win-win problem-solving.”

The research shows women are less polarizing, more collaborative, and more likely to reach a solution that makes everyone happy. The New York Times columnist, Bruce Feiler, recounts a story of having dinner with a Google executive who said they always make sure to include more than one woman at every meeting. Their decision was based on this study. Turns out “diversity” isn’t just a fair word, it’s also a smart word.

The high-performing teams in the Science study tended to weigh options, encourage everyone to speak up, and to compromise better. These may be skills that come more naturally to some people than others, but regardless they are skills we can all learn. Train your people in the dialogue skills that enable everyone around the table—regardless of power, position, or authority—to speak up. And look carefully at the makeup of your teams. Be sure they are diverse enough, in gender and experience, to create a dynamic where thoughtful and smart decisions are made.

If you get it right, that diverse, dialogue-armed team of yours might also be able to solve that Christmas Party Karaoke problem. Hint: more karaoke, yes; more eggnog, no.

1Woolley, Anita Williams, Christopher F. Chabris, Alexander Pentland, Nada Hashmi, and Thomas W. Malone. “Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups.” Science. American Association for the Advancement of Science.