Smart Cities

Research Suggests Stress Can Increase Productivity Sparking New AI Debate

Employee comfort has been a hallmark of the workplace in the IoT era. Office design and technology has promised to raise worker comfort levels to bring about health, wellbeing and productivity benefits. New research suggests, however, that too much comfort can be negative and that stress is an important motivator for performance. How will modern workplaces find the comfort-stress balance in light of these new ideas and what role will technology play?

“The traditional office has not always placed high priority on the comfort of its employees. Modern workplace research is consistently showing that comfortable workers are productive workers,” suggests our comprehensive report on all topics related to The Future Workplace: Smart Office Design in the IoT Era.

“This may initially seem counterintuitive to many, after all comfort is synonymous with relaxation, which in turn is another word for what you might do when you’re not working. However, in the context of workplace design, comfort levels don’t necessarily represent a state of relaxation, they reflect a state free from pain and distraction, one considered ideal for optimal productivity,” the report continued highlighting the recent push towards workplace comfort.

Following those widely accepted theories, workplace design sought to increase comfort with open plan offices, with more art and plants, in addition to unconventional elements such as hammocks, slides and break rooms featuring foosball tables and the like. Smart technology brought lighting and environmental control technology to allow each employee to apply the settings that were most comfortable for them, all with the mindset that popular theories correlate greater comfort with greater productivity.

“If you look at the research out there, the correlation between engagement and performance outcomes is far from perfect, which means that many ‘engaged’ individuals and teams are not delivering the results leaders expect. By the same token, some firms will find that their best-performing teams are often among the least satisfied,” Lewis Garrad, organisational psychologist and head of growth markets at Mercer-Sirota, told Raconteur.

Garrad previously worked with Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, business psychology professor at University College London and chief talent scientist at Manpower, on an exploration of the topic for a Harvard Business Review article entitled The Dark Side of High Employee Engagement. In which they suggest a direct link between worker dissatisfaction and certain positive performance benefits.

“While it’s true that positive mindsets bring openness and creativity, it’s also true that more critical ones can bring focus and attention. People who are put under moderate amounts of stress tend to become very focused and target-driven which can help to drive positive performance outcomes,” Garrad and Chamorro-Premuzic argue.

Research by Leonard Martin et al., meanwhile, demonstrated that when people experience negative moods they are often more persistent on a task than those who are in more positive mindsets. In a series of experiments where subjects were asked to read from a list or create their own list from memory, those in positive mindsets stopped sooner than those in negative mindsets in the majority of cases.

So some stress and negativity can benefit productivity but we also know that too much can have disastrous effects on employees and people in general. The UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that work-related stress, depression and anxiety accounted for as much as 40% of work-related ill health and 49% of working days lost in their 2016/17 study. In the search for optimum productivity, companies must find the balance between too much stress and too little stress – a fine and dangerous line to walk.

The right stress balance is “not thinking ‘This will never work’; it’s more ‘I can imagine that this is going to be hard and it might not go that smoothly’. When people do the latter, then they often get energised to work hard and make plans to overcome the problems they’ve imagined. This could potentially help people to find creative breakthroughs,” says Dr Heather Kappes, assistant professor of marketing at the London School of Economics.

For many, that will make complete sense, when faced with a challenge they find a gear they wouldn’t have otherwise, leading to elevated performance and better results. For others, the same challenge might feel insurmountable, deflating them and reducing performance. The same situation may trigger different responses in different people, “moderate arousal for one person might be too much or too little for someone else,” says Kappes.

This is where “people management” comes into play, the ability for a manager to apply the right amount of pressure to one employee to get the best out of them. Recently, however, artificial intelligence (AI) systems have been getting more involved in the management of people. Smart buildings are going beyond energy efficiency, lighting and temperature, to developing “emotional intelligence.” Meaning that the building not only has the ability to sense the emotions or stress levels of occupants but also has the capacity to react in order to change that emotion, be it by adapting the brightness of lights, air quality, and even encouraging or discouraging social interaction.

“So if you’re having a bad day and another occupant is having a good day, maybe the building can arrange you and this other occupant to have more of a social interaction that day that could potentially enhance your emotional state,” said Arsalan Heydarian, an Assistant Professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Virginia, reminiscent of the teacher in school separating friends who a more likely to talk or misbehave when sitting next to each other.

AI is taking on the role of management and that was just about OK when it was finding ways to make people more comfortable. However, if the research suggests that a certain employee needs to be more stressed to reach optimum productivity, will the AI have the license to raise stress levels? Would it be acceptable to use a technology, already struggling with a “big brother” reputation, to intentionally stress people out? In the pursuit of greater and greater productivity, would corporations be tempted to use AI in these ways without divulging it? And if it does bring about greater productivity, would that be OK?

Questions like these are at the heart of the debate surrounding AI and especially its use in the workplace. Some unauthorized employee monitoring cases have already been unearthed. Once AI controls the lighting, HVAC systems, where you sit and how essentially comfortable you are, these kind of opportunities will present themselves. The conclusion, as is often the case with AI, is that regulation must catch up with technology to decide what is acceptable and how to enforce it.

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