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The Surprising Value of Downtime at Work

To many outside observers, it’s a waste to have employees sitting around and doing nothing more than chat. But the outside observers are wrong, we learn from MIT’s renowned Dr. Alex Pentland, who has studied how to increase productivity and creativity at work.

Among his conclusions are that interaction among workers is one of the best predictors of overall work productivity.1

For example, he studied a call center at Bank of America. Call centers are interesting because they have exact data on productivity. They know how much each person gets done per hour. Call centers are also interesting because, at first glance, it seems that any time an employee is not working is time wasted.

But it turns out to be just the opposite. By increasing the time employees spent together on coffee breaks, Dr. Pentland increased each worker’s productivity.

To be clear, in this case he didn’t give the workers more downtime. He rescheduled their downtime so that they would have breaks together.

I think the lesson for organizations that value productivity is to make sure their employees get to spend unstructured time together at work.

Dr. Pentland didn’t just study call centers, and he didn’t just study productivity. For instance, he also looked at an IT support department, one which — like the call center — has clear records on productivity. He found the same thing: he could predict the employees’ productivity by looking at how much they talked to each other.

Dr. Pentland investigated creativity, as well, and found, again, that interaction was crucial: “the difference between low-creative groups and high-creative groups is their pattern of face-to-face exploration outside the group.”

All of this (massive) research points in a single direction: Giving people time at work to talk to each other is good policy all around.




1. Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread — The Lessons from a New Science by Alex Pentland. Penguin Press HC, 2014. Pp 93-97.

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  1. MsColleen
    February 10, 2014 at 7:06 pm

    Very interesting article, Dr. Joel. Have you thought of publishing this or a similar comment on Amazon’s entry for the book?

    I couldn’t tell if any of the more anonymous comments might have been yours.

  2. liz hood
    February 10, 2014 at 7:26 pm

    Knowing and trusting those around you helps working together like family. I worked in a call center where it was every man to himself. We were paid based on the number of calls completed. There was a person who learned to work the system by telling people to call back later since the computers were down. That meant the rest of us took more calls from disgruntled customers.. I don’t think a friend would have done that to the others.

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