Autumn has sprung, and the cold, dreary days of winter are around the corner. But take heart, wistful sun lovers. It turns out that lousy weather is actually good for business operations.
A new research paper reports that a decrease in sunny weather is directly related to an increase in worker efficiency. In "Rainmakers: Why Bad Weather Means Good Productivity," the authors show that workers are especially productive on rainy days, simply because they're not tempted by the possibilities of a sunny day—a walk in the park, for example, or an afternoon at the beach.
The paper also explores the practical implications of these findings. For example, should managers save certain tasks for days when skies are gray?
“A field study gives you the reality of the phenomenon. A lab study answers the question, why is this happening?”
The work was generated out of a discussion about the authors' own lives. "We were commenting, looking at our own experiences, that it seems to feel different to do your job, whatever that is, if you have a very sunny day outside versus a very rainy day, because your mind seems to be distracted by all the outside opportunities that you have on sunny days versus rainy ones," says Francesca Gino, an associate professor at Harvard Business School who cowrote the paper with Bradley R. Staats (HBS MBA '02, DBA'09) of the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School, and Jooa Julia Lee of the Harvard Kennedy School.
To test whether this idea held true in the corporate world, the researchers looked at preexisting field data at a midsize bank in Tokyo. The bank had tracked employee productivity for two-and-a-half years following the launch of a new mortgage-processing system in June 2007, during which time the bank processed more than 56,000 loan applications—a process comprising about 600,000 individual data-entry tasks.
The research team matched that data to meteorological data in Tokyo during that period. (Tokyo is a city that sees its share of sunny weather and torrential downpours, as well as significant temperature and humidity shifts.) In short, they found that an increase in rain correlated with a decrease in the time it took for workers to complete their tasks. Low visibility and extreme temperatures also matched periods of high worker productivity. Clear, sunny days correlated with relatively low productivity.
From The Field To The Lab
With that supporting data in hand, the team decided to test the weather/productivity connection in the controlled setting of a research lab. The goal was to establish causality for the correlative findings.
"I love when you combine a field study with a lab study," Gino says. "A field study gives you the reality of the phenomenon. A lab study answers the question, why is this happening?"
The team recruited 136 college students through the study pool at the Harvard Decision Science Laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, conducting experiments in February and March--when the weather tends to be sunny one day and overcast the next. The purpose of the lab study was to determine whether the distraction created by the temptation of outside activities was indeed what caused a decrease in worker productivity on sunny days.
"Specifically, we carefully chose the days on which we conducted the sessions of the study to take advantage of natural variation, and then we experimentally manipulated subjects' exposure to outside options," the authors explain in the paper.
Half of the participants were asked to come to the lab on days forecast for rain, while the other half came in on sunny days. Furthermore, on both rainy and sunny days, some participants were deliberately reminded of the outdoors. The researchers asked these participants to look at photographs of activities that they could do outside, such as sailing or walking in the woods, and describe in detail which one they liked the best. (The photographs all had been taken on sunny days.) Control group participants, meanwhile, were not shown the sunny-day photos; rather, they were asked only to describe their typical daily routines.
In total there were four groups of participants: rainy-day participants who were induced to daydream about sunny-day activities; sunny-day participants who were induced to daydream about sunny-day activities; rainy-day control group participants; and sunny-day control group participants.
All participants were asked to enter several sets of written questionnaire responses into a spreadsheet, with the incentivizing knowledge that they would be compensated financially according to how quickly they completed the task. The researchers deliberately used questionnaire responses written in Italian to increase the difficulty of the task for the English-speaking participants. "One way in which you can capture whether people are cognitively distracted is to actually look at the errors they make when they are entering data," says Gino, who, as a native of Italy, was in a good position to detect transcription errors.
“People tend to be more productive on a bad weather day than on a good weather day.”
The researchers found that the top performers (those who completed the task the fastest and the most accurately) were the rainy-day control group participants, who had seen neither the actual sun nor pictures of the sun before doing the task. "What we found was consistent with the field data," Gino says. "Once again we see that people tend to be more productive on a bad weather day than on a good weather day."
Meanwhile, exposure to the sunny-day photographs significantly decreased the performance of participants who came to the lab on rainy days. For those who came in on sunny days, the added distraction of the sunny-day photographs had little effect on performance.
The findings indicate that workers are indeed most productive when the weather is lousy—but only if nothing artificially reminds them of good weather.
"On good weather days, making outside options salient doesn't matter because we're already distracted by the sun," Gino explains. "But on bad weather days, people tend to make more errors and perform more slowly when you just make them think about outside options."
The researchers believe that the findings have practical implications for managers, especially those in charge of employees whose jobs require repetitive tasks. At the most basic level, they can avoid peppering the office with, say, posters of distracting beach scenes. But they also can be mindful of the positive and negative effects of the weather outside.
"Although weather conditions are exogenous and uncontrollable, organizations could assign more clerical work on rainy days than sunny days to tap into the effects of bad weather on productivity, assigning work [on sunny days] that does not require sustained attention but does allow for more flexibility in thinking," the researchers write.
For Gino, the findings match up with her professorial career. In fact, she says, academics often joke that they seek out positions in harsh climates on purpose, so that they won't feel like they're missing anything when they're hunched over their desks for weeks on end. Thus, she feels fortunate for the time she spent in a windowless office at the University of North Carolina, where she held an assistant professorship for two years before landing at HBS in 2010. One student, feeling sorry for Gino, gifted her with a window from an old farmhouse to prop up against the wall of the office. But Gino attributes some of her productivity at UNC to the lack of an actual view to the outside.
"After all, it is sunny very often in North Carolina," she smiles.