Blue Skies, Distractions Arise: How Weather Affects Productivity

New studies show that workers are more productive on rainy days than on sunny ones. Does your office take advantage? Research by Francesca Gino and colleagues.
by Carmen Nobel

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?"

Man with an umbrellaThe 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."

Managerial Implications

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.

About the Author

Carmen Nobel is the senior editor of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.
    • juan aguirre
    • Chair for Entrepreneurship, Universidad Latina Costa Rica
    Those of us that live in the TROPICS have known that for quite sometimes. Two comments: at times you need some relaxation , this findings reminded me of SPRING fever sensation at Cornell when I was student.
    Another comment : the conquistadores never settle in places under 100 meters, ecologist call ecological determinism, they knew what they knew. Saludos and felicitaciones
    • Susan Chipman
    • Retired
    This may be consistent with what one sees in educational achievement data. The highest levels of educational achievement occur in the upper Mid-West, where the weather is cold and otherwise unattractive during most of the academic year. New England isn't bad either. Even in the years when education was well-funded in California (before proposition 13), educational outcomes were less than stellar.
    Of course, there are many other variables, cultural and otherwise, that may be contributing to these outcomes.
    • Shekhar Arora
    Instead of rainy days, it should be winter days. If any employee reaches the workplace wet, he will be uncomfortable throughout the day while doing office work (and not to ignore the health issue generated between of change of temperature exposure between outside office and inside office).
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) private Limited
    This is an interesting unique study. My Indian experience shows, however, that people generally do not remain comfortable when the weather is extremely hot or cold. Monsoons generally lead to water logging and traffic hazards making commutation to offices a real hard exercise. Many a time staff are drenched and take time to change/dry up. Hence, we do not find lousy or any other weather leading to better productivity.
    Spending some time stolling outside office is possible only when it is not unbearably hot or cold and it is also not raining. Moreover, such opportunity is generally denied due to strict break interval and hence the luxury which might be available in some other countries is not available here.
    • Rico Camus
    • ABS CBN
    I would think the effects would be different for other parts of the world. In the tropical climates, where the weather tends to have less variation the impact may be less. The lure of a sunny day outdoors is less of a distraction if sunny days are the norm. Personally I find that rainy days make me less productive and feel sluggish throughout the day.
    • Anonymous
    I would think from personal experience that it would also have to do with which part of the world you are in. For e.g if you are in Karachi or Saudi you actually want to get out when it's cloudy not when it's 105 degrees or more which is usually the case. But I agree with the idea in general.
    • Yale Cohen
    Growing up in Pittsburgh, where the weather is variable, I was compelled to be outside on (relatively rare) sunny days and take advantage of the nice weather. I spent a couple years in Berkeley, California (as a graduate student); initially it was difficult with evry day being "nice." I soon got over my "compulsion" since there was no need to take advantage of the sunny days, since tomorrow would be sunny also. Without that compulsion I could procrastinate enjoyoing the weather...and spent many hours studyingand being productive...all teh while knowing thee was sunshine in the future. I returned to Pittsburgh and love teh seasons as every seasons has outdoor activities that I enjoy--only rain may keep me indoors...
    • Mark
    • non profit executive
    The reader's comments below raise the question of how would the findings relate to the Pacific Northwest, where SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is a reality due to the extended 'rainy/gloomy' season that may not be reflected in the research. What about the UK? Would we expect limits to increased productivity as the study outlined when workers are in a more continuous climate of 'dreariness'?
    • JT Klepp
    • Managing Director, mobiOne
    Seems like that pacific island Microsoft Windows background should be banned then :)

    Would be interesting to control for extremities here. I am Norwegian, where the difference between winter and summer for instance is extreme. I now live in Australia where it is much more stable throughout the year. Do countries where weather is more stable have less weather effect?
    • Anonymous
    I don't think this study properly accounts for the large number of people whose moods are impacted by the weather (either consciously or subconsciously). There are many people who are simply more energized overall on sunny days and feel that 'rainy day depression' (sometimes actually stemming from real causes, like short-term Vitamin D deprivation). Those people who are impacted as such will naturally be able to devote more energy and effort to all tasks in their lives, including work, on sunny days.
    • Jose Luis Molina
    • Project Manager, FERMACA
    This article seems a bit lazy, and I think that is something that does not surprise me, good weather invites you to relax and enjoy ... this is very obvious
    • Pete DeLisi
    • President, Organizational Synergies
    As a former Air Force Weather Officer, I once petitioned the Air Force to create a new graduate program in Biometeorology --- a field that investigates the effects of weather on the human system physiologically and psychologically. At the time (1970s) the Europeans were already doing quite a bit in this field. Unfortunately, the program was never approved.

    It seems that the field has never taken off, but there are some fascinating research results that I still remember from both my work and the work of others. If anyone is interested, please contact me. It would be fun to talk about these again.
    • ss
    • ss
    Today we live an age wherein employees work in a very conditioned atmosphere, so vagaries associated with weather do not really affect the worker-moods.
    • Anonymous
    It depends on what is thought of as good and bad weather. In India, a bad day is sunny; a good day is rainy. The reaction to rain starts with spending time dancing in it and sitting by the window with hot snacks and hot tea and then leads to higher productivity. The ongoing hot days are tiring. A good rainy day is key to better performance.
    • Ayush
    • Senior SAP Consultant, Tata Consultancy Services
    Its quite a well researched article with subtle studies being done with different group of people and majorly the attention is focused towards judging employee productivity with the variation in the climate outside.
    Like rainy days, sunny days have their own advantages. You would observe people being glued to their desks during rainy days and working silently. This perhaps can improve the productivity but may deprecate the physical well being of employees if the climate continue remaining the same.

    Change is inevitable and for that matter sunny days bring the joy of liveliness and exploring things around. It gives a way to cherish the beauty of nature around which keeps us healthy. We are human not programmed devices so we should welcome this change in climate with more positivity and induce a sense of being productive irrespective of the changes around.

    Ayush Johri
    Senior SAP Consultant
    Tata Consultancy Services