Category: Work-life balance

How to beat the winter blues--tips from neuroscience

Posted by MIT Sloan Executive Education - 9 days ago

What Dr. Tara Swart has to say about the Winter Blues

For many, the cold winter weather--with its endless, dreary days and forecasts of impending blizzards--is not the most uplifting, especially towards the end of winter, when we feel we should be seeing daffodils rather than snow. Concomitant with gloomy forecasts is a similar state of mind known as the "winter blues." Research says this mood change is not merely in our heads. In fact, numerous studies have documented the overall feeling of malaise, which has a name: seasonal affective disorder, or most appropriately SAD for short.

MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Tara Swart, neuroscientist, leadership coach, medical doctor and executive advisor, says that SAD is thought to be caused by the way our bodies respond to daylight.Melatonin, the hormone that helps regulate our sleep, is released by the pineal gland in the brain into the bloodstream. Because this gland is activated by darkness, in shorter daylight hours in the winter, higher levels of melatonin are produced, causing lethargy and feelings of low energy.” Swart explains the production of serotonin--a hormone responsible for maintaining mood balance--can also decrease because of a lack of sunlight, which can lead to feelings of depression and negatively affecting our sleep and appetite.

Does winter weather affect productivity?

While the changing seasons can have a physical impact on our brain, to what extent is our cognitive function and performance level affected by the colder weather? Swart says opinions differ. While some studies show our brain activity is reduced in the colder months and can lead to sluggishness, other studies show that although brain activity is reduced, our performance levels remain the same--or that the brain is actually more efficient in the winter. Those who believe brain activity is reduced during the winter think shorter days may be the reason. Conversely, research has also shown that our attention span increases during the summer when days are longer

Continue reading

Nothing says love like putting down your devices

Posted by MIT Sloan Executive Education - 1 month and 10 days ago

Nothing says love like putting down your devices

It's hard to find bigger fans of technology than the staff, faculty, and global participants of MIT and MIT Sloan. We love using it, inventing it, and sharing it with the world. Tens of thousands of innovators have masterminded new technologies while here, or took programs to understand how best to bring those innovations to market. We also love using technology in the classroom itself, from management flight simulators and collaborative software to some of our newer experiments with telepresence and virtual reality. MIT researchers have even launched a new decision-making tool to help teachers, administrators, governments, and development practitioners around the world make smart decisions about incorporating technology in the classroom.

Given all of the above, the title of this post may seem counterintuitive. And yet, in light of Valentine's Day, we thought it worthwhile to remind our readers and ourselves that our love of all things digital can sometimes thwart true connection.

Breaking up [with smartphones] is hard to do

Smartphones, the most likely culprit, have been reshaping our etiquette for years now. Particularly in America, our "always on" state of mind has posed significant challenges for users vis-à-vis their relationship to others--whether colleagues in the boardroom or a romantic partner across the dinner table. According to a survey conducted by Pew Research Center, for many Americans, cellphones are always present and rarely turned off, and this constant connectivity is creating ever-evolving social challenges. Of the 3217 people surveyed, 89% of cellphone owners say they used their phone during the most recent social gathering they attended. And similar studies have shown that the mere presence of cellphones in face-to-face conversations inhibits the development of closeness and trust and reduces the amount of empathy we feel from our partners.

Americans are not alone in their smartphone temptations. A national study released last week in Australia shows that nearly a quarter of Australians have played second fiddle to a smartphone on a first date, with their prospective partner switching their attention to their digital device. The Intel Security study of 1200 Australians found more than a third of people have argued with friends or family about their smartphone use.

Continue reading

Sleeping your way to the top

Posted by MIT Sloan Executive Education - 3 months and 22 days ago

Contributed by Tara Swart, MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer, neuroscientist, and executive leadership coach.

What makes a good leader?

Senior executives, managers, and business leaders are paid to use their brains. So it is surprising how little emphasis many put on this vital organ.

In a fast-paced world that is constantly changing, the brain's executive functions, such as creative and flexible thinking, task-switching, bias suppression, and emotional regulation, are becoming increasingly important. But our ability to perform well at these outputs will be enhanced only if fed the right inputs. These include nourishing, hydrating, and oxygenating the brain appropriately, simplifying tasks to give the brain mindful time, and resting it.

That final element—rest—is one of the most crucial. We often hear stories about famous leaders such as Margaret Thatcher surviving and even thriving on very little sleep (Thatcher did suffer from dementia in her later life). It is true that an extremely limited number of people (1-2% of the population) have a genetic mutation that reduces the amount of sleep they truly require for optimal functioning to 4-5 hours a night. But for the rest of us, getting seven to nine hours of good, quality sleep every night is vital for staying on top of our game.

Why is sleep important?

Sleep deprivation will negatively impact your cognitive performance. Getting less sleep than the recommended amount can cause an apparent IQ loss of five to eight points the next day, and population norm studies have shown that losing an entire night’s sleep can lead to up to one standard deviation loss on your IQ. In other words, you're effectively operating with the equivalent of a learning disability.

Shorting your sleep can have longer-term effects as well. Our glymphatic system requires 7-8 hours to clean our brains, a process which flushes out protein plaques and beta amyloid tangles that can lead to dementing diseases if allowed to accumulate. Not getting enough sleep, or getting poor quality sleep (which includes sleeping after drinking alcohol) inhibits this process and can therefore increase the risk of developing these types of disease.

Continue reading

Workplace flexibility's win-win streak

Posted by MIT Sloan Executive Education - 6 months and 22 days ago

working from home

The push for flexibility is ever present in the workforce. People want to have more say in how they organize their time and orchestrate their day and, as a result, remote work is widely gaining traction as a viable way of conducting business by many companies, large and small. Just 20 years ago, only 9% of U.S. workers worked from home on occasion. Today, that number has risen to 37%, and the number of people telecommuting full-time has grown 103% over the last 10 years.

"Job seekers consistently report that telecommuting is the most desired form of flexible work, with many willing to take a pay cut, forfeit vacation time, or give up matching retirement savings plans for a telecommuting work arrangement," said Sara Sutton Fell, Founder and CEO of FlexJobs, the leading online service for professionals seeking telecommuting, flexible schedule, part-time, and freelance jobs. Fell is also the founder of Remote.co, a resource that provides expert insight, best practices, and valuable support for organizations exploring or already embracing a remote team as a significant portion of their workforce.

"In fact, millennials, who now comprise the largest generation in the workforce, placed flexible working ahead of other priorities such as professional development training, reputation of the companies’ leaders, and a sense of purpose when evaluating a job prospect," said Fell.

Companies can attract and retain talent by offering flexible work opportunities. And studies continue to show that teleworkers are more productive and satisfied with their job than their office counterparts.

New findings make the case for flexible work arrangements

New research released earlier this year found that workers partaking in a workplace flexibility program at a Fortune 500 company were happier and less burned out than employees at the same company who chose not to participate.

The study was co-authored by researchers from MIT Sloan School of Management and the University of Minnesota and was the first time a randomized controlled trial was used to measure the effects of workplace flexibility at a U.S. company.

MIT Sloan professor Erin L. Kelly and University of Minnesota professor Phyllis Moen split employees from the IT division of a Fortune 500 company into two separate programs before observing them for a year. Half of the 700 employees participated in a pilot program called "STAR: Office," where they engaged in flexible work practices designed to increase their sense of control over their work lives. The initiative focused on results, rather than face time at the office. Managers in the STAR program also received training on how to show more support for their employees' work preferences and personal lives.

Continue reading

When the walls come down: Weighing the pros and cons of modern work spaces

Posted by MIT Sloan Executive Education - 7 months and 23 days ago

MIT Sloan Professor Christian Catalini weighs in on the pros and cons of modern work spaces

A corner office--replete with windows and great views--was once a highly coveted perk in the world of work. Many businesses today, however, have opted for a more open floor plan. Over the past two decades, workers have seen office walls shrink to partitions and then disappear altogether in favor of shared offices, open spaces, and "bull pens." Also influencing our view of the traditional office setting is the growing popularity of remote work--more and more employees are choosing their home office over a corner one.

So how do these different environments actually affect the way we work? Do open floor plans truly make us more creative and collaborative, or are we just more distracted? Conversely, does confinement make us more productive? Could cubicles have a comeback? A recent Boston Globe article cites a mix of feelings over the open floor plans that, according to architecture and design firm HOK, account for more than 80% of office renovations in the past two years.

"One way an open office space can foster a more collaborative environment is by increasing the chances that people will interact and exchange ideas," says MIT Sloan Professor Christian Catalini. Catalini has studied how proximity impacts collaboration and ultimately the generation of new ideas, using data from a large, science-intensive campus: after co-location, scientific labs were 3.5 times more likely to collaborate with each other than before. Moreover, the discoveries resulting from their daily interactions (serendipitous or not) were more likely to be of high impact.

Continue reading

Productivity tips that keep us efficient and productive every day

Posted by MIT Sloan Executive Education - 9 months and 9 days ago

Productivity

Often it's the small tasks that wreak havoc in an already overscheduled day at the office. How can we, as business professionals with never enough time to complete the tasks at hand, better utilize the time we have to get things done?

MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer and productivity management guru Robert Pozen says there are some simple things we can do every day to make ourselves more productive and make our work day more efficient. In his short course, Maximizing Your Personal Productivity: How to Become an Efficient and Effective Executive, he identifies culprits of an unproductive day, some of which may come as a surprise and others all too familiar.

  • As a manager, one of the best ways to make good use of your time is to delegate the tasks that can be completed by your direct reports. As an executive, it's important to focus on the tasks that you do well--usually the "bigger picture," more strategic items. Learn to delegate the rest.
  • Most executives have annual goals they are working towards. Focusing on long-term goals and connecting them to your daily schedule is an efficient way to reach those goals. Breaking them down into smaller, more reachable goals that can be tackled every day helps.
  • We all know email can be the stealth time killer. How often has each of us intended to check our email for just a few minutes and discovered we are still at it 45 minutes later?
  • By all means, take care of email, but don't get overruled by it. Pozen uses the 80/20 and the OHIO rules. Respond to only 20 percent of all of our emails. Deal with those immediately and forget the rest. In addition, only open each email once--the old “Only Handle it Once (OHIO) rule.

Continue reading

Flexible jobs help make every day Earth Day

Posted by MIT Sloan Executive Education - 11 months and 2 days ago

work from home

April 22, 2016 marks the 46th year of Earth Day, a movement that gave voice to an emerging consciousness, channeling human energy toward environmental issues. And while this one day brings wider recognition to achieving any number of sustainability goals, each and every day is an opportunity for people to think and act in ways that can impact climate change.

One surprising way people and companies can have a positive impact on climate change is to offer employees flexible work options. According to Flexjobs, the leading job search site specializing in telecommuting, part-time, freelance, and flexible jobs, “Much of an individual’s carbon footprint is based on when, where and how he or she is required to work.”

In fact, the company found that if people who held telework-compatible jobs worked from home just two days a week, the U.S. would:

  • Save nearly 52 million gallons of gas
  • Save over 2.6 million barrels of oil
  • Reduce wear and tear on highways by over 1 billion miles a year

"In the U.S., where commuters travel primarily by car, where access to public transportation is often limited and inconvenient, and where super commuting is on the rise, we need to do more to promote the environmental benefits of working from home," says Sara Sutton Fell, founder and CEO of FlexJobs. "Remote work generates meaningful benefits, from lowering commute-related gas and oil consumption, pollution, and carbon emissions to reducing a company’s need for office space to overall energy savings and minimizing the need for work-related travel through remote collaboration tools like web and video conferencing."

Continue reading

Embodied leadership: Is neuroscience the next frontier in management?

Posted by MIT Sloan Executive Education - 1 year and 1 month and 6 days ago

Contributed by Peter Hirst, Associate Dean, MIT Sloan Executive Education

Neuroscience

There has been much excitement in the media lately about how breakthroughs in neuroscience can be applied to improve our daily lives. From brain-boosting juices and snacks, to game apps designed to keep our brains agile, to marketing techniques promising more effective selling--neuroscience has captured public imagination.

While it's important to separate the hype from actual science, the fact that advances in brain-imaging technology have finally given researchers the tools to see with greater accuracy what's going on in our brains is full of promise. Long-held beliefs about how the brain works are now turning out to be if not exactly untrue, then at least up for debate. It's understandable that people are excited by the potential implications of these new possibilities. 

Applying Neuroscience Insights to Leadership Education

As Associate Dean of Executive Education at MIT Sloan School of Management, a big part of my job is to champion scientific knowledge as it applies to management and leadership education. So, needless to say, I was quite excited to learn what brain-based insights can teach business leaders.

My first glimpse of the tremendous potential that advances in neuroscience can bring to business leadership happened at the UNICON 2013 conference--a meeting of executive education providers from the world's leading business schools. It was there that I met Dr. Tara Swart, a neuroscientist and executive leadership coach who gave a compelling presentation on how brain science can be applied in management and leadership education.

Her presentation posed a number of thought-provoking questions. How can our understanding of the agility and diversity of thinking affect our leadership effectiveness? Is it actually possible to create a whole new mindset and to disrupt deeply embedded leadership patterns? Can we truly overcome what Harvard Graduate School of Education professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey call our "immunity to change"? Can leaders truly be transformed and, in turn, transform their organizations? I was so impressed by what I saw that I immediately started thinking of ways to bring her knowledge to MIT Sloan

Continue reading

Search innovation@work Blog

Subscribe to Blog by Email

Cutting-edge research and business insights presented by MIT Sloan faculty.

Interested in writing a guest post?