Cultivating a Team Mindset about Productivity with a Nudge: A Field Study in Hybrid Development Teams

Publication presented at the Conference for Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW’2023).
Authors: Thomas Fritz, Alexander Lill, André N. Meyer, Gail C. Murphy, Lauren Howe.

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How does your team help you to be productive?Answering this question can help workers rethink productivity to embrace the idea that their team contributes to their productivity, rather than undermining it.

Illustration of Teamwork: four co-workers are throwing a fifth up and catching them again on a cloth
Teamwork (Picture: Creative Commons) Authors of the publication: Thomas Fritz, Alexander Lill, André N. Meyer, Gail C. Murphy, Lauren Howe.This blog post was written by Lauren Howe

Interruptions and Productivity

Imagine a typical Tuesday afternoon at work. As you work to cross an important item off your to-do list, a member of your team knocks on your office door to ask a question. Ten minutes later, just as you are getting into the flow of the task again, another colleague pings you on Teams to give you an update on a joint project. Just five minutes after that, the next knock happens already — leaving you wondering when you’ll ever actually get to work toward crossing off your goal from your list.

This kind of scenario may be all too familiar. Everyone wants to feel like they were productive at the end of the workday. But as we pursue our individual work goals, we often face interruptions from others, whether in the form of emails, notifications, or colleagues stopping by. These interruptions can undermine feelings of our productivity at work, leaving workers frustrated with their progress — and maybe even with their well-meaning team members.

Yet the team members we work with are far more than a cause of interruptions that impede our productivity at work. Team members also help us to be productive and make progress toward our own goals — whether by giving feedback on a new idea, talking through a roadblock you’ve hit over lunch, or providing a mood boost by engaging in some small talk near the coffee machine.

But as we go about our work every day, we might underrecognize the role that team members play in our own productivity. So, we — a team of researchers from the University of Zurich and the University of British Columbia — wondered: could we nudge team members to encourage them to view their team as helping their own productivity, rather than hindering it?

Shifting Mindsets

Research on mindsets, or core assumptions about aspects of the world, suggests that this strategy could be fruitful. Mindsets research shows that people’s general beliefs can be shifted to lead them to pay more attention to certain aspects of the world over others. For instance, people’s mindsets about stress can be shifted such that they begin to increasingly see stress as something that can be enhancing, like boosting performance and growth, rather than viewing stress as something that is merely debilitating, like undermining health and vitality. While both things are true — stress can be both enhancing and debilitating — changing mindsets can lead a person to start to endorse one of these ideas more strongly and affect the way that they think, feel, and behave. This research suggests that it might be possible to shift people’s mindsets about productivity, such that they increasingly view their team as a source of individual productivity, rather than just something that competes with it.

Nudging Individuals to Reflect on their Team’s Help

To examine whether we could change how workers felt about their team and productivity, we conducted a field experiment with 48 members of 17 different software development teams working at a large multi-national company. Over 9 weeks, we asked team members to report their feelings of productivity each day and to report how they felt about their team.

Here’s what we changed in the experiment: after a few weeks, some team members were given an extra reflection exercise to nudge them to think about how their team contributes to their productivity. Research has found that reflection exercises can help to shift mindsets in work contexts. In our reflection exercise, one group of team members were randomly assigned to start answering the question “How did your team help you to be productive today?” in the daily surveys, while one group did not begin answering this question until later. This reflection exercise should encourage participants to think about how their team supports their productivity for their own tasks, nudging them to endorse the idea that the team helps their productivity in their own words. We could then examine whether this nudge changed the way that team members felt about their own and their team’s productivity.

Nudges can Increase Productivity

We found that the nudge helped team members to feel that they are making progress on their own tasks and to feel more productive in doing so. After the nudge was implemented, team members reported a 1.7% average increase in their individual productivity in their daily diaries, with team members reporting up to an 8.8% gain in individual productivity. Team members wrote about the nudge that it created a “higher awareness of what everybody is doing for the team” and made them “grateful for all the help and assistance that I have received for my tasks.” As well, the nudge seemed to change how people felt about their own behavior at work, saying that the nudge made them more aware that “if I’m helping the team, then that is being productive, and I need to be a little less, maybe harsh on myself by not judging myself as being unproductive when I’m actually not.” Thus, the nudge seemed to help people to reinterpret their efforts toward helping the team as part of their individual productivity.

Initial Cohesion Matters

We also found that for teams that had high levels of initial cohesion — where team members felt that the team was united in its goals and sticks together — the nudge helped to further increase positive feelings of team cohesion and had the strongest effects on feelings of productivity. But for teams with low levels of initial cohesion, the nudge seemed to backfire and undermine team cohesion as well as feelings of productivity. This finding suggests a note of caution in nudging team members to think about how their team helps their productivity — for teams that are already struggling to work together, the nudge might not work, perhaps because team members have a hard time thinking of what their team does to help their productivity.

Our results suggest that we can rethink productivity at work, to increasingly recognize the role that other people, like our team members, can play in helping us to be productive at our job. Productivity is not a solo act, but a multiplayer game.