Research on data provided by 122 companies in the advertising, digital, publishing, and software sectors (industries characterized by uncertainty over outcomes) suggests that data driven decision-making could be counter-productive under conditions of uncertainty. Heuristics and gut feelings often offered a better tradeoff in terms of decision-making speed and accuracy; the inclusion of analysis in the decision-making process did not bring about any meaningful improvement in accuracy while significantly reducing speed.
Data-driven decision making is often viewed as the gold standard in modern management. And this is for good reason. The explosion of available data and rapid advances in data science enable managers to know substantially more about their business. This knowledge, if used well, should bring about better decision-making on about every aspect of the business.
This is perhaps why most companies are in a horse race in building analytical capabilities to make the most of this unprecedented abundance of data. For example, a recent survey of Fortune 1000 companies shows that 91.9% of firms report increasing investment in data initiatives.
While the potential of big data is irrefutable, is it the panacea for all decision-making situations? Put differently, could a strong emphasis on data and analysis backfire under some circumstances? We explored this in our recent research.
Our intuition was that data-driven decision making could be counterproductive under extreme uncertainty. In such cases, it will be highly challenging and sometimes impossible to collect reliable data. This could explain why 12 publishers were unable to see the potential of Harry Potter and the Philosopher Stone before Bloomsbury Publishing accepted to publish an initial print run of 500 copies. The book was so innovative that there was by definition no prior data available to accurately assess its potential.
To test our intuition, we collected data from 122 companies in creative industries (in advertising, digital, publishing, and software sectors) about their latest innovation projects. We chose creative industries due to high levels of uncertainty about customer reactions and an infinite variety of potential new products and product modifications. For the same reason, we focused on innovation screening decisions — the decision to select what innovation projects to pursue for development. These decisions are characterized by high uncertainty; managers often lack sufficient past data that would enable them to predict customer reactions accurately, market potential, feasibility, and risks. Even if they had such data, it would often be extremely difficult and sometimes even misleading to extrapolate.
We asked managers in these companies to think about their most recent innovation project for which they needed to make a screening decision and included questions to understand how they made this decision. Specifically, the questions addressed the extent to which they relied on analysis (i.e., choosing the option that proved best based upon analyzing the data), instinct (i.e., choosing the option following their instincts), and a range of well-known heuristics (i.e., practical strategies to make decisions faster and more frugally). These heuristics included “tallying” (choosing the option with highest number of favorable points), “experience” (choosing the option most experienced person in team wanted) and “majority” (choosing the option most people wanted) amongst several others. Next, we asked managers to indicate whether they think they got the decision right (perceived decision-making accuracy) and how fast they were in making the decision (perceived decision-making speed).
The results first showed, to our surprise, despite the huge interest in big data, that the managers in our sample did not rely on analysis any more than on their instincts or some of the simple heuristics. The most commonly used heuristic, more than both analysis and instinct, was tallying.
We also find that relying on analysis is not necessarily the ideal way to choose between innovation projects. While the decisions based on data analysis brought about a good level of decision-making accuracy, the process was slow. Managers who relied on their instincts together with some simple heuristics made decisions that were just as accurate but were undertaken much more quickly. That is, heuristics and gut feelings offered a better tradeoff in terms of decision-making speed and accuracy; the inclusion of analysis in the decision-making process did not bring about any meaningful improvement in accuracy while significantly reducing speed.
One note of caution for managers who consider embarking on gut-based innovation decisions: the effectiveness of their intuition might rely on prior experience. Prior research suggests that the effectiveness of intuition compared to analysis is contingent upon domain knowledge; experts in a domain are more likely to make better gut decisions. Managers with limited domain expertise might therefore be better off by refraining from extensive reliance on intuition. Our results suggest relying mainly on heuristic also presents a viable alternative.
The next time when you face a managerial decision that is ambiguous, bear in mind that data might not be the only basis for a choice. Following your instincts, together with some simple heuristics, can lead to quicker and potentially as accurate decisions especially for those with the requisite expertise.
Designing Hospitals that Promote Staff Wellbeing
Even before Covid-19, rates of behavioral health illness were on the rise. In the third year of the pandemic, mental health has accelerated into a crisis, with health care workers in particular facing high levels of stress and burnout. Although mask mandates have been lifted and restrictions have been eased in many areas, caregivers are still in the throes of treating infected patients, while also coping with the fallout of the past two years. This convergence of factors has led to an uptick in mental health issues among health care workers, many of whom report experiencing record-high rates of anxiety and depression compared to the general population.
Previously, designing clinical spaces for well-being was focused primarily on the patient. Now, taking care of patients is table stakes; caring for the people who serve them is crucial to creating and maintaining a high-performing hospital system.
Designing buildings for the well-being of health care staff is not just necessary to curb the mental health crisis among the profession. It’s also critical to buttress the financial fallout that ensues with high turnover, preventing additional strain on a system already taxed from financial losses due to differed treatment during the pandemic.
During Covid, hospitals have seen increased rates of turnover among employees, which is both costly to morale and the bottom line. According to Becker’s Hospital Review, in 2020, the turnover rate for registered nurses increased 2.8 percentage points to 18.7% industry-wide. Each percentage point change translates to approximately $270,000 lost or saved per hospital.
These numbers have prompted hospitals to rethink their approach to the physical environment and incorporate research-based design strategies that improve well-being for both patients and the staff guiding their recovery. Below, we outline three lessons for designing hospitals and clinics based on current projects NBBJ is working on with Massachusetts General Hospital, Atrium Health, Loma Linda University Medical Center, and Montage Health.
Lesson 1: Employee mental health can be part of a building’s identity.
Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston is currently building a 482-bed expansion called Cambridge Street that focuses on staff and patient satisfaction, operational efficiency, and environmental stewardship. Several years ago, NBBJ also oversaw the creation of MGH’s 150-bed Lunder Building. Both facilities offer key insights into how seemingly simple design interventions can have a significant impact on the mental well-being of staff members.
It’s important to note that what we recommend are not amenities, even if some may call them that. Rather than focusing on the “nice to have” perks found in tech company headquarters, many of the spaces in MGH’s facility are “must haves” given the fact lives are on the line: stairwells flooded with light, deliberately quiet patient floors, and safer working conditions, for example.
The Lunder building offers plentiful access to daylight through a glass-encased stairwell used only by staff, who have adopted the corridor as a de facto meeting space (nicknamed the “stair conference room”). Staff also use this stairwell as a place to “be alone together” and report that they find comfort watching employees traverse the stairwell while they use the space to think and decompress.
The building further expands staff’s exposure to daylight — which impacts work-related stress and job satisfaction and is found to affect clinician burnout — through corridors that allow staff to access rooms from an exterior wall. Since less noise can reduce stress among caregivers and also help patients recover from illness, the Lunder building uses a variety of sound-absorbing materials and techniques to make the patient floors 35% quieter than typical health care buildings. Other features designed to minimize noise include sliding doors, distributing work zones for clinical staff across the floor rather than in a single location, and elevators and visitor waiting areas located away from patient rooms.
Finally, staff safety is perhaps the most critical “amenity” of all. For example, overexertion — in the form of repetitive routine physical tasks such as bending, stretching, and standing — account for 45.6% of all injuries occurring to nurses, according to a 2018 article published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. These injuries can result in musculoskeletal disorders such as sprains and strains that accounted for 8,730 days away from work among nurses in the private industry in 2016. Features such as motorized overhead patient ceiling lifts or full-height glass doors that provide greater situational awareness can help reduce injuries.
Designing buildings in this fashion makes a difference. For example, post-occupancy data from new inpatient units and staff work areas NBBJ designed for Atrium Health indicates that vast majority of employees feel safer and more at ease in the workplace. In the same post-occupancy evaluation, employees mentioned “the collaborative nature of the research floor,” “increased interaction with colleagues,” and “improved team collaboration” as positive aspects of the new building, further illustrating that opportunities for collaboration and interaction improve employee satisfaction.
Lesson 2: Design features can reduce stress in core working spaces.
Many hospitals are embracing support spaces that enable people to choose how they spend their precious break times. These spaces, both “offstage” (where staff can gather or be alone) and “onstage” (where caregivers see patients), allow staff to spend less time navigating a building and more time recharging.
Loma Linda University Medical Center’s expansion in Southern California boasts an open-core design. It features wide corridors, access to daylight, and the distribution of patient and supply rooms along the wings, which allows staff to connect better with each other and patients. In open-core hospitals, major support functions such as staff lockers, break rooms, and conference rooms are in a centralized hub that connects to patient wings along the exterior. This layout reduces the need for staff to travel between patient and supply rooms, the type of inefficient and repetitive physical tasks that can lead to burnout.
In addition to open-core designs, collaborative clinician rooms — such as the new examination rooms at MGH’s Cambridge Street project, which are sized to allow for multidisciplinary consults — reflect the evolving nature of medicine. Collaborative clinician spaces decrease the load on caregivers and their teams while also providing patients with a new, more effective way to navigate their medical journey.
In the future, these recharging spaces could take different forms, which would acknowledge that everyone refuels in a different way. For instance, because the availability of private spaces has been shown to reduce caregiver stress some hospitals are exploring restorative zones with nap areas for their staff that would be located close to the patient unit for ease of use.
Lesson 3: Good design is ultimately good for business.
Health systems such as Montage Health on the Monterey Peninsula are taking advantage of their less-densely-populated location by incorporating nature into the design of their buildings. For example, Montage’s Ohana Center’s garden-like environment and private patios for staff are designed to lower levels of arousal fatigue — the psychological exhaustion that results from sustained stimulation without breaks. Arousal fatigue is one of the key factors contributing to burnout among behavioral health caregivers, who have an annual turnover rate of 40%.
Other organizations are exploring solutions such as satellite food lockers, mobile ordering apps, and meal programs that offer discounts for nutritious food options. These types of design interventions are investments in staff longevity; they help to reduce stress and encourage positive lifestyle choices, ultimately supporting the mental and physical well-being of the people charged with helping others recuperate.
Behavioral health challenges existed before the pandemic and will persist after it’s over. Consequently, as health care systems navigate the lingering impacts of the pandemic, it’s more important than ever that they shift towards a more caregiver-centric mindset. Only by creating spaces and implementing solutions that promote staff well-being and patient healing at the same time can they effectively retain and recruit staff and reduce the financial impact of burnout and turnover. Designing buildings to enhance employees’ well-being will help keep them satisfied and productive.
Stop Making the Business Case for Diversity
Eighty percent of Fortune 500 companies explain their interest in diversity by making some form of a business case: justifying diversity in the workplace on the grounds that it benefits companies’ bottom line. And yet, in a recent study, the authors found that this approach actually makes underrepresented job candidates a lot less interested in working with an organization. This is because rhetoric that makes the business case for diversity sends a subtle yet impactful signal that organizations view employees from underrepresented groups as a means to an end, ultimately undermining DEI efforts before employers have even had the chance to interact with potential employees. Based on their findings, the authors suggest that if organizations must justify their commitment to diversity, they should do so by making a fairness case — that is, an argument based in moral grounds — but to achieve the best results, they should consider not making any case at all. After all, companies don’t feel the need to explain why they believe in values such as innovation, resilience, or integrity. So why treat diversity any differently?
Most organizations don’t feel the need to explain why they care about core values such as innovation, resilience, or integrity. And yet when it comes to diversity, lengthy justifications of the value of hiring a diverse workforce have become the norm in corporate America and beyond. AstraZeneca’s website, for example, makes a business case for diversity, arguing that “innovation requires breakthrough ideas that only come from a diverse workforce.” Conversely, Tenet Healthcare makes a moral case, noting in its Code of Conduct that “We embrace diversity because it is our culture, and it is the right thing to do.”
These statements may seem innocuous — but our forthcoming research suggests that how an organization talks about diversity can have a major impact on its ability to actually achieve its diversity goals. Through a series of six studies, we explored both the prevalence of different types of diversity rhetoric in corporate communications, and how effective these narratives are when it comes to attracting underrepresented job candidates.
In our first study, we gathered publicly available text from all Fortune 500 companies’ websites, diversity reports, and blogs, and then used a machine learning algorithm to classify the data into one of two categories:
- The “business case” for diversity: a rhetoric that justifies diversity in the workplace on the grounds that it benefits companies’ bottom line
- The “fairness case” for diversity: a rhetoric that justifies diversity on moral grounds of fairness and equal opportunity
We found that the vast majority of organizations — approximately 80% — used the business case to justify the importance of diversity. In contrast, less than 5% used the fairness case. The remainder either did not list diversity as a value, or did so without providing any justification for why it mattered to the organization.
Given its popularity, one might hope that underrepresented candidates would find the business case compelling, and that reading this type of justification for diversity would increase their interest in working with a company. Unfortunately, our next five studies demonstrated the opposite. In these studies, we asked more than 2,500 individuals — including LGBTQ+ professionals, women in STEM fields, and Black American college students — to read messages from a prospective employer’s webpage which made either the business case, the fairness case, or offered no justification for valuing diversity. We then had them report how much they felt like they would belong at the organization, how concerned they were that they would be judged based on stereotypes, and how interested they would be in taking a job there.
So, what did we find? Translated into percentages, our statistically robust findings show that underrepresented participants who read a business case for diversity on average anticipated feeling 11% less sense of belonging to the company, were 16% more concerned that they would be stereotyped at the company, and were 10% more concerned that the company would view them as interchangeable with other members of their identity group, compared to those who read a fairness case. We further found that the detrimental effects of the business case were even starker relative to a neutral message: Compared to those who read neutral messaging, participants who read a business case reported being 27% more concerned about stereotyping and lack of belonging, and they were 21% more concerned they they would be seen as interchangeable. In addition, after seeing a company make a business case, our participants’ perceptions that its commitment to diversity was genuine fell by up to 6% — and all these factors, in turn, made the underrepresented participants less interested in working for the organization.
For completeness, we also looked at the impact of these different diversity cases on well-represented candidates, and found less consistent results. In one experiment, we found that men seeking jobs in STEM fields reported the same anticipated sense of belonging and interest in joining a firm regardless of which type of diversity rationale they read. But when we ran a similar experiment with white student job candidates, we found that as with underrepresented job candidates, those who read a business case also reported a greater fear of being stereotyped and lower anticipated sense of belonging to the firm than those who read a fairness or neutral case, which in turn led them to be less interested in joining it.
Clearly, despite ostensibly positive intentions, making the business case for diversity does not appear to be the best way to attract underrepresented job candidates — and it may even harm well-represented candidates’ perceptions of a prospective employer as well. Why might this be? To answer this question, it’s helpful to examine what the business case actually says.
The business case assumes that underrepresented candidates offer different skills, perspectives, experiences, working styles, etc., and that it is precisely these “unique contributions” that drive the success of diverse companies. This frames diversity not as a moral necessity, but as a business asset, useful only insofar as it bolsters a company’s bottom line. It also suggests that organizations may judge what candidates have to contribute on the basis of their race, gender, sexual orientation, or other identities, rather than based on their actual skills and experience — a stereotyping and depersonalizing approach that undermines candidates’ anticipated sense of belonging.
Ultimately, the business case for diversity backfires because it sends a subtle yet impactful signal that organizations view employees from underrepresented groups as a means to an end (an instrumental framing of diversity). This undermines organizations’ diversity efforts, before they’ve even had any direct interaction with these candidates.
So what should organizations do instead? Our research shows that the fairness case, which presents diversity as an end in itself (i.e., a non-instrumental framing of diversity), is a lot less harmful than the business case — in our studies, it halved the negative impact of the business case. But there’s another option that may be even better and simpler: Don’t justify your commitment to diversity at all. Across our studies, we found that people felt more positive about a prospective employer after reading a fairness case than after reading a business case — but they felt even better after reading a neutral case, in which diversity was simply stated as a value, without any explanation.
When we share this suggestion with executives, they sometimes worry about what to do if they’re asked “why” after they state a commitment to diversity with no justification. It’s an understandable question, especially in a world that has so normalized prioritizing the business case over all else — but it has a simple answer. If you don’t need an explanation for the presence of well-represented groups in the workplace beyond their expertise, then you don’t need a justification for the presence of underrepresented groups either.
It may seem counterintuitive, but making a case for diversity (even if it’s a case grounded in a moral argument) inherently implies that valuing diversity is up for discussion. You don’t have to explain why you value innovation, resilience, or integrity. So why treat diversity any differently?
Gen Z Employees Are Feeling Disconnected. Here’s How Employers Can Help.
Amidst rising inflation, crippling student debt, unaffordable housing, rounds of layoffs, a lingering pandemic, and a looming recession, many young workers have reached a breaking point. New data from Sapien Labs’ Mental Health Million Project, which surveyed 48,000 young adults age 18–24 across 34 nations, reveals that mental health struggles among younger generations have accelerated and worsened throughout the pandemic. Data published in Sapien Labs’ May 2022 Rapid Report, “The Deteriorating Social Self in Younger Generations,” shows that nearly half of young adults experienced mental health decline during the pandemic’s second year, and that the ability to relate to and interact with others has been seriously impaired in over half of young adults across the world.
The disintegration of the “social self” in young people should be a wakeup call for workplace leaders. As the report notes:
[T]he ability to relate to and interact with others effectively has been crucial for human cooperation and the building of our modern world…It is also only through repeated interactions with others that we build the friendships and other relationships that establish our place in the social fabric. From feeling detached from reality to avoidance and withdrawal and suicidal thoughts, these symptoms represent the extreme of disconnection from or a failure to integrate into the social fabric.
It is imperative that leaders and managers do more to connect and support young employees in these volatile times, not only as a means of engaging the next generation of talent, but as an investment in a collaborative future. Here are four commitments your company can make to support an increasingly vulnerable generation.
1. Put mental health front and center
According to LinkedIn, 66% of Gen Z want a company culture built on mental health and wellness. Dr. Emily Anhalt, PsyD, cofounder and chief clinical officer of Coa, the online gym for mental health, told me that leaders must walk the walk — if leadership is not prioritizing their mental health, no one else will either. Wellable Labs’ 2022 Employee Wellness Industry Trends Report found that 90% of employers reported increasing their investment in mental health programs, 76% increased investment in stress management and resilience programs, and 71% increased investment in mindfulness and meditation programs.
A culture built on mental health and wellness goes beyond offering a meditation app; it infuses mental health throughout the organization through policies and programs that take care of your people. Dr. Anhalt recommends making sure your benefits plan covers things like therapy, or a stipend for mental health services. She also recommends hosting mental health experiences like Coa’s therapist-led emotional fitness class and gathering frequent feedback about what employees need to show up as their healthiest selves.
Putting mental health front and center might look like offering competitive pay (commensurate with rising inflation), paid time off and expanded family leave policies, childcare subsidies and services, elder care support and parent support groups, and additional compensation for ERG and DEI-focused work. It also might mean doing more to address employee burnout and exhaustion: doubling down on flexible work policies, testing a four-day week pilot program, establishing “Friday rest days,” “Meeting Free days,” and “Do Not Disturb hours,” ensuring that employees have more time to rest and recharge.
2. Make onboarding a community-building exercise
Employee onboarding is your opportunity to showcase what a culture of mutual support and well-being looks like to new recruits. In a survey by BambooHR, over 80% of employees who rated their onboarding experience highly continue to hold their organizations in high regard, have higher role clarity, and feel strongly committed to their jobs. For many young employees, onboarding might be their first or second experience ever in a professional setting. It is incredibly important, especially in a remote or hybrid workforce, that onboarding establish a container of mutual support. Onboarding is less about delivering information about your company, and more about allowing new employees to get to know each other and ask questions in a safe and supportive setting. Onboarding isn’t the time to talk through a 234-page training manual. Onboarding is a community-building exercise where employees can make a new friend.
Onboarding might involve a shadowing exercise, where new hires shadow a co-worker for a day and see how their colleague actually does their job; a speed-friending exercise, where new hires meet managers across the organization; a personal purpose exercise, where new hires gain a better understanding of their personal goals; or a play exercise like improv, where new hires get comfortable trying new things and laughing in front of each other. One example of an unconventional but highly effective onboarding activity, offered both in-person and virtually, is Late Nite Art: a collaborative learning experience involving live art and music that incorporates risk-taking, deep conversations, and collaborative problem solving. Companies like Headspace, Southwest Airlines, and Accenture have used Late Nite Art to help employees go outside their comfort zone and get to know their colleagues in a meaningful way.
While virtual onboarding can be done successfully, it requires even more attention to designing for human connection. With alarming new data showing young employees’ increased loneliness and deteriorating “social self,” companies should consider the benefits that come from in-person onboarding and the monumental value that a strong first impression can have for Gen Z workers.
3. Support young talent with coaching
According to Glint’s 2021 Employee Well-Being Report, having opportunities to learn and grow is now the number one factor that people say defines an exceptional work environment. An essential tool for learning and development is cross-organization mentorship and sponsorship, which makes it easier for next-gen talent to secure personal and professional development and promotion opportunities.
One successful example is DoorDash’s Elevate Program, a career accelerator designed specifically for women of color. Participants, known as “fellows,” engage in a six-month cohort experience that includes one-on-one coaching sessions with an external executive coach, career workshops, attendance at leadership meetings, and executive sponsor meetings with C-suite members. Within six months of completing the program, 38% of fellows earned promotions, a significant increase compared to their non-Elevate peers. As Gayle Allen and Bie Aweh write in Harvard Business Review, a career accelerator program’s success depends on getting genuine buy-in from senior leadership and managers.
Another way to support young talent is peer coaching, “a process in which two colleagues help each other reflect on experiences, offer support, build skills, and match their work to their sense of purpose.” In its 2022 Workforce Purpose Index, the peer coaching platform Imperative found that nearly half (46%) of those surveyed said they are finding it difficult to make work friends, and more than half (57%) said their managers are not helping.
In a peer coaching program with WebMD Health Services, written up in Strategy+business, 150 employees took an assessment to help them discover what gives them a strong sense of purpose. Peer-coaching platform Imperative then matched people with similar purpose drivers across the organization. The pairs of workers met every two weeks for an hour-long conversation over video with prompts that asked them to engage in deeper conversations regarding their experience and well-being. Imperative’s data shows that the overwhelming majority of participants (89%) in such programs develop meaningful connections. According to Andrea Herron, head of people at WebMD Health Services, and Aaron Hurst, CEO and cofounder of Imperative, peer coaching has helped participants build relationships beyond their paired peer coach, encouraging participants to take actions that help build relationships with others on their team and employees outside of their own team or department.
4. Trade screen time for connection time
Sapien Labs’ report notes that pandemic-era declines in “social self” mirror an acceleration of a trend that began in 2010, and research by psychologist Jean Twenge and her colleagues shows this trend strongly correlates with the growth of smartphone usage and social media.
The implications of these findings are alarming, since the pandemic has ushered in the necessity — and popularity — of remote and hybrid work, requiring more even more screen time for young workers (and workers of all ages). On the one hand, the vast majority of Gen Z employees (77%) prefer flexible work policies; on the other, they miss in-person face-to-face connection and feel like they are missing out on potential mentorship and career development opportunities by not being in physical proximity of their manager or coworkers.
For an example of trying to strike a balance between a flexible work arrangement and in-person connection, see Airbnb’s recent announcement that employees can live and work from anywhere (and still be paid the same salary), as well as expect to gather in person every quarter for about a week at a time. In-person, offline gatherings are critical — especially for new employee onboarding and team retreats. Monthly, quarterly, or annual team retreats at office hubs or offsite locations should prioritize team building and human connection activities over PowerPoint shares and executive strategy presentations.
According to Cigna, employees who say they have colleagues they like eating lunch with, or have a best friend at work, or have more phone calls and in-person conversations with their coworkers are less lonely on the UCLA Loneliness Scale. Leaders should remember the power of picking up the phone and calling their team members (over sending an email, messaging them on Slack, or scheduling yet another Zoom meeting), and whenever possible, make time to see colleagues for coffee, lunch, or a walk. Taking five minutes at start of your weekly team meeting to do a well-being check-in (and listening to how people are doing and what they need) matters. Employees who feel like they can “leave work at work” are seven points less lonely on the UCLA Loneliness Scale. When in doubt, think about ways you can help employees spend less time on their screens and more time connecting face-to-face with their friends, family, and community.
In these overwhelming times, if you want to attract, retain, and engage young workers, and workers across generations, you must put human connection first.