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Why your boss likes the cold, even if you hate it

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist
The Exchange
Why your boss likes the cold, even if you hate it

While you’ve been freezing this winter, chances are you’ve also been doing something else you may not be aware of -- giving your employer improved bang for the buck.

New research by Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino shows that workers are more productive when the weather is lousy, and conversely, more distracted when the weather is nice. You may assume the opposite, as if balmy weather inspires people to be in a better mood and work harder, while rain or snow gives them the workplaces blahs. But Gino found it was the other way around.

She started with data from a Tokyo bank, one that had already been tracking its workers’ productivity, as it evaluated the effectiveness of a new mortgage-processing system. During a two-and-a-half-year period, bank workers tackled about 600,000 individual data-entry tasks, which the bank was able to analyze to determine when the work was done quickly with a high degree of accuracy, and when it was done more sloppily.

Gino then gathered data on the daily weather patterns in Tokyo during that time period, which varied considerably. Tokyo has a fairly mild climate, but temperatures still range from an average of about 40 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter to 82 in the summer. And of course there’s rain, snow and occasional stifling humidity, just as in many U.S. cities.

It turned out that workers were more productive when extreme hot or cold drove people indoors. It was the same with low visibility, typically associated with rain or snow. When the weather was calm and agreeable, by contrast, productivity fell. During nice weather, it took workers 1.3% longer to complete a typical transaction.

You can probably guess what's going on. Most likely, good weather makes people think of many other things besides work, whether they're daydreaming of being outside or perhaps even stepping out more frequently for breaks. Workers may focus better on the task at hand during bad weather when they have no desire to be outside and aren’t busy making plans for a picnic in the park after work.

The productivity gap between good and bad weather isn’t huge, yet companies try a lot of other things to boost worker productivity -- moving desks around, sponsoring team-building events, giving performance awards -- that might be less effective than a good rainstorm. Of course, there’s not much CEOs can do to influence the weather (though Oracle chief Larry Ellison might be working on some software to fix that problem).

Gino's research suggests that companies in harsh climates might be more productive than companies in the Atlantas or San Diegos of the world. Yet a lot of people who’ve been braving this winter’s brutal cold in Minneapolis or Chicago or Cleveland are now coping with one huge distraction, that being the urge to move someplace warmer. For now people -- button up your coats and get back to work.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success . Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.