It isn’t easy being messy. The world is full of neat freaks who know better than me. My desk is disorganised. They don’t know how I cope. I’m constantly having to sift through boxes of paper. If only my handwriting were neater. My hair needs cutting. How does this fit with our process? It would help if I could start at the beginning… Good lord these people never stop.

And there’s (almost) a common-sense logic to what they say. Isn’t all that mess a barrier to productivity and creative thinking? Doesn’t it all get in the way? Neater is easier you know.

This is all a sort of nudge. Employers are adept at nudging people. Putting false deadlines in your diary is a good example. It works. And it avoids problems. And the well-known auto-enrolment pension policy has been a success when measured by numbers of people with a pension. And there are any number of nudges involved in recruitment: request a call back rather than submit a CV; refer a friend and we’ll give you £500 on hiring… There are also impressive studies about using nudge to improve gender diversity.

There are, broadly, two sorts of nudge at work. Control nudges and choice nudges. And most office nudging is done in the name of control. But perhaps the bigger gains are to be made if nudging was used to encourage choice and – dare I say it – mess.

As you think about implementing an Employer Brand companies should think about how they nudge. How can control and choice nudges be used to improve the brand experience, make people productive and get more creative thinking?

A little mess can be good for you

Control nudges are often done in the service of the tyranny of the tidy. But mess can be efficient and lead to more interesting results. It’s often said, for example, that filing emails is better than not filing them. But there’s evidence to the contrary. 

Tim Harford reports on research comparing people who filed emails with people who just search their archive. That research found the messy approach more effective.

‘it took four times as long to find emails using the painstaking-to-set-up system than it did using the “archive and forget” system. Nor were “filers” any more likely to find the email they were looking for than “searchers”.’

The original paper even describes the supposedly more organized people as ‘inefficient’. Ouch.

And mess can be productive in other ways. During the 2014 tube strike thousands of people took new routes to work. About 5% stuck with those new routes once the strike was overAmazingly,

‘the strike actually ended up producing a net economic benefit. By performing a cost-benefit analysis of the amount of time saved by those who changed their daily commute, the researchers found that the amount of time saved in the longer term actually outweighed the time lost by commuters during the strike.’

No-one advocates enforced strikes at work (although I’m up for it). But they show the role of mess in innovation and efficiency. Example of this sort of nudges could be to have a set of disruption cards on everyone’s desk, like the Oblique Strategies used by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt.

Companies could have autonomy days, where no one can check anything with a superior – they just have to decide. Or, for the daring, a one-manager rule: if there’s a senior manager involved, no others can be consulted. Why not give everyone a budget to redecorate their office space? Put free noise cancelling headphone in breakout areas. Abolish emails. Let people work only the hours they need to, no salary implications.

Nudge people outside the box

The idea is to promote control by the individual. Think of it as nudging people to think outside the box, rather than nudging them be tidier.  Tim Harford discusses this is his book Messy.

‘The best workplaces aren't sterile, but they're not creative by command, either. Instead, they're the places where you can put stuff where you want and have control over your own work. You can choose to focus and shut out distractions, or you can switch to a different task when you're stuck. That's what makes a quiet abode perfect for deep work — and why your messy desk might not actually be a problem at all.’

There is a literature showing that choice is crucial, particularly over your work space. As this HBR article explains, Facebook is a prime example of using choice-based nudges rather than control nudges. As well as being able to control the height and layout of their desks, Facebook employees can create their own workspaces, move the desks around, and use the many, many meeting spaces. They get a huge choice about how they use their time.

‘Facebook offers a range of options to employees for managing their personal lives and time, ranging from the transactional (banks, cleaners) to the social (restaurants, arcades) and those that lie somewhere in between (woodshop, studio). This additional layer of choice may not seem immediately work-related, but the ability to create and control one’s entire day as the needs of work dictate puts employees squarely in control of their own time management, productivity and processes.  This has been shown to lead to greater organizational productivity and suggests that meeting an employee’s need for autonomy can influence motivation and performance.

I’ve added the emphasis. Not to advocate that all employers do all of this, but to show that trying to nudge your employees to be efficient in the way that a typically well-organised person is will have some benefits, but the bigger prize is knowing that choice can beat control – whether that’s over your desk, your use of time or your working hours.

Remove barriers, don't put rules in the way

It used to be common place to say that businesses are not like markets. Markets are spontaneous, emergent things where order is organic. Businesses are linear, organised things where order is prescribed, usually by the entrepreneur at the top. But just like the wider economy, a business is increasingly understood as an emergent order. To get the benefits of that, and attract the right people, nudges need to be more choice based. In the new company, choice is the way you get the best performance from people. And the most creativity. Make their lives easier.

'If you want to get people to do something, make it easier.' So says Richard Thaler who just won the Nobel prize for his work on behavioural economics and the nudge concept. ‘Remove the barriers.’ Isn’t that what you always hear at work? We need to remove the barriers and bureaucracy.

Problem is, most companies are very unwilling (and, in some senses, unable) to remove barriers. Barriers are seen as necessary. Or safe. And they are so obvious an example of Something Useful That Has Been Done. Thinking about the result and then removing barriers might be better all round. But it wouldn’t cover any arses or fill any agendas. But you’d probably get more done and better.

Nudge science can inform brand experience and encourage innovative thinking

Behavioral science has worked well in some areas of public policy. Surely the best way companies can try to deliver an Employer Brand is to have a company nudge unit. Autonomy is key to productivity and affects the whole employee experience.

Why not hire a behavioral scientist on a contract and get them to advise how to remove barriers to entry to setting up the unit in the first place? That way everyone's concerns are considered and you can start small. Even better, get them to find solutions for the people who are in charge of the barriers. Start with a prevention nudge and then move into the engagement.

Business talk about disruption. Well, this would be disruption. And disruption isn’t tidy. It means stepping away from the rules. It requires a jolt. As one of Eno’s Oblique Strategy cards says: ‘Discard an axiom’. (Another card says ‘Use 'unqualified' people’ – that’s a whole other article.)

Have any companies set up Behavioural Insights units, to engage people properly?

Should yours?

If you'd like to talk more about this article or you have any questions regarding how you can improve employer branding at your company, do get in touch: I'd love to hear from you.