Ron Friedman, PhD, is an award-winning social psychologist who specializes in human motivation. He has served on the faculty of the University of Rochester, Nazareth College, and Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and he is the founder of ignite80, a consulting firm that helps smart leaders build extraordinary workplaces. His book, The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace, comes out today.

1MFWF: What exactly is the science of workplace excellence, and how did you become interested in this field?

Ron: Over the last few decades, researchers in the fields of psychology, economics, and management have collected powerful insights on how we can all work more effectively. Unfortunately, most of these findings remain trapped in library stacks, collecting dust on university bookshelves.

For many years, I studied human motivation in the lab and taught at colleges and universities. I wanted a new challenge, so I left academics for the corporate world. When I got there, I noticed something unexpected. Many of the findings that researchers had been writing about for years—important discoveries about creativity, motivation, and how we achieve top performance—were being overlooked.

It was certainly not for a lack of interest—every smart leader I know wants to build an extraordinary company. It’s because the insights are buried in layers of academic jargon. I wrote The Best Place To Work to make thousands of research findings both accessible and actionable, giving everyone who works in an office proven techniques for improving the way they work.

1MFWF: You note that we should view exercise as part of our job. How can something that takes us away from our desks be considered work?

Ron: There’s a business a case for giving employees the flexibility they need to exercise. Studies show that regular exercise improves concentration, boosts memory, and elevates creativity. In other words, it makes us better at our jobs.

One study I discuss in the book examined the impact of exercising either before work or during lunch. The findings were striking. On days when employees visited the gym, their experience at work changed. They managed their time more effectively, had smoother interactions with colleagues, and reported greater productivity.

Regular exercise has also been shown to improve mood, which is critical to top performance. If your job involves fostering collaborations or interacting with customers, feeling irritable is no longer simply an inconvenience. It can directly influence the degree to which you are successful.

1MFWF: Work flexibility is often marginalized as an accommodation for workers who are juggling caretaking with breadwinning (working parents, for example). But there’s a much bigger issue at play: control. How are work flexibility and control linked, and why does that matter?

Ron:  It’s remarkable how much research there is showing that flexibility yields positive results. There’s clear evidence that granting employees flexibility over where and when they work yields greater commitment, productivity, and engagement.

Sure, flexibility allows employees to resolve critical personal matters, but there’s far more to why it matters. We have decades of studies showing that people are happier, healthier, and more productive when the feel autonomous. It’s because autonomy is a basic psychological need. The more autonomous we feel, the more likely we are to be engaged.

Placing employees in control of their schedules also encourages them to work during hours when they are most effective, instead of requiring them to sit comatose in front of a computer because it’s not yet 5:00 p.m.

1MFWF: Employees often feel helpless to change the culture at their workplace if they aren’t in a leadership position. Will they learn tips from your book that can help them make change, even if they aren’t in charge?

Ron:  I wrote this book not just for the people at the top, but for emerging leaders who want data-driven insights for improving their own productivity and lifting their team’s performance. Regardless of where you sit on your company’s org chart, if you are interested in reaching smarter workplace decisions, having better colleague relationships, and making yourself indispensable to your company, this book can help.

We talked earlier about exercise and that’s a great example. In a chapter called “Why You Should Be Paid to Play,” I lay out the evidence for why companies should empower their employees to exercise by providing more flexibility. I then offer some suggestions for incorporating exercise when going to the gym is not an option, including using wireless headsets to move around during extended conference calls, and scheduling walking meetings with a coworker instead of settling for a conference room.

1MFWF: Your book draws on thousands of academic studies about the workplace. If so much research on this topic exists, why do you think so many organizations continue to hold onto outdated models and policies?

Ron: Because the business world and the academic world rarely communicate. Let’s face it: Senior leaders don’t have time to pore over journal articles.

I do suspect, however, that in the coming years the appetite for research-based insights about the workplace will grow. As a society, we’ve become a lot more savvy about the ways data-driven insights can deliver critical insights.

Before Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, baseball teams were desperate for home-run hitters. After looking at the data, they realized that having more home-run hitters doesn’t always translate into more wins. What does is having players with a high on-base percentage. That fundamentally changed the sport.

Today, every major sports team has analytics experts. It wouldn’t surprise me to see organizations interested in top workplace performance moving in the same direction.

For too long, we’ve relied on assumptions when it comes to improving our workplaces. Which is why it’s helpful to know there are decades of research we can turn to. We don’t have to guess.

Learn more about Ron’s new book:

photo credit: Ron Friedman