From the importance of a lunch break to the value of laughter — Bruce took us through practical lessons for better and more creative workplace cultures, drawing from his new book.

Bruce Daisley is a man on a mission — to change the world of work. By day Bruce is European Vice-President for Twitter. At the same time, he hosts one of the most popular business podcasts around: Eat Sleep Work Repeat, inviting a brilliant array of entrepreneurs, authors and academics to share their gudiance making work more rewarding, energising and fit for the modern world.

In his new book, The Joy of Work, he's brought it all together — setting out a series of ways to “fix your work culture and fall in love with your job again”, and on the morning of 22nd February, Bruce visited to talk us through the thinking in the book, convincing us to put it into practice and taking our questions on our own working challenges.

Here’s what we learned:

A broken system

Bruce has seen first-hand how workplace cultures can fluctuate, peak and plateau, and it was when he tried to find reasons for the changes that he became interested in workplace psychology. He immediately found that, despite there having been a huge amount of research done, that  “what we do is not what science says we should do”. The most obvious example of this is the ubiquity of open plan offices, which have actually been proven to hinder productivity and relationships (“the end result is 56% of people say they don’t like their colleagues anymore”). Bruce’s own research and personal experiences inform The Joy of Work, which he says he wrote, “not for bosses”, but for those who can see “the system is broken”: to give readers an insight into systems for better working environments.

Inbox angst

Bruce was quick to address one of the biggest pain points and contradictions of modern work: email. He recalled the arrival of mobile email, which held the promise of “more time” and freedom to respond on the go. In reality, all it has done is increase the average working day from 7.5 to 9.5 hours, with half of those checking their emails in that extra two-hour period showing “the highest recordable levels of stress”. Part of the problem is that we now use email for everything, often where a phone conversation or face-to-face interaction would be more efficient, effective and energising. The solutions for reducing email burden are not clear-cut, as Bruce has discovered. With some companies now bringing in “email curfews”, during which emails are disabled or cannot be sent, Bruce fears that it is just another example of how workplace culture “turns us into infants and takes any sense of autonomy away from us”. He points out that, if it takes logging in on a Saturday morning to do some inbox damage-control so that Monday morning is less stressful, then it should be a choice to do so and not an obligation.

Positive affect

A major and astonishingly prevalent problem we have at work is a sense of disengagement. In his book, Bruce writes: “many of us don’t love what we do, and we feel exhausted trying.” In the UK, only 8% of us claim to be engaged in our jobs. And yet, as proven by the research of “Positive Affect” pioneer, Alice M. Isen, engagement and the mood we are in are driving factors in our productivity and performance. People who are connected to the work they are doing are more likely to produce better work, in the same way that donations to a scholarship “increase threefold” when donors meet the recipients of a scholarship. Some of Isen’s experiments took place in hospitals, where doctors who were “put in a state of positive affect” (given a gift) and asked to review case notes were more thorough in their work and more “open to embrace other possibilities” than those who weren’t given a gift. “Positive affect leads to helping, generosity, and interpersonal understanding.” Bruce makes the distinction between positive affect and being in a good mood – while a good mood could be the result of nice weather or a good result for your football team, “you may feel positive affect without quite knowing what triggered it.” 

Psychological safety

Another pillar of Bruce’s book is the concept of “psychological safety” and the interplay between it and positive affect. He explained how we “self-moderate” at work, particularly in meetings: if you’ve ever felt exhausted after a day of meetings, it might be in part because you are offering a version of yourself, in the same way “your mum has a phone voice”. Bruce believes that “the closer you can get to who you truly are”, the better you perform and the less stressed you feel. In order for people to feel they can be themselves in a meeting, voicing their ideas without the fear of saying the wrong thing or making mistakes, there needs to be a level of psychological safety. This rarely occurs in large meetings, so Bruce is an advocate of reducing your meeting sizes to give people the best chance of sharing their honest opinions.

Foiled by fear

Bruce shared some of his favourite psychological tests done with rats, including one that proves the importance of feeling safe. He pointed out that, if you were to narrowly escape being run over by a bus, your brain would be consumed by fear and self-preservation, rather than creativity. Our brain’s most dominant system is the “fear system”, which overrides other brain processes. For rats, when they sense a predator, all instances of “seeking behaviours” (equivalent to human creativity) drop from 50 to 0, with lasting impact: even when the threat has been lifted, creativity still occurs at a reduced rate. “Stress kills our capacity to be routinely creative – it’s urgent that we change this.” 

The productivity myth

But what if you are someone who responds well to a bit of stress? Bruce acknowledges that time pressure has been linked to increased productivity, but that our brains “are finite” and when we are pushed to the limits, our performance and the quality of our work sharply decrease.

“Sometimes our way of working isn’t actually how our brains work.” Neuroscientists believe our brain is split into three networks: the executive attention network (actions, like unlocking a door, or slicing an onion), the salience network (making predictions) and “default mode” – also known as daydreaming – “when most of our creative thinking happens”. With this in mind, long hours do not necessarily equate to increased productivity: “there are only so many decisions we can make every day.”

The flexibility myth

In theory, working trends like flexibility and remote working should cater to creativity, but Bruce explains that often, while “the principle of flexibility is good, the experience is bad”. Those who work from home have “stress levels 70% higher than those in an office”; we spend a lot of time managing uncertainty, and remote working means we are often unable to predict and forecast outcomes. The nomad life – or hot-desking – raises stress levels, while the absence of in-person interactions can severely harm office morale and energy levels. “We get a lot of our energy from being around other people, even introverts,” Bruce told us. “When we feel a connection, a synchronization with others, we change our behaviours.” Working from home means “you lose the energy of face-to-face interactions” at the cost of the quality of the work.

Solutions that seek a balance

At Twitter, Bruce tells us, they do a “no-meeting” Thursday, and the option is there to work from home or in-office. Bruce suggests core office hours – set hours each day during which you have to be in the office, to prevent the perils of remote working: “people just doing their job and nothing else.” Where do the ever-prevalent workspaces fit into the flexibility debate? Bruce agrees that “when you put people in a nicer building you do see an improvement in work,” but it can be difficult to establish and nurture a company culture in an environment where multiple other cultures exist. To avoid conflicts of interests, Bruce advises that companies “create spaces for people to share” as well as spaces in which to find focus and do their “deep work”. 

The best medicine

We finished on a lighter note, with Bruce’s strong advocacy of laughter in the workplace: “it’s an incredible coping mechanism. Especially in times of adversity – it creates affinity”. He claims that it “boosts creativity by a third”, and allows us “to build trust among teams”. The crucial part of laughter is that it’s “not always about what’s funny”, rather “an act of synchronising, connecting on a human level.” 

All photography Sam Bush.

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