This article has been written by Parthajeet Sarma. He is a Chevening scholar (Oxford University), writer, award-winning innovator and entrepreneur. 15 years out of his over two decades of work experience, has been as an entrepreneur. Set up in 2003, iDream has metamorphosed to be a boutique strategic management consultancy, handholding change management in corporate organisations, by following a unique method of using ‘space’ as the starting point of innovation. His third book ‘The radically changing nature of Work, Workers & Workplaces’ released in June 2018.
This article first appeared on LinkedIn on June 26, 2018
I have known the effervescent Bhavna for many years. Over the last few years I have seen her become more energetic, and in fact even more beautiful than before. Can you guess her age? During a freewheeling chat with her, it became quite obvious that exercise does not only give you a great body, but it can boost one’s productivity levels many times over. In corporate organizations, it is no more about ‘throwing in a games room’ to keep the workers happy; but a lot more serious than that.
In between consulting clients on workspaces, I like to write. Sometimes I get to a state of flow. But then, there have also been times when I get stuck. Words do not flow, and I cannot do much about it. These are those times when, however hard you think through a problem at hand, you cannot find a path to move forward. This not only happens when writing, but one is faced with that stuck feeling during day-to-day activities as well. It happens at home, it happens when one is working on a proposal submission with a tough deadline. When this happens, I usually get up and go for a brisk walk or for a jog, if the circumstances permit. Miraculously, in most instances, the block gets removed and things become crystal clear. It is like the lights turning on in a dark room.
In the collaboration economy of the twenty first century, the greatest human asset is the brain. Author of Brain Rules, John Medina, says that people who are physically active score better on cognitive tests than people living a sedentary lifestyle. In a clinical trial run by the Body-Brain Performance Institute in association with Swinburne’s University and Brain Sciences Institute, there was a clear link established between physical fitness, brain function and reduced stress levels at work. An ‘exercised’ test group of participants showed a marked improvement in mood and cognition, with a four percent increase in overall brain function. When the brain is performing at full capacity, one can focus, concentrate, and make better decisions, all essential if creative and innovation are desired outcomes.
As workers spend most of their waking hours at work, organizations across the world are creating opportunities for workers to remain physically active. These include gyms at the workplace, walkways, jogging tracks and other active sports.
If I turn the clock back by about four decades, I am reminded of a time when I grew up in a much greener planet. As a child, I recall instances when we would come across snakes during hikes to the nearby hills. The instant reaction in spotting a snake would be to run. There was no time or knowledge to analyse if the snake was venomous or not.
If you could get on a time machine and turn the clock back by millions of years, you will see that our ancestors had the constant threat of becoming lunch for much larger predators. In front of such predators, man often had to choose between fighting the imminent danger or to run away from it. This is called the fight or flight response or the acute stress response, and was first described by Walter Bradford Cannon. According to him, there occurs a general discharge of the sympathetic nervous system, preparing one to fight or flee. All body systems shunt blood to the muscles and brain. It shunts blood away from the digestive system. During stress in the modern day context, one may sometimes feel like throwing up. That is because the blood gets diverted from the digestive system, leaving little time and resources to digest food.
Your breathing will increase so that you are taking in more oxygen for the muscles to work at their best. It will even make you breathe hard before contact. You may be so badly frightened by the situation that you may wet your pants or even defecate. And why would that help? It actually decreases extra body weight that you will have to carry if you decide to run away. Every little bit may make the difference. Your adrenalin levels will rise. This is the reason behind the jittery feeling that you may get. Your pupils will get larger as your brain tries to see as much as possible.
The modern day equivalent of predators hiding in the grasslands and jumping at you could be someone hiding in a dark room and shouting, “Boo!” as you enter. Your body will yell at you to “run or fight!”; else you die. Although today’s workers do not have too many predators waiting at street corners, they are faced with stress from a barrage of emails, deadlines, phone calls and bosses. On top of that, there is way too much information being fed onto one’s lives, thanks to social networking, internet, television and instant messaging. These ensure that one is bombarded with a lot of bad news during the day. The combination of these along with work related pressure, leads to acute stress. Our bodies are designed to respond with a physiological response when under stress. Without it, one runs the risk of suffering from high anxiety and depression.
When one exercises, the mood gets a high due to the release of endorphins in the bloodstream. The increased blood flow to the brain sharpens one’s awareness. The brain also gets ready to absorb and process more information. Exercise enhances your body’s ability to transfer glucose and oxygen throughout your brain and body, thus increasing your energy level.
I was once part of a leadership development program for workers of a client organization. Although I was called in for a half-day workshop session, I got the opportunity to spend some quality time with participants beyond my assigned time. Participants were made to start the day early with various forms of exercise like yoga, walking and strength training. After a few days of ‘working out’ early, the participants were clearly more focused and engaged; and they did not suffer from the post lunch sloth. Our client mentioned that this group of participants could retain more concepts compared to participants in similar programs in the past, which had not included the early morning exercise regime. Exercise improves alertness and focus. It does ultimately improve job performance.
Fully equipped gyms are increasingly being made part of new workplaces. Where space is a constraint to do this, workers are given gym memberships in the neighbourhood. In the campuses of Infosys in India, Apple Park and Googleplex in California, workers are encouraged to cycle from one department to another or simply to ‘go cycling’ every once in a while. Good quality wireless headphones also enable workers to participate in conference calls while taking a stroll in the campus garden.
The importance of design, from a holistic perspective, cannot be understated. In times when space is a mix of the physical and digital, it is no more about styling. Design influences what we think, the way we feel and the decisions we make. It is crucial for management to take cognizance of this reality and look at this new idea of space as an extension of the organization’s ethos. This new space is like the exoskeleton of what the heart of the organization is; both need to sync and work in harmony to achieve a state of flow in business.