Choosing to Digitally Nudge

Opportunities and Challenges

For many, the work floor is digital. Documents, spreadsheets, e-mails, browsers and other software tools impact hugely on employee productivity and wellbeing. They can slow down work and cause frustration but, when designed well, can also make for happier and more productive employees. As such, they are key environments for companies to continue to adjust. When designing and engineering digital work environments, companies should think in detail about their intentions, as well as about the subtler impacts on employees.

Nudging: For Better or Worse

The insight that ‘choice architectures’ – the ways in which choices and information are presented and framed 1 – predictably influence people’s behavior is relevant for businesses. By redesigning those environments, companies can nudge their employees, for example: to work longer or shorter hours, adopt specific pension plans or exercise more 2. Companies are already nudging their employees to eat healthier (by changing the way in which snack foods and drinks are presented) 3 and to take the stairs more often (by installing footprint stickers for you to follow) 4. It is time that they start thinking more closely about how to redesign digital work environments as well.

In doing so, they need to remember that digital choice architecture can go wrong as well. For example, employees could forget to update security software on their laptops, leaving the company vulnerable to threats. E-mail notifications and other communication alerts pop up constantly, distracting employees from the task at hand, leaving them frustrated as a result. The same goes for social media and other online distractions. Although working from home can be a great option, it is also notorious for blurring the work/life boundary and upsetting the balance that employees need 5.

Companies can address these issues by offering employees support in the form of information and tips, but these are often ineffective and impose additional cognitive burdens. We all know about those 15-page manuals about how to change a program setting. Companies might resort to more coercive measures, such as blocking the use of social media platforms on work laptops, but this may come across as excessive or be interpreted as a sign of distrust.

That is why nudging, deliberately designing environments with an eye to influencing people’s behavior, is so interesting. Re-engineering environments will often work much better than simply sending information to each employee. It is less intrusive than more coercive measures and can avoid overburdening employees. Additionally, nudges can help improve effectiveness, reduce frustration, increase employee wellbeing and improve work/life balance.

The Techniques of Digital Nudging

Given the multitude of possible digital nudges, companies should be careful exploring the options available to them. Let’s consider two kinds of digital nudges: introducing smart defaults, for example when it comes to software settings, and making information more salient. (Those interested in more examples of digital nudges can find them here: 6 7 8 9.)

People usually stick to default settings, though for different reasons. They may be complacent, suffer from the status quo bias (implicitly thinking that the default is the best option), or be reluctant to spend time evaluating a multitude of different options. As such, defaults tend to have a much stronger impact than mere recommendations. Yet, despite their force, default settings still respect freedom of choice and enable employees to opt out.

A company could change the default settings of its e-mail software, withholding notifications, except for very urgent messages. If the company suffers from too many long, boring and inefficient meetings, it might change the default duration of scheduled meetings from 60 to 40 minutes. Changing this default digitally will reduce unnecessary meeting time and increase both productivity and work enjoyment. Or, turn one day in the week into a ‘no-meeting’ day. Even if employees can diverge from this default (e.g. by clicking a button ‘I still need to schedule a meeting on this day’), it inevitably won’t happen very often.

Messages from the company could turn into nudges if the information is presented in a timely, salient and vivid way. The nudge here lies not in the provision of information but in how that information is framed. Making information visually salient and easily digestible increases the uptake by employees and has a bigger impact on their behavior. For example, your software could send a light-hearted reminder after about 8 hours of work to announce that the working day is almost over. A prompt could include a message thanking employees for their efforts and visually summarize the time spent and work done on specific projects.

Digital time management systems can enable employees to prioritize tasks, and increase attention, productivity and wellbeing. The ‘pomodoro technique’, for example, keeps you focused on your work using a 25-minute timer and a system of visualizing priorities. It encourages regular breaks, visualizes achievements and makes employees aware of how much time they are spending on specific tasks. This way, it helps employees plan and prioritize their work and avoid procrastination 10. The timely and salient feedback provided by these and other productivity planners, along with the ‘gamification’ of work they involve, can help in keeping the employees motivated and make them feel good about themselves, rather than worried, at the end of their day 11.

Good Practice

Why do we consider these to be good examples of digital nudges? What lessons should you bear in mind if you plan to redesign your company’s digital environments?

Good digital nudges are effective and actually have a positive impact on employee wellbeing.

Good digital nudges make for happy colleagues. If you know your employees are bored in meetings, nudges towards shorter meeting times make it easier for them to do what they always wanted to do, cut them short. Instead of making undesirable behavior more difficult, as social or formal sanctions do, they make desirable behavior easier.

Good digital nudges can help to align employees’ behavior with their personal goals and values. Most employees on bigger projects want to work without being distracted all the time. When companies can enable employees to clarify and set their own goals, and help set up nudges that facilitate achieving those goals, these nudges leave employees’ autonomy intact 12. After all, they do not reduce the control employees have over their own actions and priorities.

Good digital nudges are also transparent. Companies should be open about the nudging techniques they use and the goals they hope to achieve. Transparency is key to ensuring legitimacy and trust.

Good digital nudges will also be limited to the work domain. They do not infringe on employees’ privacy or invade their private lives. Even if there is a grey area between what belongs to the work domain and what does not, some things, such as e-mail and meeting scheduling software, are obviously work-related.

Bad Practice

Unwanted nudges disrespect employees’ autonomy and infringe on their private lives. Companies could use nudges to squeeze employees like lemons. Nudges can also operate completely out-of-step with the interests, goals and values of employees.

Think of Uber, which has tried all the tricks in the book to digitally nudge drivers to work longer hours, and at places and times that are less lucrative for them 13. Or, think of those managers who opt to send attention-grabbing messages in the evenings, hoping to nudge employees into working late at night, invading their private lives. Positive nudges, such as introducing a default setting to deliver e-mails only at the start of the following workday, would be a way to address some of these problems. These can and should be implemented transparently, with companies publishing how and why they nudge, so that employees can have a say in it.

Given the importance of digital work environments, companies should think harder about how to design them. Of the many digital nudges that promise to be effective, companies should opt for those that do not encroach on employees’ private lives and respect the freedom, autonomy and goals of employees themselves.

Picture of Bart Engelen

Bart Engelen

Bart Engelen is an Associate Professor at Tilburg University (The Netherlands), where is he affiliated with the Tilburg Center of Moral Philosophy, Epistemology and Philosophy of Science (TiLPS). His research focuses on the borders between ethics, political philosophy (institutional design) and economics (rational choice theory). He has recently published primarily on conceptual and ethical issues surrounding the use of nudging and whether it is manipulative and threatens people’s autonomy and rationality.

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