Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Behavioral Science: Meeting In The Ladies Room

Why, asked Stephanie Magnan of Kimberly-Clark in her enthralling TMRE Day 2 presentation, does behavioral science stop at the restroom door?

From moving candy out of employees’ way to incorporating play and stress reduction, modern workplaces use behavioral science in all sorts of ways. The concept is simple: discreetly “nudge” people into behavior that does them good and makes them happy. Small changes in the environment can make a huge difference in this, because they shift people’s emotional response. As Magnan put it, “we think much less than we think we think”. Emotions are the driver.

But very few behavioral science studies look at workplace restrooms. And that’s a bizarre omission, given how critical they are to employee wellbeing and the fact that, well, everybody uses them. At Kimberly-Clark, Magnan’s team made a few small changes – adding lotions and boxes of Kleenex to the restrooms – and were wowed by the results. Restroom satisfaction jumped from 17% to 77%. People reported lower stress and greater wellbeing. And there was a knock-on effect on perceptions of workplace cleanliness as a whole. The real insight? All these changes were most pronounced (by orders of magnitude) among women.

Behavioral makeover required.

Something about restrooms was critical to women’s experience of the workplace. But what?
With the agency Brandtrust – specialists in behavioral science based projects, who use psychoanalytical techniques to probe emotions in far-ranging 1-on-1 interviews – Magnan and her team vowed to find out. 

Standard satisfaction surveys are of very limited use when you’re looking at emotional response, because they tend to play back post-rationalised reasons instead of getting to the guts of an experience. Magnan described how Brandtrust and Kimberly-Clark instead wanted to “ask the bigger question” – getting to the difficult, perhaps uncomfortable truths lurking behind such dramatic shifts in opinion. Empathy, she pointed out, precedes innovation – to respond to someone’s needs to have to walk in their shoes, not just listen to their voice.

So in this case the bigger question turned out to be – what does it feel like to be a woman at work? By answering that question Magnan was able to get a fuller idea of the unique role the restroom plays in women’s working lives.

The women she talked to described a “cycle of vulnerability and confidence” – working lives made up of small victories and disappointments, including dealing with levels of workplace discrimination. In an open office environment, women feel all eyes are on them – meaning they are always somewhat alienated from their authentic self.

In this context the bathroom is a vital space – a place you have permission to be alone in, where you can sigh, relax, and refocus yourself. While American restroom stalls are perhaps too bijou for it, in other countries women talked about praying or practising yoga in the restroom. It is a sanctuary – a safe space of utmost privacy. No wonder small changes made such a huge difference. The restroom is a space where women “prepare and repair identities” in the gendered panopticon of the modern office. But it’s also a space where they can connect – hierarchy relaxing side-by-side in front of the mirror.

Magnan used her insights to refashion a Staples restroom, adding Kleenex boxes, flowers, full length mirrors (to check outfits properly) and slates with inspirational quotes. The results were a huge success. As one woman put it, “it reminds me so much of my restroom at home”. Exactly.

Magnan’s presentation is an example of the power of behavioral science. Not just to transform experiences and emotions, but as a way in to asking far bigger questions which can lead to deeper human truths emerging. She left the audience with four take outs. First, empathy precedes emotion – only by empathising can we find insights. Second, risk asking the better question – go wider, deeper, less straightforward. Third, know your mission – remember the ultimate goal of your behavioral project. And finally, find your passion within the mission – Magnan’s obvious love of and belief in her work shone through this presentation.

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