I Just Work Here

Rex Huppke: Benefit of downtown is a real no-brainer

REX HUPPKE, workplace columnistOctober 22, 2013 

HUPPKE REX TB

Rex Huppke

BILL HOGAN — MCT

You're sitting in front of a computer screen, trying desperately to write the greatest workplace advice column in the history of the world and it's just not coming to you.

Then you step away for a few minutes (hours) and occupy yourself with something else (building a fort out of Chips Ahoy), and eureka! You've got the idea, you start typing, and everyone loves you and wants to hang out in your Chips Ahoy fort.

There's a key in that process, and sadly it's not the chocolate chip cookies. It's the stepping-away part.

While it's almost cliche to tell someone struggling with a project to "go take a walk" or "go clear your head," brain researchers believe promoting periods of mind-wandering and mental downtime might be key to workplace innovation.

In 2001, researchers at Washington University identified regions of the brain that are active when people are not doing anything in particular. Called "the default mode network" or just "the default network," these regions were found to be responsible for introspective thought and our ability to imagine past and future events or even alternate realities.

In other words, the parts of our brains that are active when we're doing nothing are critical to our creativity and ability to think about things differently.

"Whenever people are mentally stepping outside of the here and now, these regions are active," said Adam Waytz, an assistant professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. "They're engaged in transcendence, which means thinking about yourself in the past or the future or in a different geological location, or even taking the perspective of another person and simulating what it would be like to be that person. When the brain is wandering or at rest, what it is likely up to is simulating different times and places and alternate realities, which is the type of thought you want people doing if they're involved in creative or innovative tasks."

Waytz recently co-wrote a piece in the Harvard Business Review that suggests businesses might benefit from giving workers more time to fully disconnect. He and co-author Malia Mason, of the Columbia Business School, wrote: "Companies could turn off employees' email and calendars; take away their phones; send them on a trip, away from all offices and staff members; and take all other job duties off their plates."

Some companies have concepts that operate on the fringe of this idea. At Google, for example, engineers are encouraged to work on "20 percent projects." Basically they can spend up to a fifth of their time on ideas that excite them.

In an email, a Google representative wrote: "We have found that this sort of innovation is a critical driver in Google's development of innovative ideas and products."

Twitter has a similar concept called "Hack Week," described in a company blog as "a full week to work with people from other teams, explore new ideas, experiment with different projects and let our creativity run wild."

Certainly, it's a good idea to give employees room to innovate, but those examples don't tap into the full potential of the default network.

So here's where I climb on my soapbox (made of Chips Ahoy, of course) and make a bold suggestion: Start experimenting with this idea.

It could lead to fabulous new advances in Chips Ahoy architecture. Or a workplace advice column of unimaginable genius.

rhuppke@tribune.com, @RexWorksHere

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