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Improving Corporate Cognitive Performance in IT Organisations

| Posted by Andrew Mawson Follow 0 Followers , reviewed by Ben Linders Follow 12 Followers on Sep 12, 2017. Estimated reading time: 23 minutes |

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Key Takeaways

  • Turning brain power into commercially valuable software is the goal of most software organisations, yet few leaders consider the performance of the brain as a key component in performance improvement.
  • 90% of software engineers don't do the things they need to do, to make sure their brains are in great shape for work every day.
  • Software engineers should consider themselves 'cognitive athletes' with an attitude of doing everything possible to make themselves as fit as possible for their roles.
  • Proactive education and initiatives are needed to create a culture in which leaders and software engineers do the right things to deliver their 'A' games every day.
  • Cognitive performance needs to be at the heart of the workplace design process for software engineering organisations, not space efficiency.

The biggest tool in the software engineer’s toolkit is the brain, yet few organisations go out of their way to educate and create the conditions in which the brain can work at its best. This article explains the different domains of the brain and their links to the performance of software engineers.

It explains:

  • The key domains of the human brain and what they do and how they relate to software engineering
  • The factors that make a difference to the performance of the human brain
  • The things that individuals can do to improve the performance of their brains
  • The things organisations can do to create workplaces that propagate advanced levels of cognitive performance    

How fit are your software engineers’ brains when they come to work each day?

It’s a question that not many organisations ask, but they should because it’s critical for peak performance in software development organisations.

Let’s face it, in the world of software engineering, where value comes from the creativity, ingenuity, accuracy and knowledge of engineers working within agile teams, the brains they bring to work with them every day are their primary work tool. We think that that tool should be maintained to be the best it can be…every day.

Imagine if a top Premiership football (soccer) player wasn’t in peak physical condition when he turned up for a match. He’d be sent home and possibly even transferred - but we don’t seem to mind what state peoples’ brains are in when they turn up for work!

Imagine if every member of your software development organisation turned up each day with their brain in great shape; they would remember more, concentrate better, make better decisions more quickly and generally be able to contribute more. If they also knew all the things we’re covering in this paper, they’d be able to make better life and workplace choices to aid them in being the best they could be. 

Looking at this from an organisational perspective, in the world of software engineering, we are essentially buying brainpower, knowledge and energy. So, the aim of the game is to maximise the performance of that brainpower, knowledge and energy and focus it on developments from which commercial value can be generated. And, of course, it’s not just about the performance of the individual engineer, it’s also about the performance of teams and communities. But individuals make up teams which communally become the ‘collective’ brain of the organisation.

Whilst we recognise that the fortunes of a software development organisation are dependent on many things (including the strategic decisions made by senior leaders and how they respond to changes in their external competitive environment), it’s clear that there is huge potential to increase the value from software engineers’ brains. We believe it is highly likely that only a very small percentage of engineers (i.e. less than 10%) do all the right things to help them achieve maximum cognitive performance – so there is significant potential for improvement. 

Cognition

Cognition is a technical term for ‘the functioning of the brain’. Neuroscientists recognise and are able to measure five key domains of the brain, but until recently the measurement has been an expensive and time consuming activity. The five domains are as follows:

Attention/concentration: the ability to focus on visual, auditory or sensory stimuli and filter out unwanted distractions.

Executive functioning: the ability to strategically plan your actions and manage change as needed.

Psychomotor and speed accuracy: reaction time / processing speed and related functions that deal with how quickly you can react to stimuli and process information.

Episodic memory: the ability to encode, store, and recall information. In most studies, memory is further divided into recognition, recall, verbal, visual, episodic, and working memory. Each type of memory has specific tasks associated with that memory function. Episodic memory is like a big multi-sensing tape recorder that captures everything you pay real attention to.

Working memory: this is the part of the brain responsible for holding and processing new and already-stored information, and is an important process for reasoning, comprehension, learning and memory updating. 

Pretty much everything software engineers do relies on a combination of these five brain functions. If you think about it, software engineers and systems analysts have to work with business users to capture their requirements and translate into technical specs. They have to concentrate in order to document these. They have to communicate them to other members of the team and ultimately write code as accurately and quickly as possible testing and modifying in an agile model. 

Cognitively they have to focus their attention on specific tasks, store information techniques and learning in their episodic memory (this isn’t just words and pictures; it’s like a multi-sensory tape recorder that captures all our sensory information, including smell) and then at some appropriate time recall it (often to working memory) in order to use it with other information from their own brains or that of others to then generate new Software that have ‘value’. So the performance of each of these five domains is critical to the effective working.

The ‘cognitive fitness’ Study

Because we at AWA are focused on maximising the performance of people, we were keen to find out the factors that made most difference to the performance of the brain. Working with The Centre for Evidence Based Management (www.cebma.org),our independent research partner, and supported by some great sponsors, including BDO, The Royal Bank of Scotland, Sodexo, Kinnarps, BP, Allsteel and MyCognition, we set about exploring the world of cognition and cognitive fitness. It’s worth saying here that the Centre for Evidence Based Management is a global network of academics that preach and teach evidence based practice. What this means is that they use the most rigorous processes and techniques to review evidence and come forward with reliable results that can be regarded as the ‘best available evidence’. Evidence you can rely on.   

Our primary research question was ‘what is known from the scientific literature about the factors that impact cognitive performance (i.e. concentration, memory, accuracy, problem solving, decision making), such as nutrition, hydration, air quality, sleep, physical fitness, posture, working position, physical environment/workplace design, ownership of space, and workplace culture?

The research team searched through the most highly respected academic databases and selected studies that used a control group and/or a before and after measurement and where an outcome measurement (the effect of an independent variable on the cognitive performance of healthy adults) were included.

The diagram below shows the factors that have a positive and negative impact on cognitive performance. The larger the circle the more evidence our researchers found. The colour depicts the size of effect the factor has – small effects are only visible through careful examination, medium ones are visible to the careful observer and large effects can be seen easily by anyone as they are substantial. Given the nature of the software engineers work, they are pretty critical. So let’s take a look at them one by one.

Breakfast

When you were a kid, your mother probably told you that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Well, it turns out that the research confirms she was right! Breakfast has a high impact on your brain’s performance.

Breakfast is particularly important because if you are asleep for 6+ hours then your supply of fluids, nutrients and sugars will have been depleted and so breakfast is the time to top them up. Getting your recommended daily levels of vitamins and nutrients is harder if you regularly skip breakfast and if you wait until lunch, your brain could be waiting for over 12 hours for its top up! Studies have demonstrated that the impairment of neurological functions such as motor skills (brain/physical interaction), information processing and memory are all linked to hypoglycaemia (lack of sugar) and under-nutrition.

The importance of breakfast isn’t a surprise to sportspeople. Sports scientists have known for some time that optimised nutrition can sustain work output and concentration over extended periods of high physical and mental stress. So breakfast helps your memory and your ability to focus and concentrate.

It’s interesting that many software businesses in the Bay Area of San Francisco have made a daily ritual out of breakfast. Whether this is by design or chance they are encouraging a number of behaviours that we know support individual and collective brain performance. 

Hydration

Athletes and sportsmen have known for some time that hydration is important to success, not just because it makes the body’s physical systems work better, but because below a certain level of hydration the brain doesn’t work as well as it should.

We know from research that cognitive performance drops sharply if body water levels drop by just 2% of body weight (for a 12 stone male that’s just over 1.5 litres of water). No matter how mild, dehydration can cause an imbalance in bodily functions and symptoms include headaches, feeling tired and weak, confusion and mood swings.

Dehydration can adversely affect cognitive capacity and interfere with performance associated with skills such as perception, spatial ability, attention, immediate memory and brain/physical interaction - so it’s pretty important for a software engineer to be well hydrated through the day to be able deliver their best performance every day.

Sleep

It’s simple – sleep helps your brain work properly. It is preparing for the next day. When you are asleep, your body is busy repairing muscles, consolidating memories, releasing hormones, removing brain ‘waste’ and regulating growth and appetite. If sleep is cut short, the body doesn’t have time to complete all the phases and we wake up less prepared to concentrate, make decisions, or engage fully with the world.

Research studies conclude that sleep deprivation has a negative impact upon almost all brain functions such as decision making, solving problems, remembering things, controlling emotions / behaviour and coping with change. Reaction times may be slower, more mistakes may be made and tasks often take longer. All of these will impact performance and also relationships at work.

According to the UK’s National Sleep Foundation, an adult of working age needs between 7 and 9 hours of good quality uninterrupted sleep in order to be in peak condition.

Exercise

Exercise has long been thought to improve cognitive performance both in the short term and in relation to brain functioning in later life. This is borne out by a number of research studies that report significant effects of exercise on measured cognitive performance.

There is a substantial body of research related to the effects of a single session of exercise on cognitive performance. The premise underlying this is that physiological changes in response to exercise have implications for cognitive function. Findings are mixed, but researchers have generally concluded that there is a small but positive affect.

We also found that aerobic physical activity and Tai Chi showed potential to enhance cognitive functions (in particular executive functioning) in older adults.

Caffeine

Caffeine is often quoted as the world’s most widely consumed psychoactive drug yet in all  parts of the world, it is legal and unregulated. A psychoactive drug, psychotropic or psychopharmaceutical is a chemical substance that changes brain function and results in alterations in perception, mood, or consciousness. I bet you never thought of your morning coffee that way?!

Caffeine is found in coffee, tea, energy drinks, hot chocolate, many fizzy drinks and chocolate. When you consume caffeine, the stimulant effect takes place quickly (within minutes), blocking chemical signals in your brain, essentially stopping you from feeling sleepy. Acting as a mild stimulant to the central nervous system, it leads to improved mental performance, greater alertness, better concentration and greater levels of attention.

The way caffeine seems to work is that it interacts with the adenosine receptors in the brain. Adenosine regulates cycles of sleeping and waking, and while you’re awake, it accumulates in the brain, eventually causing you to feel drowsy – encouraging you to rest and sleep. Caffeine stops the brain detecting adenosine, so the signals to slow down and rest are not received – and more than that, the body prepares itself for action!

We’re not suggesting you consume huge numbers of caffeinated drinks each day, but instead, use caffeine as a tool particularly when you are performing work tasks that require focus on detail or when you are feeling fatigued. 

Glucose

Glucose is a type of sugar and is the primary source of energy for the human brain. It needs a constant supply – normally obtained from recently eaten carbohydrates - so an inadequate supply of glucose will result in a significant decrease in cognitive performance.  The frontal cortex (described as the “CEO of the brain”) is particularly sensitive to falling glucose levels, likely resulting in some confused thinking – but high levels of glucose will damage other cells in the body so, as ever, a balance is required.

Studies show that dips in glucose availability can have a negative impact on attention and memory and that consuming glucose can enhance these aspects of cognitive function. The brain also uses more glucose during particularly challenging mental tasks.

So it’s important to keep blood glucose levels at an optimum level for good cognitive performance – something that’s not always easy to do, but having regular meals can help to achieve this. This links back to breakfast – imagine how many hours there are between your last meal of the day and breakfast by which time your brain can be crying out for fuel!

Noise

Noise is a major contributor to distraction in the working environment, leading to a reduction in performance and even an increase in stress levels. The ability to retain and manipulate information for brief periods of time is a key aspect of effective cognitive functioning (described as “working memory”). It is very vulnerable to interference from a variety of influences and sensory inputs – including different aspects of noise.

Researchers find that when the demands of work are high, noise has a big impact as it is seen as an additional “load”, requiring extra resources to combat its effect. When tasks are easy and don’t need much attention, some distracting noise can actually reduce the demand on our brains.

Different types of noise and the impact of additional sounds to mask or mitigate the impact of noise in the workplace have all been studied with mixed results, but there is much that is helpful.

  1. Background noise

There’s no doubt that background noise can have a considerable impact on performance. It’s hard to be precise in terms of the affect, because everyone is different – and the impact will vary depending on the nature of the task, how loud the noise is, and how long it lasts. Another aspect is our personal ability to control the noise or the sources of noise.

Research shows that exposure to continuous noise at 75-80dB (conversation is typically around 70dB) decreases performance, particularly accuracy, although speed tends not to be impacted.

  1. Speech

Being able to clearly hear a conversation elsewhere in the office is distracting, whether or not people actually WANT to tune into what is being said. Research shows the level of “intelligibility” of the speech is directly related to the amount of distraction it causes to working memory. Working memory is particularly susceptible to speech, which seems to take priority over the processing of other information when it is being heard.

Background “babble” is less distracting, as the brain isn’t trying to follow specific conversations. Also, the number of voices has an impact – three or more speakers are less distracting than one – as they tend to form part of the babble, whereas one loud person’s voice carries above the babble, disrupting concentration and impacting short term memory. Highly intelligible “halfalogue” speech (overhearing one side of a conversation on a mobile) is more disruptive than being able to hear both sides of the conversation.

  1. Music

Playing music in an office environment doesn’t reduce the impact of office noise (i.e. background noise, people’s voices/conversations), and has an impact on attention and performance. Also, the impact on performance is increased when the music has lyrics. It seems that the higher the stimulus or information content in the music (music with lyrics produces a complex stimulus), the greater the negative effect on concentration and attention.

So, if tasks don’t require a high level of concentration (if they are repetitive and routine), music with lyrics may not be detrimental to performance. But when we need to focus and concentrate on complex tasks (and where accuracy is important), music with lyrics is likely to make concentration harder, consuming cognitive capacity.

Temperature

Research shows that a significant negative effect on our cognition when temperatures are high (i.e. above 30C), and although the underlying factors are not well understood, it’s widely recognised that temperature is the modal form of stress – linked to our very survival. It is believed that we have a greater tolerance for cold as opposed to heat.

Warmer temperatures tax us more significantly (we devote more cognitive capacity addressing the perceived ‘threat’ of overheat), leaving less resources available for cognitive tasks. This is particularly evident when tackling complex tasks. It’s also clear that the impact depends on the duration of the task and the intensity of the temperature.

Interestingly, cold temperatures (i.e. less than 12C) tend to result in moderately faster response times in cognitive tasks when compared to high temperatures.

That said, if you are uncomfortable because your workplace is too hot or cold, this consumes cognitive capacity because your brain’s primary job is to manage your physiology. It manifests itself in distraction, which in turn reduces cognitive performance. Our brains monitor our body temperature and send nerve impulses to the skin if it’s too hot or too cold. The body has different ways to try to reduce or increase core body temperature as a consequence. Think about what happens when you’re cold – your muscles contract, causing you to shiver. Our body temperature has a direct impact on how comfortable we feel. Being uncomfortable is distracting and makes it more difficult to concentrate.

Water helps to regulate internal body temperature, so keeping hydrated is important.

Task Interruptions

Whether they are caused by someone stopping by our desk / office for a conversation, a phone call, a text or IM, or the inevitable “bing bong” as an email arrives and flashes up on our screen, interruptions to our workflow and our thought processes can have serious impacts on our performance and productivity. For software engineers, this can have a devastating impact on error rates and delivery performance.

In specific settings such as the operating theatre, air traffic control centres, or where people are in charge of a large and powerful vehicle like a car, lorry or aeroplane – the consequences of interruptions could be life threatening, of course, and in those situations the protocol is to not interrupt and enable real focus on the task in hand.  

Studies have shown that on average we shift between tasks every three minutes. Just think about that figure…. it’s shocking isn’t it?

So any software engineer trying to work on a task requiring prolonged focus and concentration really is fighting a losing battle! When our primary task is interrupted, our brain has to leave its train of thought to deal with the interruption – which could take many minutes to deal with – only to then need at least an equal amount of time to resume the train of thought (to re-activate the thinking) that was going on prior to the interruption.

Many people claim to be able to “multi task” and it is generally referred to as a desirable skill in today’s modern workplace. That said, what often happens is that none of the tasks are allocated the time / effort / focus that they need for successful completion – with each one being completed in slightly longer time and slightly less well / thoroughly / accurately.

Lighting

Light is a basic need for humans. It affects us physically, physiologically and psychologically. Recent studies have shown that insufficient or inappropriate light exposure can disrupt standard human rhythms which may result in adverse consequences for cognitive performance, safety and health.

We capture light information exclusively by the eyes using photoreceptors (rods and cones that detect visual information). In fact, our eyes are only sensors that detect colour and light variations and reflections. It is in fact our brains that translate this data into, what we would all understand as ‘images’. So our eyes don’t actually ‘see’, they only ‘sense’. It’s our brains that ‘see’.    

Studies on animals and humans have shown that light stimulates a wide range of physiological responses like resetting the timing of the circadian pacemaker (your biological clock) and improving alertness.

Circadian rhythms are kept in sync by a variety of cues, including light. High frequency and intensity lighting promotes alertness. Without this stimulus, the body can think it’s time to conserve energy and rest.

Our research suggests that particularly for tasks that require high levels of focus on tasks involving detail, brighter lighting conditions are beneficial.  

Cognitive Stimulation

Is it true that the more you use your brain, the better it works? We “use it or risk losing it”. Research looking at the impact of mentally demanding work shows that it does indeed have a beneficial effect. Jobs that are cognitively challenging and varied, like those of software engineers, provide the opportunity to learn new techniques and languages over time, can increase mental functioning and reduce the effect of age-related decline.

This holds true with non-occupational activities as well – and is not restricted purely to the work environment. It isn’t sufficient however to just pursue hobbies and activities which aren’t particularly demanding. Engagement isn’t enough. We need to keep learning more and mastering more tasks and skills for there to be a measurable difference.

So while learning a new skill, such as digital photography or a new language, is demanding (tapping into working memory, long term memory and other high level cognitive processes), simply doing word puzzles, for example, doesn’t exercise us to the same degree and hence the improvement is much less marked.

Having an intellectually engaged and physically active lifestyle promotes successful cognitive aging – something that is important to all of us as we live longer and probably wish to be productive into later years.

Furthermore, our brains have been shown to be ‘plastic’ in nature, so they can continue to grow or at least be maintained, given the right conditions and stimuli. If we stop using

particular cognitive processes, this can result in them “wasting away”; whereas if we subject ourselves to some stretching and challenging cognitive activities, these will help maintain or improve our abilities.

Scent

We know from research that certain scents can affect our physical, emotional and mental health. So how does this happen? Our smell receptor enables fires up neuron connections that link to previously experienced smells and associated memories.

When studying the affect of essential oils, some researchers believe that they stimulate chemical reactions within the body and the brain. Some aromas can relax or even sedate us (i.e. lavender and chamomile), while others can stimulate or excite (i.e. rosemary and peppermint) – through these chemical processes.

Research has shown that peppermint leads to greater alertness, decreased frustration and reduced anxiety and fatigue under controlled conditions. Lavender, by contrast, produces a significant reduction in working memory and reduced reaction times in tasks requiring memory and attention, as you might expect with a fragrance that is relaxing.

If you think about particular fragrances and smells, you will probably also realise that they can be strongly linked to situations or places – aiding our recall of specific times or events – sometimes in a good way, and sometimes not so pleasant.

There are many claims that cognitive / memory training is effective in improving various aspects of the way our brains work – i.e. our ability to remember, to make decisions, to pay attention and to do things with speed and accuracy.

Most research in this area has focused on children, older adults, or people with mild cognitive impairment – but shows that functions such as working memory capacity is plastic and that this type of training taps into this potential.

What is less compelling is the evidence that seeks to show that if you train one aspect of your brain (such as working memory), that this transfers to other aspects. Generally,  this hasn’t been proven. There is also evidence that performance in a specific training activity doesn’t transfer to other activities that require that ability, or indeed to other abilities.

However, researchers also concluded that the use of training over a period of time could result in changes to the brain structure and function and that such changes could have a generally positive effect on cognitive activities (in the same way that physical exercise can increase cardiovascular fitness).

Meditation & Mindfulness

Recent research suggests that relaxation techniques such as mindfulness (a meditation technique aimed at focusing the mind on the present moment) could be associated with improvements in working memory and executive attention (decision making), but we aren’t sure why this is so.

It could be that such techniques reduce stress and build resilience. Another theory is that these techniques involve self-regulation (your ability to maintain focus and attention) and attitude (are you essentially open to the experience) – so that if you believe the technique can/does work and you can devote sufficient effort and energy to the experience, it is felt to be effective.

As a further example, people with low working memory capacities are more likely to suffer from emotionally intrusive thoughts and are less successful at suppressing emotions, so developing a more focused approach through mindfulness / meditation may be of benefit.

Cognitive performance and the engineering workplace

People spend most of their waking hours in the workplace in one form or another and the leaders that manage real estate, facilities management and human resources have the opportunity to work together to create an environment in which software engineers can thrive. They can provide the right environments, tools to proactively support high levels of cognitive performance. They can make sure the right rituals, drinks and nutrition is provided and they can be educators and influencers.

Our basic thesis is that if we could get software engineers to do the right things to maximise the performance of their brains (and that when they came to work the conditions were re-enforced), then software development organisations could generate more value from each engineer on the payroll. Sadly, too often those in the real estate and facilities function are encouraged to focus on the cost of delivering the workplace than supporting the cognitive performance of the people who matter most ... the software engineers. 

What can you do?

The first thing you can do as a software development leader is get everyone together to understand the science and educate everyone and agree on new lifestyle habits and work practices. The second thing is to create a workplace, thoughtfully put together to enable maximum cognitive performance eradicating anything that consumes cognitive resource that doesn’t add value and working to create the right spaces and conditions to help people’s brains be at their best. Finally, measure and monitor how people are doing in doing all the things that will make a difference to cognitive performance. You can gamify the whole things, creating competitions to encourage teams to do the right thing by their brains. Doing the right thing is going to help them perform at peak levels more often than today, but it’s also going to make their lives more fulfilling and healthy. It’s win, win, win, so why not start today!    

About the author

Andrew Mawson is a leading thinker and consultant on matters work and workplace. His passion is supporting organisations in transitioning to new models of work that embrace the concept of mobility, enhanced human performance and effective use of corporate assets. Mawson founded Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA), he is a speaker and writer on matters work and place and has led research programmes on knowledge worker productivity, cognitive performance and agile organisation management.    

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