Silicon Valley's dubious tactics when it comes to staff performance boosting

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett August 7, 2016
Companies in Silicon Valley are using increasingly unorthodox methods to boost the cognitive performance of their staff. But are they barking up the wrong tree?


In an environment as competitive and testosterone-ridden as Silicon Valley, it’s perhaps inevitable that unorthodox methods for boosting cognitive performance will come into play.

Enter the idea of bio-hacking, a term that relates to people who hack or modify their bodies in a variety of different ways in a bid to enhance their physical or mental abilities. Although scarcely confined to Silicon Valley, the trend is starting to gain momentum there, according to the Mercury News, as a result of tech workers feeling under constant pressure to innovate and achieve.

Therefore, some take vitamins or other nutritional supplements known as nootropics or synthetic “smart drugs” to boost their brain function. Others apparently indulge in off-label prescription medication, small doses of the hallucinogenic illegal drug LSD or Russian pills not approved for US consumption.

Employees at San Francisco start-up Nootrobox, on the other hand, simply fast for 36 hours. In a bid to increase their concentration and energy levels, they stop eating on Monday night and don’t start again until Wednesday morning when they treat themselves to a huge breakfast at the Elmira Rosticceria restaurant near the Civic Centre.

The aim is to achieve a state of ketosis, which occurs when the body has not taken in enough carbohydrates and so does not produce sufficient glucose for energy. It then breaks down stored fats, which create ketones as a by-product, and they act as fuel instead.

Not only can this process stimulate weight loss in some individuals, but it can also help them think, focus and recall information better. In simple terms, the idea is that removing excess sugar from your system in the form of glucose can help some people perform more efficiently.

But such extreme behaviour is not the only way to boost cognitive performance. Simple, more everyday techniques can prove just as effective.

Increasing productivity

Pivotal Labs, a division of Pivotal Software, is an agile software development consultancy with offices around the world, which employs pair programming techniques to increase productivity.

But such a highly collaborative model of working can prove mentally draining, particularly if you’re not used to it. As a result, the company provides its workers, and clients, with a ping pong table so they can take 10 to 15 minute table tennis breaks whenever they feel the need. Robbie Clutton, director of Pivotal Labs in London, explains the rationale:

It gives people a mechanism to get away from their desk. As to why ping pong over something like table football, with table football you stay still and just move your wrist. But with ping pong, you’re more fluid – you move your feet and arms and it gets the blood moving. It’s also a sport where you have to focus on what you’re doing and you can’t concentrate on anything else. So the balance between the left, analytical side of the brain and the right, creative side shifts. It moves you into a different thought process and you feel physically refreshed afterwards.

Table tennis breaks are not mandated, however, and non-players can simply take a more regular tea break and enjoy one of the free-of-charge snacks that are always available in the kitchen, if they prefer.

Another interesting psychological trick, meanwhile, has been to expose different building surfaces in the firm’s offices around the world, which includes open brickwork. Clutton explains:

We look at how to maximise each building and in some way expose it so you can see it’s more alive than sterile. The building looks unfinished, which reminds people that projects are never finished. I don’t know if someone made that up, but it’s something we continue to say now anyway.

He is also a believer in the value of natural light to help reduce fatigue  and so tries to put employees in areas of the office that benefit from it as much as possible. And a study last year by the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health’s Center for Health and the Global Environment and Syracuse and SUNY Upstate Medical Universities, would certainly seem to back up the notion that the environments in which people work have a big role to play in wellbeing terms.

Secrets to success

It revealed that employees who work in well-ventilated offices with good air quality had much higher cognitive functioning scores in key areas such as responding to crises or developing strategies than those in typical workplaces. The researchers aim was to explore the difference made by ‘green’ versus conventional buildings, where it found relatively high concentrations of carbon dioxide and volatile organic compounds emitted not just from building materials, but also from office furniture such as photocopiers and printers.

But Nicole Forsgren, industry academic and director of organisational performance and analytics at infrastructure automation tools supplier Chef, believes it is important not to get too hung up on the performance of individuals per se because, in reality, it is well-functioning teams that make the biggest difference. She explains:

You can have an amazing programmer, someone that is very visible, and they might deliver 80% of the initial core features of a proof of concept. But it’s the rest of the team that makes the remainder of the code functional and scalable and ensures it gets out of the door on time. So if we can create cultures where we all learn and grow together, we really will be winners on the market.

As to how to go about creating the perfect team, Forsgren cites a study undertaken by Google in 2012 called Project Aristotle, which set out to do just that by analysing lots of studies and observing the way that people interacted in a group.

Rather than finding, as expected, that the secret to success would boil down to having the right mix of skills in place, the vendor discovered instead it actually depended on whether individual team members felt psychologically safe or not. This was because feeling safe meant they were comfortable enough with their colleagues to open up personally and confident enough to take risks without fearing that other team members would embarrass, reject or punish them for speaking up.

Interestingly though, Forsgren also believes that the industry’s focus on cognitive or innate ability and the widespread belief that it is vital to succeed, is actually having a negative effect. In her view, what such notions are doing in practice is reinforcing the underrepresentation of women and ethnic minority groups in the world of IT. In a report entitled The Core Belief Keeping Marginalized Groups out of Tech that she co-wrote with Jez Humble earlier this year, Forsgren cites a number of studies that illustrate:

Pervasive cultural stereotypes that “brilliance” is required to succeed in programming, and that women and people of color are less competent, are the greatest barrier to increasing and maintaining representation…..We must stop talking about “10x developers”, ninjas, rockstars, and the scarcity of “talent”. The idea that you create great organizations by hiring brilliant people has been roundly debunked (for example, Enron was explicitly managed according to this principle). As [journalist and author] Malcolm Gladwell points out in his article on the “Talent Myth ” which expands on Enron’s collapse, it is not individuals that make organizations smart, but teams.

My take

Not only is a current unhealthy preoccupation with boosting performance at all cost leading to extreme measures being adopted in some quarters, but it seems that, if recent studies are correct, the tech industry could be barking up the wrong tree anyway.

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