Charlotte Rush9 November 2022

Working with people who tend to be in the office at the same time as you is harming your performance. Here’s why.

Time and time again I hear, “It just feels better” to connect with people in person. There’s something that makes collaborating with a group of people in the same physical room more enjoyable (and I don’t think it’s the free fizzy water).

But we all know that plenty of things in life that feel good in the short-term aren’t necessarily good for us in the long-run, and the same may be true when it comes to teamwork.

It turns out that scientists can put a finger on why it feels better to work together in-person. It’s called “physiological synchrony” – a fancy term for the equivalent of synchronised swimming of our bodily signals – for example, your heart rate or brain activity.

For example, if I were to measure the brain activity of 100 people sitting in a cinema watching the same high-intensity action film, I would see their brain waves peak at the same emotion-inducing points of the film, which is what happened in this research involving spaghetti Westerns. And when we attend large sporting matches in-person, as opposed to watching on TV in small groups, our heart-rate patterns align, as if everyone in the crowd is connected to the same heart rate monitor.

And when our bodies synchronise, we start to experience greater feelings of social cohesion. The more physiological synchrony, the better we feel about being in that group psychologically.

Interestingly, some groups are likely to experience greater synchrony than others and this may impact who you choose to collaborate with in the office.

So, what special sauce is likely to predict synchrony, and therefore create teams that experience those good vibes more often? Research from the University of Washington and Microsoft points to the time of day you tend to wake up and go to bed – your chronotype.

Chronotype refers to the natural 24-hour sleep-wake cycle that influences the peaks and troughs of your energy throughout the day. Some people are morning types who tend to wake before or as the sun rises and sleep earlier (known as “Larks”) than those that are evening types (“Owls”). Owls experience their cognitive alertness at night. If you don’t fall into either extreme, you are a “Middle bird’.

Working according to your chronotype will improve your mood and productivity. We should be tackling our most challenging task at the time of day in which we “peak” – morning or evening. But the impact of chronotypes on group performance is not so well-documented.

Enter the present research!

The authors looked at 28 groups of two or three people and had them complete analytic and creative problems in the morning or evening. They captured their individual chronotypes and then categorised the various groups as either homogeneous – where all participants had the same chronotype, or heterogeneous – where at least one person had a different chronotype from their group members. They also measured heart rate and skin conductance. Finally, they measured how quickly and accurately the groups solved the problems.

The researchers found that groups with people with the same chronotypes experienced more (physiological) synchrony and therefore, were more satisfied (i.e. feeling the good vibes). This highlights that our chronotype may be one of the factors influencing whether we prefer working with some people over others.

But before you commit to never again working with that owl in your team…

The most interesting finding was that of group performance – groups made up of people with the same chronotypes always performed significantly worse than the groups with a mix of chronotypes. This was regardless of time of day, chronotype or type of problem solving task.

So what does this mean for the modern hybrid office that is embracing flexible work schedules?

  1. When your goal is to optimise outcomes, you need to prioritise diversity of chronotypes in your teams. Sure, these teams aren’t likely to experience the highest levels of affiliation and “good vibes”, but they will produce the best outcomes, regardless of your needs for analytic or creative thinking.
  2. If instead your goal is to foster greater connection and cohesion, then clustering people who have the same chronotype is likely to facilitate this goal, thanks to the effects of physiological synchrony.

If you are looking to improve how your hybrid team works together, find out your chronotype by completing this assessment – and feel free to pass it onto your teammates as well!