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Upside to bad weather: Better workers

Jan. 31, 2014 at 10:44 AM ET

Neither snow, nor sleet... New research from Harvard University finds that employees get more work done when the weather outside is frightful.
Stephen Lance Dennee / AP
Neither snow, nor sleet... New research from Harvard University finds that employees get more work done when the weather outside is frightful.

Hey boss, don’t worry about all the bad weather we’ve been having: It could well be making your workers more productive.

New research from Harvard University finds that employees get more work done when the weather outside is frightful, because they are less distracted by all the fun they could be having instead if they weren’t stuck in the office.

“When the sun is out you’re sort of thinking about the many different things that you could be doing outside,” said Francesca Gino, an associate professor of business administration at Harvard, and one of the forthcoming paper’s authors. “When the weather is bad that doesn’t even come to mind because that’s not even an option.”

That’s the opposite of what Gino and her co-authors found many people expect. She suspects that’s because people wake up, see the sunshine and feel energized and happy – forgetting that they will be spending most of the day inside working instead of outside playing.

To figure out how weather helps, or hurts, productivity, the authors compared a long-running Japanese study of worker productivity with the weather during the 2 1/2-year study. They found that workers got tasks done more quickly when it was raining.

The authors did more tests with other pools of participants and found that when the weather outside is lovely, people tend to be more distracted by thoughts of what they could be doing instead of sitting at their desk working.

Of course, that doesn’t account for the other productivity drag: Not being able to get to work at all because of stormy weather. That’s something workers in the Atlanta area were dealing with this week, after a rare snowstorm battered the city.

Maybe there’s a silver lining there as well. Other research has found that some people are actually more productive when they work at home.

Gino said she recently experienced that firsthand, when bad weather in the Boston area forced her to work at home, away from the distractions of meetings and chatting with colleagues.

“The day of the snowstorm I was even more productive,” she said.

Allison Linn is a reporter at CNBC. Follow her on Twitter @allisondlinn or send her an e-mail.

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