Sunshine or a Cloudy Day

In San Francisco recently, I met a woman who develops algorithms to promote beer to likely buyers at specific temperatures. Her work enables push messages like “It’s time to buy beer” to beer drinkers in City A when the temperature reaches 79F (26C) and in City B when the temperature reaches 82F (28C).

Her company believes that the environment plays a role in our beer-drinking behaviors. As the designer of the geodesic dome, R. Buckminster Fuller noted, “Don’t change the man, change the environment.” In the case of the weather, they’re merely adapting to it, and betting that beer buyers will too.

Researchers have documented the relationship between weather and seemingly unrelated things including the stock market (sunny days bring higher returns), weather and consumer spending (you guessed it…bright sun equals fatter shopping bags), weather and tipping (yes, tips to wait staff are higher on a sunny day), and even our willingness to help others (we’re less generous with social support on cloudy days).

But does the weather impact how we work? And if it does, how?

Outside: Feelings vs. Behaviors

In places like Portland and Seattle, lengthy periods of rain during the winter months provoke seasonal affective disorder (SAD) in as much as 20% of the population. It might be easy to say that if you’re a bit blue, you’re less likely to maximize your productivity. I wouldn’t disagree. Depression absolutely lowers productivity. But 80% of the population doesn’t suffer from SAD.

The conventional wisdom says this: cloudy day = feeling down = lower productivity.

Researchers at Harvard University and Chapel Hill  (Lee, Gino, & and Staats, 2014) discovered that there are high correlations between weather and productivity, but not in the way you’d expect. Their research indicates that a cloudy day can actually have positive effects on productivity.

This was affirmed through their survey of participants. A whopping 82% of the respondents believed that a cloudy day not only brings you down but makes you less productive.

But the survey respondents were wrong.

The researchers set up a variety of workplace and lab experiments to study the impact of weather on productivity. It turns out that productivity can increase nearly 17% when clouds dominate the sky.

The paper resulting from the research made a special note about cloudy days:”…workers will be less distracted and more focused on bad weather days, when such outdoor options do not exist and therefore will perform their tasks more effectively.”

Two key contributors make the cloudy days more productive, according to the research:

1.            Looking out the window on a cloudy day doesn’t distract us with the images that a sunny day provides. We’re less likely to gaze longingly out the window on cloudy days. In scientific terms, there’s less cognitive interference and that leads to higher productivity.

2.           Looking out the window on a cloudy day doesn’t remind us of the attractiveness of being outdoors and all the fun we might have by being outside. We don’t daydream about those alternatives to sitting in the office. The sheer lack of alternatives that we experience on a cloudy day leads to higher productivity.

So, a day that is a bit less sunny than a perfectly clear sky can enhance the productivity of your employees by reducing daydreaming and ultimately, reducing interference to workflow. But the outdoor environment is not the whole story. What happens indoors makes a difference in productivity, too.

Inside: How to Maximize What’s Happening Indoors

The two big elements that impact productivity indoors are based on the inside environment, back to Buckminster Fuller, but not the weather. In this case, indoor climate and lighting make the difference.

A climate-controlled environment is better for productivity (Duh!). Unplanned changes in workplace temperature can cause distractions (see #1 above) and lead to lower productivity. Our bodies tend to be more sluggish in warmer temperatures, which is highly subjective to be sure. However, too much heat reduces productivity, as the mind and body slow down when we get too warm. Slightly cooler temperatures tend to push the body toward activity (to stay warm) and to higher productivity. So, keeping the temperature cool (and this is a subjective version of cool) will have the most positive effect on productivity.

Also, lighting is key. Poor lighting is the foundation for depression and interference with our circadian rhythm, the internal clock that guides our sleep cycles, relaxation and activity. Although Elton Mayo’s infamous Hawthorne Studies demonstrated that changes in lighting can improve productivity, we’ve learned a great deal since the 1920’s. Worker habits have changed as well. Workers are no longer forced to work in a single space the entire day without a meaningful break. Today, workers can experience changes in lighting by moving from their workstation into hallways, breakrooms, conference rooms, the office cafeteria and other areas.

An ideal workspace can take advantage of natural light. Skylights are a terrific way to bring in sunlight without the distractions of a view lit up by a clear sky and a bright sun. In lieu of natural light pouring in from skylights, the ability to regulate the brightness of the indoor lighting can make for an optimal environment for productivity.


Getting back to the algorithms used to communicate with beer buyers, big data will soon allow firms to correlate messages sent to workers based on the outside temperature or cloud cover. HR departments could take advantage of the slight uptick in productivity by either (a) rewarding workers for higher output on cloudy days or (b) sending encouraging messages to make the cloudy days a big push for productivity.

Managers could even go so far as to assign more work on cloudy days, although that could easily cross over into draconian waters. The distance we must travel down the technology road to reach those milestones is not very far. Keep in mind, one company is already selling more beer that way.

On the flip side, let’s not discount productivity on sunny days. Workers could be rewarded for achieving productivity targets earlier in the day when the sun is bright. The intrinsic motivation and desire to get outside on a sunny day could be a powerful impetus to increase productivity, especially as Spring unfolds from a crumpled Winter.

Walking on Sunshine?

Yes, the weather can wreak all sorts of behavioral havoc on us. We spend more and buy stocks at higher prices on sunny days. We are more likely to tip the server a little more generously and be willing to help someone in need on a sunny day, too. And many of us simply feel better on sunny days compared to cloudy and overcast days.

But research shows that big productivity gains happen on cloudy days and in climate-controlled environments. That’s where workers thrive. There’s less distraction from window gazing, and a slightly edgy temperature gets us moving (literally and figuratively).

The next time you walk into your office, pay attention to how the weather is affecting your people. Let me know what you observe – I’m interested in hearing from you.


P.S. You also have my permission to give in to rising temperatures and buy a cold carbonated malt beverage (beer, that is) when your body says it’s just right.