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Choice Architecture — Using ‘nudges’ to improve the human experience

The workplace is experiencing rapid and constant change. Most organisations tend to respond to change by using either authoritative or cooperative approaches. However, workplace ‘nudging’ is gaining momentum across various organisations and governments globally.

‘Nudging’ builds off the behavioural economics principles, in that most humans make choices intuitively and irrationally despite evidence presented to them. Two leading economists in this field — Daniel Kahneman and Richard Thaler — are now Nobel Memorial Prize laureates in Economics for their contributions to these behavioural economics theories.

Thaler’s work led to the creation of the UK Behavioural Intelligence Unit in 2010 — commonly referred to as the ‘Nudge Unit’ — that was able to increase on-time tax payments from citizens by changing just a few words in their standard letter. Reports suggest there are now over 60 different nudge units across various countries, governments and organisations.

What is a workplace nudge?

Workplace nudging uses small, effective changes to persuade employees to show desired behaviour. A simple change in the work environment, which provides a need, rewards certain behaviour or triggers curiosity can provide huge returns, but it requires constant experimentation to find what works. Once you find an intervention that works, the next step is to make it bigger.

In 2016 the UK Behavioural Intelligence Unit ran a project to make Government employees happier. While experimenting on different engagement methods when organisations requested a donation to charities, the team increased the engagement from 5 to over 17 per cent when the email was issued personally (with a candy treat as an added incentive). Using this insight, when they deployed it across the government they were able to raise £500,000 in 24 hours from government employees donating a day’s salary.

Nudging principles

So how do we create a small simple changes that could deliver big returns in workplace productivity or engagement?The following principles may help.

There is always Choice

New workplace practices are often introduced with ‘You must…’ However, workplace nudging shouldn’t by mandatory. It tries to persuade people to make different choices with more ease.


The design should not focus solely on physical elements, but on the human experience and people’s behaviour in the workplace. To ensure human-centred solutions, ask people how we can make it easier to change the way they work.

Focus on Objectives

Workplace nudging allows quick and direct intervention. This is always done with a clear goal, but should align to the plans and objectives of the organisation.

Link to the Environment

Workplace nudging always links to the physical environment, but that is just one component of the workplace. Also consider the technological and cultural components that distinguish workplace nudging from other forms commonly used across Government.

Nudging Methods

Katherine Milkman, Assistant Professor at The Wharton School of University of Pennsylvania researched on motivating positive behaviour change at work. Katherine discovered three techniques that could nudge employees’ behaviour amongst the workplace. These techniques are:

  • Temptation bundling — where two activities (one pleasure and one non-preferred) are combined into a single activity, or where two displeasures are combined to discourage both unwanted behaviours.

  • Planning prompts — when participants make a conscious commitment to an action, rather than allocate that time to them.

  • Fresh starts — there are specific moments where employees are more motivated to stick to a change than others. These are often the start of a new week, month or year.

A simple example is if you wanted to eat more home cooked meals and didn’t like spicy food. You could buy a small bottle of hot sauce to carry and make an agreement with yourself (or even better a friend/co-worker) that at the start of next month, every time you eat takeaway you would have to smoother it in hot sauce.

By bundling a displeasure with an indulgent behaviour you’re wanting to discourage (and having others keep you honest), you’re much more likely to stop buying junk food and prepare meals at home more often.

Nudging Examples

Common examples where workplace nudges are commonly used across workplaces are general housekeeping and well-being throughout the workplace.

General ‘housekeeping rules’ — such as noise, clutter or personal hygiene — often focuses on individuals with a bad behaviour and directing them behave the correct way. Though in some cases, behaviours can be improved by rewarding employees that display positive behaviours to encourage employees to reach that standard.

While nudging employees into desirable behaviour may seem unethical, there should always be an element of choice — whether that is choosing to participate or volunteering to opt out. By experimenting which choices and interventions in small randomised control groups, organisations can minimise the magnitude and negativity that change can make on its employees.

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