The wow-factor has faded for startup offices with playground-style amenities—slides, ping-pong tables, game rooms with an Alice in Wonderland theme, and so on—but these designs still spark plenty of debate. Some experts subscribe to the idea that such features can improve both workplace moods and productivity. Others sympathize with the likes of interior designer Denise Cherry, who recently called the trend “a little bit juvenile, a little too playful.”
But it stands to reason that playful design helps employees stay young at heart, which in turn could have a big impact on a company’s success. That’s the key take from a new study of “subjective” employee age among 107 businesses. A research trio led by Florian Kunze of the University of Konstanz in Germany reports that workers who feel younger than their true age reach more personal job goals, which in turn predicts a higher level of overall company accomplishment.
“In other words, an organizational workforce that feels younger than their chronological age benefits the performance of the company as a whole,” write Kunze and company in the Journal of Applied Psychology.
Efforts to connect a workplace’s average age with its performance typically focus on employee date of birth. But once we hit 25, most of us feel younger than our actual age; a 2006 study found that people over 40 report feeling 20% younger than they really are. Since feeling young has been associated with several signs of health and vitality, Kunze and collaborators wondered if a rejuvenated mindset might impact work productivity, too.
So the researchers issued extensive surveys to more than 15,000 employees at 107 German companies in a variety of sectors: production, wholesale, retail, service, and finance. They asked workers to give their real age along with how old they feel, as well as several other self-reported performance measures, such as job goals achieved that year. HR reps and top management gave details on the company’s style as well as its success metrics, such as financial performance and employee retention.
Sure enough, workers felt younger than their true age—4.4 years younger, on average, across the board. In line with prior research, employees under 25 actually felt older by about a year. But older workers more than made up for the youngsters: those age 30 to 49 felt about five years younger than their true age, on average, while those over 50 felt more than eight years younger than their drivers’ licenses revealed them to be.
That youthful mentality paid off. Kunze et al found that as the average “subjective” age of a company dropped, the goals accomplished by this workforce went up. Their analysis also showed that as goal accomplishment rose, so too did a company’s performance. In other words, employees who felt younger than they really were got more done during the workday, and the business as a whole benefitted.
Though the results can’t say exactly why workers who feel younger do better, there’s a number of possible explanations. Many young professionals are motivated to grow in their careers; older workers, meanwhile, often focus on maintaining their positions and reducing risks. So a company whose employees feel younger might perpetuate a culture of youth: pushing each other to try harder, thus pushing the workers who actually are younger to invest even more effort.
“For example,” the researchers write, “within a high-tech startup, subjective age norms may dictate that employees experience themselves to be young, dynamic, and ‘a kid at heart.’”
There is a catch to the relationship between subjective age and company success: It only held up statistically in companies with a so-called “dynamic” work environment. The researchers define dynamic businesses as those that make frequent adjustments on the fly; their customer preferences quickly shift, for instance, or their products have short life cycles. Companies in less volatile business arenas showed no such performance boost, even as subjective age dropped.
Kunze and company figure that employees who feel younger will be “cognitively and emotionally flexible” enough to meet the shifting goals of dynamic companies. In stable ones, meanwhile, maintaining the status quo might be perfectly sufficient for success. Hungry youth and veteran reliability both have their place.
Before you turn that conference room into a pinball arcade, consider a few caveats to the study. It’s possible some participants confused subjective age for how old they looked, rather than how old they felt. Management, not objective public measures, reported company success. Above all, the statistical analysis can’t pin down for sure whether subjective age actually caused the change in work performance.
If true, though, the study makes a strong business case for helping employees feel forever young. “Our results imply that companies should perhaps worry less about the chronological aging of their employees, but rather undertake measures that stimulate their workforce to feel younger than their chronological age, especially, if they are operating in a dynamic external environment,” conclude the researchers. Now who’s next on that slide?