Time to bring touch back to the office

The contact chill in the workplace has gone too far, argue researchers, even harming productivity.

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel found herself on the receiving end of an impromptu back rub delivered by former U.S. president George W. Bush at a 2006 G8 Summit, she grimaced and threw up her arms to buck off the touchy Texan.

The public reaction was equally negative. Bush was accused of acting like a frat boy at a college keg party. And America’s so-called “groper-in-chief” incident moved Forbes magazine to issue a reminder of what constitutes appropriate touching in a work environment. “If the president can get it wrong,” the magazine noted, “chances are your co-workers are slipping up, too.” Forbes warned its readers to maintain a safe distance from colleagues. The closest thing to a hug at the office should be a slight squeeze to a co-worker’s forearm during a handshake. Generally speaking, the magazine noted, if you can touch someone, “you’re too close.”

But that advice may have done the business world a serious disservice, says Michael Kraus, a post-doctoral researcher in psychology at the University of California at Berkeley. In fact, he argues that workplace productivity could significantly improve if more corporate teammates were free to act like Bush.

Kraus — along with two colleagues — released a study last year that linked touch to team performance in the NBA. After examining every hug, high-five and shoulder bump delivered by professional basketball players during the 2008-2009 season, the researchers found a correlation between high levels of physical contact and game success. The findings, which controlled for such factors as skill level and league ranking, were significant enough to garner a call from Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets (who holds an MBA).

Unfortunately for the Rockets, there is no clear way to take advantage of the study’s findings on the court. But the workplace, where political correctness and fear of sexual harassment charges have imposed a contact chill, is another matter.

Kraus is currently in the early stages of expanding his research to determine if touchy teammates outperform in non-sports environments and with cross-gender interactions. But he is already convinced that “touch is going to work out,” proving to raise team performance across the board. “We use touch at birth,” he says. “It really is an important way in which we communicate warmth, trust and a lot of information interpersonally in a really short time. Ruling it out entirely is a bad idea for workplace satisfaction and a huge problem in the long run.”

Encouraging employees to touch each would seem to be an obvious HR minefield, at least at first glance. But Alexander Kjerulf, a Danish workplace consultant, hopes the Berkeley study will convince more managers to loosen up. Kjerulf helps clients, ranging from IBM to Ikea, to create happier office environments, which in turn can lead to lower absenteeism and turnover, and improved productivity. He points out that the No. 1 source for happiness at work is not related to the job per se. Research shows employees are most content when they have good relationships with their bosses and co-workers. And Kjerulf insists the best relationships come from being natural. “We are pack animals,” he adds, “and not touching each other is not natural.”

According to Kjerulf, managers don’t have to encourage touching. They just need to stop frowning upon it. The real issue, he says, is that a lot of corporate cultures fear emotion in the workplace. “Managers want a cold, rational culture, which can only be an illusion, because we are emotional beings. Denying what comes naturally actually lowers productivity.”

The consultant admits not every company is suited to a hug-me culture like the one at Southwest Airlines, the U.S. carrier that’s used the slogan “How do we love you? Let us count the ways.” Nevertheless, he insists all workplaces can benefit from the strategic use of more light touching. For example, instead of sending an e-mail to congratulate someone for achieving a goal, Kjerulf says, a boss could make a corporate thank-you actually mean something by simply delivering it with a handshake.

Kraus knows many managers will not want to embrace his research. But he points out a way they can take advantage of his findings without undue risk. After all, observing how much touching occurs naturally between co-workers can be a useful tool when building teams or hiring consultants. “Picking the touchy team,” he says, “could pay off.”

So the next time you hire, look for someone with the George W. touch. And give them a pat on the back if they accept the position.