MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXI No. 1
September / October 2008
Silence of the Lions
MIT's New Supercomputing Network
Problems in Evaluating
Four-Year Colleges
Agenda Items: New and Old
An Update on the Educational Commons Subcommittee
Teaching this fall? You should know . . .
Moving From Two Degrees to
Double Majors
MIT 4th Best College,
Top Engineering School
Darwin Bicentenntial Events
Planned at MIT
What is the Global Education and Career Development Center?
The First Step Toward Solving Global Warming: Getting MIT to Listen
MISTI Announces the
MISTI Global Seed Funds
Workplace 2.0: Improving Generativity, Creativity, and Faculty Quality of Life
Why So Few Faculty
are Involved in Service
Research Expenditures by Primary Sponsor (1999-2008)
Printable Version

Workplace 2.0: Improving Generativity, Creativity,
and Faculty Quality of Life

Suzanne Flynn and Zan Barry

Author Wayne Muller offers this anecdote:

Not long ago I was speaking with Hans-Peter Durr, who for 20 years collaborated with Nobel Prize winner Werner Heisenberg, discoverer of the famous Uncertainty Principle in quantum physics. Himself a noted quantum physicist, Hans-Peter told me that he often had long, impassioned discussions with Heisenberg when they were working together on a particular problem. “We would be talking excitedly about the problem from every angle, and then suddenly Heisenberg would say, ‘Wait, I think we have touched something very important here. Let's not talk about it any more. Let's wait for two weeks, and let it solve itself.’ Then, when we got together two weeks later, it would invariably be solved.” [Wayne Muller, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives (1999) p.190, New York: Bantam Books]

When was the last time your creativity had two weeks of gestation time in which to blossom? The notion seems downright luxurious in today’s marketplace of ideas, but the nature of academic work requires this type of percolation. However, based on the 2008 MIT Faculty Quality of Life Survey, such creative time is in short supply.

Faculty have low satisfaction with the integration of work and personal/family life and cite “lack of time to think and reflect” as one of their top three stressors, behind secure funding for research and scholarly productivity (which are, of course, interwoven concerns).

  • 58% rated their workload as too heavy, with 16% saying it is much too heavy
    • 19 hrs/week was spent on scholarship; 44% were dissatisfied (32% very) with time available for scholarly work
    • 78% (25% extensive) see lack of time to think and reflect as a source of stress
      • 80% (24% extensive) see lack of time for non-work as a source of stress
        • 61% (14% extensive) see inability to pursue outside interests as a source of stress
          • 29% agreed (8% strongly) that physical presence is important to their department
            • 25% disagreed (7% strongly) that their department values non-MIT activities
              • 50% (18% extensive) considered “to increase time for research” as a reason for leaving MIT
                • 49% (17% extensive) considered “to reduce stress” as a reason for leaving MIT
                  • 48% were dissatisfied (13% very) with the integration of work life and family/personal life

                    How can we improve these outcomes? In the fall of 2006, a subgroup (“Workplace 2.0”) was commissioned by the Council on Work and Family at MIT to explore approaches for enhancing creativity, engagement, and well-being on campus. We are not suggesting pat answers to complex questions, but rather signposts that can point the Institute toward a new wave of intellectual incubation and development, and new ways of working.

                    Our research led us to look at: What are the characteristics of environments that support optimal creative breakthrough with minimum burnout?

                    What are the assets that faculty can take advantage of within their own departments and work styles that are supportive of creativity, productivity, and innovation? A white paper of interdisciplinary research supports several key principles of the optimally creative workplace. The very work style that promotes the greatest breakthroughs and creativity is the same style that enhances personal engagement and fulfillment. Personal fulfillment and academic achievement are not at cross-purposes with each other – at least, they don’t have to be. For example:

                    • “The more hours I work in a day, the more I will get done” is a common mythology. Hammering away at problems by dedicating more and more time quickly reaches a point of diminishing returns; the oscillation of activities and “micro-breaks” produces better outcomes.
                      • Sacrificing downtime, exercise, and sleep creates cognitive deficit and does not take advantage of the cognitive enhancement of restorative activities, thereby reducing optimum engagement and creativity.
                        • Nobel laureates (and other prize winners of similar renown) exhibit wide ranges of experiences (such as cross-cultural experiences) and important non-scientific avocations in the arts and humanities that have the potential to stimulate multi-modal forms of perception.
                          • There is an (often untapped) power in fostering diverse relationships among committed colleagues at work, which promote creative thinking and vital social support.

                            This is only a preview of the research that supports both breakthrough and wellbeing. There are key cultural approaches to work at MIT that exacerbate the difficulties faced by faculty members. By addressing them as a community, we can create an upgrade in the world of work. Workplace 2.0 at MIT is not based on the premise of asking faculty to take on more and do more. Rather, it proposes a conversion to environments and work styles that are more conducive for the demanding creative tasks of the Institute, to help us all not just survive but thrive.

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