The Stone Age Answer to Your Desk Job

They walk or run miles every day – often barefoot. They survive on a diet of vegetables, fruit, meat and fish – which they like to eat raw. They sleep on the ground and wear loincloths made of bear skins – OK, I made that last part up.

These are the modern-day paleo fanatics and there may be one sitting right next to you.

This return to the Stone Age movement involves living like our ancestors did in the Palaeolithic period, the era of human history which started about 2.6 million years ago and ended around 10,000 BC. Back then people worked in small, tribal groups known as “bands”, and led an active, outdoorsy lifestyle.

The craze to copy the paleo humans started with the paleo diet. Now the Stone Age practice is sneaking into our offices too

With just simple stone and wood tools, eventually they conquered every continent except Antarctica. They hunted a range of bizarre animals, from tiny hippos to giant sloths, and gathered what they could find. Think of the recent Aardman film Early Man, but with less football.

The craze to copy the paleo humans started with the paleo diet, swapping processed and carbohydrate-rich foods for a high-protein, high-fibre menu. Now the Stone Age practice is sneaking into our offices too.

Today it extends to all kinds of uncomfortable habits. Diehard enthusiasts across the globe have been taking up barefoot running, swapping mattresses for cold, hard earth, not eating for days at a time, going to the toilet in a squatting position, and even donating blood regularly to simulate being wounded, to name but a few.

It seems that long work hours, high stress levels, massive, open plan buildings and sitting at our desks all day aren’t very good for our health – who would have thought it? And all of these things can be bad for productivity, too.

This isn’t about holding meetings in caves. It’s about small changes that will make the time we spend at work more compatible with human biology

Enter the paleo office, a concept which could make our workplaces more efficient. This isn’t about growing your beard out or holding meetings in caves. It’s about small changes that will make the time we spend at work more compatible with human biology. For example, taking walking meetings, investing in standing desks, and taking regular breaks to de-stress.

(Credit: Lionsgate/Entertainment/Alamy)

Nick Park’s animation, Early Man, tells the tale of an innovative Stone Age tribe versus a more sophisticated Bronze Age group
(Credit: Lionsgate/Entertainment/Alamy)

Proponents argue that while technology and culture are evolving at astonishing speed, our bodies are not. They say that humans today are essentially hunter-gatherers, displaced in a world of massive global businesses and long hours. It’s a controversial idea, but regardless of your views, anything that makes office life easier to bear is difficult to argue with.

“There’s three aspects to it – one is the organisation of the office and how it’s managed. The other thing is to create an environment which is, at least, approaching something we’re used to as hunter gatherers. And the other thing is to make it less sedentary,” says Gustav Milne, who recently authored a book about how we can improve our lifestyles by better understanding our prehistoric past.

Dunbar’s magic number

Take company size. In the corporate world it’s often assumed that bigger is better, but this may not always be the case. While larger teams may get more done overall, individuals in big groups actually perform worse. Theories abound as to why, ranging from the idea that it’s easier to find the right support in a smaller group, to a tendency to agree with everything your colleagues say if you have too many people in one team. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos calls it the “two pizza rule”: if a team can’t be fed by two pizzas, it’s too large.

Jeff Bezos calls it the ‘two pizza rule’: if a team can’t be fed by two pizzas, it’s too large

But one reason around maximising individual performance at work is rooted in our biology. In fact, maintaining friendships can be very mentally draining and there’s a limit to the number of people we can keep up with socially at any given time: around 150. These are our so-called “casual friends”, the kinds of people we follow on social media and might invite to a large party. This rule has been shown to apply across multiple cultures and eras; from ancient Mesopotamian villages to the nomadic !Kung San people of Botswana, the number of people we know is exactly the same.

But fast-forward to today and we’re forced into massive social groups on a regular basis. Apple’s new headquarters in California will eventually house 12,000 employees, while Google’s giant new office in London will be capable of housing 7,000 people. There may be downsides to this.

The thing is, the magic number of people we can know – known as Dunbar’s number – is hardwired in our biology. It’s limited by the size of our brains, and first emerged around 250,000 years ago, when we were living in tribal groups. Even today, 150 is the average size of military companies and academic circles.

According to Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Oxford who co-authored the study that coined the idea, our social limits are still relevant in the corporate world today. “If you want to run your organisation as an egalitarian, democratic institution, this is about the limit,” he says. “It means you don’t need a hierarchy because everyone works on the basis of personal relationships and personal obligation.”

Limiting offices to 150 people might create happier and more productive workplaces

Following this principle, in the future, limiting offices to 150 people might create happier and more productive workplaces. If everyone has met and has some kind of personal relationship, it might be easier to cooperate with colleagues and your boss is unlikely to be intimidating or aggressive. Already, there is some anecdotal evidence that this is the case.

As of last year, Gore-Tex, which makes waterproof and breathable fabric, has appeared on Fortune magazine’s ‘100 Best Companies to Work For’ list 20 times. It prides itself on not having a rigid hierarchy; instead it has a “latticework” approach to management, which treats its employees more like a structure of interwoven talents. How has it achieved this harmony? As Malcolm Gladwell explains in his book The Tipping Point, the company adheres to what he called the “rule of 150”.

The story goes that in the company’s early days, its co-founder Bill Gore noticed that when a factory reached 150 employees, it started to become less efficient and productive. From then on, he limited all his factories to this number of people; instead of expanding them, he just kept building more new factories next door, creating a community of staff that were willing to work hard and help each other out.

Dunbar explains that once organisations expand beyond 200 people, communication really breaks down. Firms begin to need a top-down management structure because face-to-face communication stops and a silo effect can kick in, for instance, when different parts of a company end up working on the same project, but no one notices, duplicating work and wasting resources.

This is something Patty McCord, the former chief talent officer at Netflix and the author of Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility, is familiar with. “Often when I work with start-ups I say that you have to change the way you communicate when you can no longer do it standing up on a chair. And that’s about 150 people if you’ve got a room that’s big enough,” she says.

This is partly for entirely practical reasons – “To speak with people you have to go to another country, another building, another floor,” says McCord – but there are other factors.

In smaller organisations where everyone has some kind of personal relationship, people are more likely to be helpful and less likely to shirk their obligations. They also tend to have a better understanding of what the business is about, since they’re likely to have bonded with colleagues in several departments beyond their own home team.

If the paleo movement is all about moulding our lifestyles and environment to suit our biology, adhering to Dunbar’s number in the office might be a good place to start. It makes sense that organisations based on personal relationships would be more efficient, while navigating politics and collaborating would be a lot easier if you at least knew everyone’s name and role.  “The more people understand the [whole] business, the more they understand the customers they’re serving, then they can be much more aligned and make better independent decisions,” McCord explains.

But there are other ways of aligning our future workplaces with our paleo past. One is to bring some nature into the office.

It’s thought that our prehistoric ancestors spent a large portion of their day outdoors. In contrast, the average American spends 47 hours every week confined in offices. Recently researchers at the London School of Economics estimated that the psychological trauma of this daily slog costs the US economy about $250 billion every year. In 2013, an EU-funded project estimated that work-related depression costs Europe €617 billion annually.

One 2014 study found that employees were 15% more productive when their fashionable, minimalist offices were filled in with houseplants.

Facebook last year announced plans for a new building in Menlo Park, California, which boasts a garden roof the size of nearly seven American football pitches. The new $5 billion Apple HQ, Apple Park, is even more extravagant, with around nine thousand newly planted trees.

Lenny has recently been joined by Waffles, a golden retriever, and Tofu, who’s a Shiba Inu

But other firms are trying a different tack.

“One of the nice things is you get an extra oxytocin bump if you’re having a rough day,” says Phil Nottingham, a strategist who works for the online video hosting company Wistia, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He’s talking about petting his co-worker Lenny, a charismatic red labradoodle who has been with the company since the beginning.

Lenny has recently been joined by Waffles, a golden retriever, and Tofu, who’s a Shiba Inu. They spend most of the day chewing things and loudly interrupting meetings, but the company welcomes all dogs, so long as they don’t aggravate any allergies or wee on the floor – standards you can’t really argue with.

Nottingham believes that the whole company benefits from their presence there. And there’s emerging evidence that colleagues you can cuddle may reap benefits in terms of employee satisfaction, too.

There haven’t been many studies on the impact of pets in the workplace, but there is some low-budget research from 2006. It involved showing college students a picture of an office that contained a cat, dog, or no animal, and asking them to rate their satisfaction and mood if it were their office. Those who viewed the pet-containing office said they’d be happier and more sociable, though they also saw their imaginary workplace as less professional, clean and safe.

Meanwhile, a study from 2012 found that employees who were allowed to take their dogs to work started the day just as stressed as everyone else – but as the day progressed, they became significantly less so than those who weren’t allowed their pooches.

Get up, stand up

The final flourish in any self-respecting paleo office is to encourage movement at all costs. It’s now well known that a sedentary office life can sap workers of energy and increase their risk of death. Enter so-called “low fat” buildings, which encourage physical activity with sneaky design, such as centrepiece staircases and hiding the lifts.

Just a few years ago, standing desks were the preserve of mavericks in Silicon Valley, but today these too are entering the mainstream. In Scandinavia, 90% of office workers have access to one, while in Denmark, it’s a legal requirement for companies to provide them. Walking meetings are also on the rise, with fans such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.

It might have taken millennia to invent the open-plan office, minimalist décor and desks, but with a bit of luck, we’ll be back to the Stone Ages soon. Just don’t swap your suit for a loincloth just yet.

  • By Zaria Gorvett
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