Building A Better Company, One Lunchtime Dance Party At A Time

Dancing with coworkers at a Lunch Beat party
Dancing with coworkers at a Lunch Beat party
Bob Geisler

HAMBURG — When Kathrin Fiesel talks about lunch breaks at her company, people can't believe it: "You do what? You go dancing!?"

Her employer, the e-commerce giant Otto, in Hamburg's Bramfeld district, has for several months now been trying out alternatives to the classic visit to the canteen. One of the things they’ve come up with is "Lunch Beat," an activity that is held at regular intervals and involves as many as 200 workers dancing away to songs like "Happy" by Pharrell Williams or "Monsta" by Culcha Candela.

"We went to a converted, darkened factory floor; there were finger foods, a DJ, and disco lighting," Fiesel says of her most recent visit to the company club. "Everybody was dancing. It was really cool because you got to know a whole other side of the people you work with."

Lunch Beat is just one of the events that take place in what is known as Loft 06 on the Otto grounds. Sometimes a speaker from the Modern Life School philosophizes about art, or poetry slammers read their works. The lunch breaks have also given staffers opportunities to try out innovations such as data glasses, 3-D printers and drones. Next on the agenda is a series of short films and readings by actors from the Thalia Theater.

"What we want to do is design the breaks differently so that they contribute positive energy to the working climate," says Otto's human resources director, Sabine Josch, who is responsible for about 5,000 workers in Hamburg. The idea is for staffers to take away new stimuli from the monthly events that also impact their lives outside the company.

Feel-good management

Otto is not the only company now providing alternatives to the cafeteria. Workers at Unilever meet over lunch to jog from HafenCity to the Planten un Blomen park. The firm also houses a complete fitness center that offers activities such as Qigong, Pilates and indoor cycling, and features a massage chair — a staff favorite — where employees can opt for either talk-led deep relaxation or a back massage with music.

Nivea maker Beiersdorf, also based in Hamburg, has a health management program called "Good for me" that offers weekly courses over lunch ranging from classic back pain prevention, yoga and autogenic training to mindfulness exercises, massage with a spikey ball and mental dream and fantasy exercises.

One Hamburg software developer even has a "feel-good manager" who, among other things, pushed for workers working on demanding programming projects to be able to do some power napping in company sleeping nooks.

Companies going to the trouble of organizing these activities aren't doing so only for the sake of employees: They also want to increase productivity. Doctors have long recognized that tuning out and doing other things during a break is regenerative as long as what’s on offer doesn’t put undue pressure on people or time them out too much.

Otto employee Kathrin Fiesel, for one, is convinced the strategy works. "For an hour you’re in another world and your head clears," she says of the Lunch Beat program. "Afterwards, colleagues and I were very upbeat when we returned to our work places."

Laid-back corporate culture

Lunch Beat is also a way for the Hamburg e-commerce company to liven up its image. For that same reason, Otto came up with a redesign for its latest company report, which now looks like a travel diary with handwritten notes as opposed to a place where data goes to die. The company also changed its hiring procedures. Job applications can now be submitted by smartphone, by annexing a XING profile. And for several months the group has been informing the general public by blog about internal developments and trends in their sector.

"Organizing lunch breaks differently is part of a different, innovative and more laid-back corporate culture at Otto," says human resources director Sabine Josch.

The change also aims to make the company interesting to the many IT and e-commerce experts that Otto urgently needs to complete its transformation from classic mail order company to online seller. In this the company is competing with Internet companies such as Google, with its foam rubber stress balls in offices and conference rooms, or with ambitious online game makers such as Goodgame Studios in Bahrenfeld, which uses its open-air pool and after-work beer policy to help lure the hundreds of new workers it hires every year.

"In the tough competition for the best people we obviously want to present ourselves as attractive employers," says Josch. "The most important thing is that we have exciting projects and jobs to offer through which staffers can make things happen. Additional options like Lunch Beat can possibly help with recruiting. But nobody is going to come work for us just because he or she can dance during their lunch break."

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Saving The Planet Is Really A Question Of Dopamine

Our carelessness toward the environment could be due, in part, to the functioning of a very primitive area of our brain: the striatum.

Ad scuba-diver and brain coral

Stefano Lupieri

PARIS — Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Addictions to sex and social media

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the 'pleasure hormone.'

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

Transverse section of striatum from a structural MRI image

Lindsay Hanford and Geoff B Hall via Wikipedia

Tweaking genetics 

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Les Echos
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