Back to McKinsey Organization Blog

How organizations can build healthy employee habits

Major transitions open the door for organizations to help their teams build positive and healthy workplace habits.
Bill Schaninger

Designs and manages large-scale organizational transformations, strengthening business performance through enhanced culture, values, leadership, and talent systems

Taylor Lauricella

Advises organizations on a range of culture and talent topics with particular expertise in driving behavior change at scale through capability building, cultural transformation, and digital solutions

Stephanie Smallets

Helps organizations develop and implement culture and talent initiatives by fostering enterprise-wide inclusion, utilizing employee listening techniques, and translating behavioral science to action

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated many forces already in play over the last decade. One of the most significant shifts being the move to remote and distributed work. In this context, a frequent question we hear from leaders is: How do we promote healthy and performance-driving habits across our front-line teams, many of whom are more decentralized than ever before?

The good news is that there is no better time to build habits than during times of rapid change. Habits are automatic behaviors that occur in response to a recurring cue in the environment. Environmental cues are the key, but often an overlooked, component of habit formation. Fortunately, this means major transitions open the door for organizations to help their teams build positive and healthy workplace habits.

How habits work

In his best-selling book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg breaks down habits into three parts: a cue, a routine and a reward. We’ll use the example of recognizing team members for exceptional work to illustrate each one.

In this case, the routine is recognizing a team member, for example publicly acknowledging their accomplishment. The cue is the prompt that causes the routine to happen. Cues may take many forms including location, time, an emotional state, other people, or an immediately preceding action. Here, the cue may be an immediately-preceding action – a team member doing something exceptional. The reward is the craving that is satisfied by the routine. In this example, the reward may be the emotional response. It feels good to make others feel good.

The role of individuals in habit-building

Individuals can choose the routine they want to start or stop based on the reward they’re hoping to experience, and use best practices to do so sustainably, such as starting with micro-behaviors.

However, when it comes to cues, individuals have less control. Whereas a 2006 meta-analysis by Thomas Webb and Paschal Sheeran found that intentions to change behaviors are only modestly related to actual behavior change, several studies by habit expert, Wendy Wood, and her colleagues estimate that 45% of daily behavior happens in the same place at the same time – or location and time cues.

The role of organizations in habit-building

Organizations can help promote healthy employee habits in two ways: defining the routines to start and stop and changing cues in the environment.

  1. Defining the routines to start and stop

    Organizations can help employees develop habits by clearly defining what routines to start—and those to stop. One of the best ways for organizations to determine this is to disaggregate their strategic and cultural aspirations into individual-level goals and behaviors to work toward.

    For example, a global steel company undergoing an agile transformation identified proactively sharing materials and discussing the company’s vision as two core routines required to achieve its cultural pillar, collaboration.

  2. Changing cues in the environment

    One of the most powerful ways to disrupt old habits and empower new ones is to change the environment. Research suggests that organizations can proactively change the environment and cues through formal mechanisms or retroactively develop new cues in response to unavoidable environmental changes.

    By changing formal mechanisms, organizations can both disrupt old habits and create new ones with one single shift. For example, Virgin Atlantic disrupted their flight captains’ fuel usage habits and decreased fuel costs by 3.3 million pounds by providing monthly usage reports.

    When inevitable changes occur, organizations can create cues in the new environment to support employees in building new habits. This can be done by offering personalized coaching, which, when tech-enabled, can provide cues in real-time.

As we continue into the unknown future of work, we can expect more shifts in context to disrupt employees’ existing work habits. While this may seem daunting to organizations, it creates opportunities to support employees in building new, positive habits in their place.

Connect with our Organization Practice