Touch is quite possibly the most useful sense we possess. In pure utilitarian terms our sense of touch serves as the first and best warning system that something externally is affecting us (as anyone who has accidentally picked up a hot pan off the stove can attest). It is our sense of touch that alerts the body that something is harming us, prompting a reaction in our nervous system within seconds that makes us recoil our hand, saving ourselves from harm. But touch doesn’t just warn us about danger. It is also deeply linked with our emotions. Touch tells us that we are safe—so just chill out. Look at the face of a newborn baby being coddled by her mother’s breast. Touch also tells us we are loved, as anyone who has ever received a caress from a romantic partner can attest. And touch can bring us so much physical pleasure, from activities as therapeutic as massage or as passionate as sex.
But what’s even more compelling about touch is that in recent years science has shown that its benefits go way beyond its important abilities to detect pain and convey the sense of safety, love, and passion in intimate relationships. Touch among colleagues, according to researchers, can lead to greater trust and productivity.
The first major study identifying the benefits of workplace touch comes from a 2009 analysis of NBA players. In the study, researchers analyzed videos of games from the 2008-2009 season, and noted how many times the players on each team touched each other. They found that touch between players in the early season predicted greater performance for both individual players and the team as a whole later in the season. Even more surprisingly, the analysis found that “touch predicted improved performance even after accounting for player status, preseason expectations, and early season performance.”
The study got some people wondering if those kinds of friendly touches could also produce the same benefits off the court, in the traditional workplace. Can a pat on the back or even a hug between colleagues result in increased productivity?
“When that touching is appropriate and wanted, it certainly does,” says David J. Linden, professor of neuroscience at John Hopkins University and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Neurophysiology. His newest book, Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind, explores the psychological and psychological basis of touch. “Friendly touching serves as social glue that binds people in the workplace and in the community. It engenders feelings of trust and cooperation. It makes coworkers have more team spirit and more empathy for each other.”
Linden says the physiological basis of these beneficial effects of workplace touch are only partially understood, but they are responsible for the secretion of oxytocin, a hormone that promotes bonding and reduces social phobias, and activation of the brain’s emotional touch circuits located in regions called the posterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex. And these processes not only allow individuals to work more productively, but also foster productivity among teams of colleagues–just as they did with the NBA players.
James Coan, a research psychologist at the University of Virginia, who studies the effect of touch on the brain’s response to stress, suggests touch is a way for us to communicate who’s on our team, as well as to “contract out” our stress management. At work, where stress is a constant threat to success, communicating with co-workers through touch might free up our brains—specifically our prefrontal cortexes—to worry about other things we tackle in the course of a day, like decision-making, planning, and finances.
Handshakes, high fives, fist bumps, and even back pats are all part of a healthy workplace, says Alexander Kjerulf, a consultant and author of Happy Hour is 9 to 5: How to Love Your Job, Love Your Life, and Kick Butt at Work.
“Touching is very fundamental,” says Kjerulf, who leads workshops worldwide on how to make the workplace happier and more productive; He is also the “chief happiness officer” at Woohoo, the company he founded. “It helps create better relationships at work. It promotes closeness, inclusion, intimacy, and trust among a group of people when their daily interactions also allow them to touch.”
And while a handshake before a meeting is often blamed for spreading germs, recent research indicates there may be an opposite effect: a paper published in December in Psychological Science found that social support can help gird the immune system and better fight off illness. In experiments, hugging accounted for 32% of that social “stress-buffering effect.”
Yet despite its benefits, touch is something that is often frowned upon in many workplaces—a view people like Kjerulf and Linden believe would change if only companies could understand how beneficial touch can be. While sweeping changes to societal preconceptions of workplace touch may take a while, here are some tips for those who are open to exploring the benefits of touch in their workplace now.
There’s a fine line between using the power of touch effectively in the workplace and becoming “that creepy touchy-feely guy.” If you feel awkward about giving someone a literal pat on the back, don’t force it; you’ll just come off looking weird. Instead, go for the simple handshake.
“Handshakes are almost always a safe bet,” says Kjerulf. “I did some consulting work with a company here in Denmark that had a rule that when you met a coworker for the first time that day, you had to shake hands. This was in the mornings–until about 10 a.m.”
“The result was much better relationships in that company. People trusted each other more, communicated more openly, and solved conflicts better. It’s harder to have a long-running conflict with a coworker when you typically end up shaking hands with that person most mornings.”
Various studies have enumerated the positive social effects of handshaking, a greeting thought to date to ancient times, when it may have been seen as a sign that you weren’t carrying any weapons. In 2012, for instance, Florin Dolcos and Sanda Dolcos, psychology researchers at the University of Illinois, found that handshakes left a beneficial impact on future social interactions. In a study that scanned the brains of 18 people who watched footage of businessmen meeting for the first time, the nucleus accumbens—a region of the brain that is sensitive to rewards—showed than around those without, demonstrating, they wrote, “the positive effect of a handshake on social evaluation.”
Part of the reason touching is verboten in many workplaces is the fear of unwanted touching. Any claims about inappropriate touching of any kind need to be dealt with swiftly and appropriately. And remember that inappropriate touching need not be sexual harassment to deserve reporting to a boss or a human resources manager.
If you’re open to using productive touch in the workplace, keep in mind that others–even your colleagues closest to you–may not be as receptive, no matter how well-intentioned your motives are. With that in mind, if in doubt, the safest option is to never touch someone.
“We are all different,” says Kjerulf. “Some of your coworkers would love to start their working day with a hug, and for some a friendly pat on the shoulder would be far too much.” To find an example of when a shoulder touch is just too much, look no further than this video of George W. Bush trying to give Angela Merkel a friendly shoulder rub.
“Her body language clearly says, ‘Get away from me, you weirdo!’” says Kjerulf. “This is really about knowing the people you work with well enough to figure out who to hug, who to give a handshake, and who never to touch.”
While the workplace normally has rules for everything, from who’s responsible for reloading the printer paper to kitchen office etiquette, Kjerulf says companies shouldn’t try to make hard-and-fast rules for what kind of touch is appropriate. Touch is a fluid, natural action, and rules of how or where to touch will make even the most innocent touch feel creepy or at the very least, forced.
“Sexual harassment is a very real thing, and can have terrible consequences for those who are harassed,” Kjerulf says. “But rules for how to touch would only trip us up and make us terribly self-conscious about touching at work, while sexual harassers probably would not care about those rules. It will always depend on the individual, and on your relationship with that person. While there are clearly parts of the body that are always a no-go at work–do I need to elaborate?–aside from those, it depends.”
At some workplaces and U.S. schools, Kjerulf says, all touching is avoided out of a fear of being misunderstood or inviting sexual harassment lawsuits. He calls that a “tragedy.”
“Yes, sexual harassment is a problem in some workplaces, but eliminating all physical contact is not a solution–it may even be part of the problem,” says Kjerulf. “My worry is that it introduces a level of awkwardness and self-consciousness that makes interpersonal relations in the workplace less natural and more likely to foster unhealthy interpersonal relationships.”
Kierulf says that if a workplace has to draw up these kinds of rules, they may have bigger problems. “Trying to ‘legislate’ your way to safe touching–also futile. A one-second pat on the back may be fine for some people and borderline harassment for others. Again, it depends on who you are and on your relationship with the other person.”
And because of cultural differences, which legislate a wide variety of touching, rules about how to touch at work also aren’t practical in workplaces with a large number of employees who come from across the globe.
“In many Mediterranean and Latin American cultures, kissing on the cheek is perfectly normal at work. Personally I find it a little weird and try to get used to it when I’m in those countries.” In Saudi Arabia, men greet each other by kissing on the mouth and sometimes walk holding hands, which, Kjerulf says, “would probably be a stretch in most Western workplaces.”
Perhaps the best way to tell if touch in the workplace will benefit your colleagues is by being aware of how your actions affect people. Remember, if in doubt, never touch. But if you do give the gentle pat on the back for a job well done or that fist bump to your colleague for landing that big client, pay attention to how they react to that touch.
Does their body perform any micro-jerks? Do you see in their eyes that the experience was awkward for them? Do they react like Angela Merkel? These gestures will often be enough to alert you to the fact that maybe they’re not the kind of people who like to be touched. And if you feel you may have invaded their personal space too much, ask them about it and apologize.
It’s worth noting that if your colleagues are open to workplace touch, knowing too when to give them their personal space will go a long way. People are often more sensitive to touching when they perceive you’re sick—or just have poor hygiene. So wash those hands, trim those fingernails, and if you’re blowing your nose all day, know that someone who usually is receptive to a handshake might appreciate you not offering your hand that day.
“Know the people you work with well enough to figure out what’s okay with them and what isn’t. Be aware of how you affect other people. This is good advice not just for touching, but also for how we communicate at work in general,” says Kjerulf.
But if all parties involved are fine with it, then by all means: touch away.
“Touching is natural to us as a species of primate. All primates use touch to create and strengthen group cohesion. It’s just that we have created societies where touching is frowned upon–one of the reasons for this sense of isolation and loneliness that plagues many people in the West,” says Kjerulf. “In order to be happy at work, we need to feel accepted in the workplace, as coworkers and as human beings. We need to feel valued, appreciated, and liked as people. And touching helps give us that sense.”
Still, the sense may have its work cut out if it is to survive in the workplace of the future. Not only is touching fighting an uphill battle against increasing social stigma, but it’s also the only social sense we possess that technology, with its promises of “frictionless” experiences and virtual spaces, doesn’t have a need for. After all, many of us aren’t working around other people in offices anymore–we’re working from our laptops in our homes or in cafes, communicating by email and chat room. To a freelancer working remotely, a touch from a trusted coworker–a firm handshake, a healthy pat on the shoulder for a job well done–might sound like quaint anachronisms. But it might also sound like an increasingly rare and valuable kind of affirmation, a tangible feeling.
Naturally, not everyone will agree about this sensitive subject. What place does touching have in your workplace–or what place should it have? Share your thoughts in the comments.