68. The Future of Work and peak employee performance | Dr. Erik Korem, Founder of AIM7


Dr. Erik Korem | Founder of AIM7


Our guest this week is Dr. Erik Korem, a high-performance coach who is bridging the gap between high-performance athletes and knowledge workers. 

In Episode 68 we start by defining what peak performance is at work and how virtual workplaces enable peak performance today.


Erik Korem Pic


Erik has introduced sports science and athlete tracking technologies to collegiate and professional (NFL) football. He has worked with the National Football League, Power-5 NCAA programs, gold-medal Olympians, Nike, and the United States Department of Defense. It is this work and his insights that he is now using to help businesses and their employees work at their peak. Erik is an expert in sleep and stress resilience and he is the Founder and CEO of AIM7.




[00:00:00] - Erik Korem
Prior to the pandemic, a lot of technology companies were working in these open office plans where everybody was lumped into one area. I found that this was actually very distracting for knowledge workers as the literature shows that surveys of people work in these environments report higher levels of stress, fatigue, irritation and even health complaints.

[00:00:33] - Doug Foulkes
Hello and welcome to Episode 68 of Chaos & Rocketfuel, the Future of Work Podcast. This is the podcast where we look at every aspect of work in the future. It's brought to you by WNDYR and Pattyrn. As always, I'm here with Claire Haidar, the CEO of WNDYR and Pattyrn.

[00:00:50] - Doug Foulkes
Claire, we're talking to Erik Korem today. But before that, I just want to ask, how are you feeling?

[00:00:55] - Claire Haidar
I'm great. I feel on top of the world this morning, Doug. It's spring in Dallas and there's a very soft gentle rain falling. I looked out of my window this morning and I could see my mint plant blooming, and that always makes me really happy.

[00:01:12] - Doug Foulkes
Mint. Mint is like a weed. Our Mint plant is all over the place.

[00:01:16] - Claire Haidar
It's all over the place. Yeah. No, it is. That's what makes me so happy. It's just when it goes green after winter, then you know spring is here.

[00:01:24] - Doug Foulkes
Back to Erik. Tell me a little about Erik Korem and what he's doing on the podcast.

[00:01:29] - Claire Haidar
I can honestly say that I think the topic that we're going to be discussing with Erik today, it would rank in my top two topics that HR professionals and all C-suites executives should be engaging in right now. That is a combination of peak performance, practical applications with regards to health data and how companies should be using that and also sleep.

[00:01:55] - Doug Foulkes
Sleep and the health data is coming later. What are we talking about as far as peak performance today?

[00:02:01] - Claire Haidar
For those who don't know Erik Korem, he is a doctor. He has his doctorate in sleep, and he has done some incredible work with the National Footballers League in the US. He is bringing all of that research and sharing that with us and applying it to work today and the future of work.

[00:02:25] - Claire Haidar
We're specifically asking him what is the definition of peak performance? We're then taking a really critical look at workplaces today and how they are either enabling or disabling peak performance.

[00:02:38] - Doug Foulkes
I can't wait to chat to Erik. Let's get on with it. Erik, good evening to me. Good morning for yourself. So nice to meet you and welcome to the podcast.

[00:02:47] - Erik Korem
Thank you for having me. Excited to be here.

[00:02:50] - Doug Foulkes
I think it's going to be a really interesting and exciting hour ahead of us. I'm going to kick straight off with relating what you do in peak performance to business. Employees and companies define peak performance differently. As an expert and scientific researcher in this area, can you give us a definition of peak performance in work?

[00:03:12] - Erik Korem
Yeah, I think it doesn't matter whether you're an athlete or you're working in business. It's the ability to consistently operate at your performance potential. I think the word performance is the critical word to zoom in on because depending on your job function, performance looks different.

[00:03:32] - Erik Korem
For instance, if you're a truck driver, it could be driving long durations while maintaining a high degree of alertness to safely transport goods from one location to another. However, if you're a knowledge worker where things are moving pretty rapidly, to me, performance would then be able to process and act on information under acute and long term stress or pressure.

[00:03:57] - Doug Foulkes
That definition opens it right up for you to jump in, Claire.

[00:04:02] - Claire Haidar
I know. I'm pondering that. There's about 100 other questions in my brain right now. Okay, so Erik, we naturally want to focus this whole conversation on the future of work, and with today's blended work environments and virtual workplaces, given that you've just given us that really profound in many ways definition of what peak performance is, how do current workplaces today enable peak performance? And more importantly, how do they disable it?

[00:04:35] - Erik Korem
Yeah, I think now that we're working in these more dispersed work environments. I think all three of us are at home in an office or something like that. It gives you greater control over your physical work environment to create the conditions for success.

[00:04:52] - Erik Korem
In human performance, work performance, you want to create conditions that'll enable themselves to lend itself to performance. At the beginning of January, I did an entire podcast series on this, and I got really deep into the weeds on productivity.

[00:05:09] - Erik Korem
Prior to the pandemic, a lot of technology companies were working in these open offense plans where everybody was lumped into one area. I found that this was actually very distracting for knowledge workers. As the literature shows that surveys of people work in these environments report higher levels of stress, fatigue, irritation and even health complaints.

[00:05:35] - Erik Korem
A friend of mine is the CEO of a company called Teamworks. It's a multinational company that basically creates the communication networks for sports organizations. He said they had this beautiful building in North Carolina we were talking last week, and he said they found they used to have this open office plans, now that some people are coming back, the engineers are way more productive because they can work in a closed off environment and put their heads down.

[00:06:02] - Erik Korem
I think if you're working by yourself at your home, you can create the conditions in your working space that lend themselves to you being at your best. I also looking into disorder and how sometimes when you're clumped in with everybody else, like you're dealing with their mess, and some researchers at Princeton's Neuroscience Institute using functional MRI, which means you can look at the brain while it's actually working. They found that when participants cleared the clutter from their work environment, they were able to focus and process information and be more productive.

[00:06:39] - Erik Korem
I also think it helps you with habits and routines. If you have your own workspace, you can create the conditions that are best for you. You can also engage in habits and routines that lend themselves to productivity.

[00:06:52] - Erik Korem
For instance, if you are in a big corporate environment and you are really tired, let's say you have some kids, you were up last night or in the middle of the night and you needed a 15-minute nap. If you just lay down, people would be like, okay, this is not cool. But literature does show that a 15-20 minutes nap is a cognitive superpower. It improves your cognitive abilities. You can make better decisions. You could just go into the next room, take a 15-minute break and be back, and nobody would know the difference.

[00:07:21] - Erik Korem
Also, there's different phases of the day that lend themselves to different types of work. The first eight hours that you're awake during the day, the chemicals norepinephrine, cortisol and dopamine are at their most elevated levels, which are ideal for engaging in hard work or hard thinking. The next 9-16 hours, serotonin is at its highest level, which is great for creative thinking.

[00:07:48] - Erik Korem
If I'm working by myself and I know that I've got X, Y, Z tasks to get done today or over the next week, I could rearrange my day. If I know that I have specific check ins with my team, I have greater autonomy. Now, from the standpoint of disabling, I think meetings are the killer of productivity. You lose people really quick on these meetings that could have been an email. The duration of meetings are stupid long. Then also because we're digitally engaged in the meeting, have you ever been on a meeting when you know somebody's looking at another website or doing something else?

[00:08:25] - Claire Haidar
Oh, completely. It happens all the time.

[00:08:30] - Erik Korem
In my organization, it's be brief, be bright, be gone. So 15-minute meetings, 20-minute meetings, I'm like, get it in and then we're out and then we'll Slack as need be or we'll turn off Slack sometimes for periods of work where I don't want to be distracted, they don't want to be distracted.

[00:08:48] - Erik Korem
I think, though, that accountability can be an issue. There's a gray area with freedom, and with freedom comes responsibility. I think this is where choosing the people on your team matter, and that you want to work with self-discipline people that are internally motivated and aligned with your core values and mission.

[00:09:11] - Erik Korem
It's also easier to get distracted. Social media. You can get on your phone and before you know it, 30 minutes is gone and there's no pressure with people around you. Typical office space scenario, not turning up your music or whatever. I think it lends itself to us being able to create the optimal work environments, but you need to be more self-disciplined on the other side, and then we need to be considerate of these meetings that we put people through.

[00:09:41] - Erik Korem
Can I jump in with a comment? My thought is that pre-pandemic, it was only working in person, and so all the things you've just spoken about, about the distractions, the lower productivity, et cetera, that was how life was. We then went into forced lockdown in just about every country, taught ourselves or showed that it was possible to work in that type of environment, be more productive, have a more loose fitting life around your work. Now we're at a point where in a lot of places, people are being mandated to go back to work. They're almost taking that step back rather than having some form of blended or alternative work option.

[00:10:25] - Claire Haidar
We were going to ask you the question, have we actually truly built work in such a way that it's enabling peak performance? Based on what you've just shared with us around the definition of peak performance, but also what you've just shared with us in terms of like, what are the enablers? 98% of workplaces out there don't have those enablers in place right now. It really is the marginal companies that have that in place.

[00:10:51] - Claire Haidar
To Doug's point about the position that a lot of employers are taking on forcing people back into the office and being pretty rigid about supposed flexibility that they're giving is going to backfire badly because people tolerated that suboptimal environment before because they actually didn't realize that there was a different way of doing it. Now that we've had two years of this ingrained way, each of us as individuals have actually been able to figure out what works best for us personally, it's really going to backfire on companies because people are going to be like, "I genuinely am not as productive in this office space as I was during the pandemic."

[00:11:33] - Erik Korem
Yeah, I think there's a lot of sunk cost with these buildings that people have created, and so you have to really be compassionate to the people that have invested maybe tens to hundreds of millions of dollars into these buildings. You can't just eradicate, that could sync people.

[00:11:52] - Erik Korem
I do think that there's massive opportunity for design for homework environments. I've had YC companies reach out to me randomly like, "Hey, do you think there's a way we could mitigate orthopedic trauma from desk work?" I'm like, "Yeah, absolutely. I know a friend that wrote some AI to automate the detection of slouching." I don't know how many people next are starting to hurt because their position of their screens are not right.

[00:12:21] - Erik Korem
There should be like, these companies should be releasing best practices for these things, improving line of sight, lighting. I think team operations could be improved, for instance, understanding people's circadian chronotypes. People that are night owls versus morning folks could be partnered together to go, "Okay, yeah, we have a product team, but who's best to work with who at the best times?"

[00:12:48] - Erik Korem
I know you and I have talked about time boxing and how helpful that is and I think there's an advantage for us, the new folks in the space because as we're recruiting people and as we're scaling, we get to have those conversations like, okay, do we have a core team that's located in one city or do have core teams in multiple cities around the globe?

[00:13:13] - Erik Korem
You get a smaller office space and you're only in for a few days a week. Maybe you do transition to a four-day work week, two in, two out. I think that there's so much that could be done to improve workplace productivity and peak performance.

[00:13:30] - Doug Foulkes
That brings us to the end of part 1 of our conversation with Erik Korem. Be sure to check out the other two parts of this interesting conversation around peak performance on Spotify, Google or Apple podcasts, or of course, on WNDYR's website. That's W-N-D-Y-R.com. From Claire and myself, we'll see you soon.

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