Book Review: “Whatever Works: The Small Cues That Make a Surprising Difference in Our Success at Work — and How to Create a Happier Office”

by Thalma Lobel

Reviewer: Anthony Pomes

The weekend before I received this book to review, I had re-watched a Woody Allen film from 2009 starring Larry David titled Whatever Works. Perhaps influenced by the rampant pessimism displayed by David’s character throughout much of that movie, my immediate thought was that this was bad timing for a book based on interpersonal improvements within the workplace. After all, I reasoned, isn’t much of the country either furloughed or stuck working remotely at home due to Covid-19? And for those who have returned to their offices, how much emphasis could be placed on making a happier office with everyone wearing masks? I am therefore pleased to report, having read noted psychologist Thalma Lobel’s new book Whatever Works ($16.95 USD, BenBella), that it is an invaluable guide to a better workplace no matter when read or applied.

The book is split into three separate parts: Things that work best in the space of your office (“The Cues in Your Environment”); what works best for everyone on your company’s team (“Surprising Factors That Change How We Work Together”); and what, ultimately, works best for you (“The Power of Our Personal Habits”). Drawing on her considerable experience as an internationally recognized psychologist who has served as the chair at the School of Psychological Sciences at Tel Aviv University — in addition to a stint as director of the Adler Center for Child Development and Psychopathology along with visiting professorships at top-level universities like Harvard, Tufts, the University of California at San Diego, and New York University — Professor Lobel does a remarkable job of breaking down the rudiments of personal experience so they can then be incorporated into a business office environment in ways both positive and healthy. No stone is left unturned — whether talking about the impact of office lighting and temperature on productivity or the relative importance of verbal and/or nonverbal communication, this book consistently draws important threads from the micro- to the macro- as applies to the “new and improved” workplace milieu. (Fun and always-informative insets are also sprinkled throughout the book, helping to break up the many oodles of good information that Lobel sprinkles in text across each and every page.)

Of course, the workplace has frequently been for most a source of great stress, discontent, and potential unhappiness. There have been other books of this type over the years — most no better than hastily assembled regurgitations of lukewarm self-help bromides already said elsewhere — but Lobel’s book distinguishes itself from all others because it digs into every nook and cranny of the work equation with research and integrity and verve. As an example, the book talks about the influence of clothes — and colors — on work performance: We are told about a study conducted at Columbia University, which found “that people wearing formal clothing evidenced more abstract thinking,” while another study in Germany showed that male athletes wearing a red jersey “had significantly higher heart rates and were able to lift heavier weight” than their competitors who wore blue jerseys. In addition to other trigger topics like ethical and unethical behavior in the office (perhaps the big topic nowadays in the wake of #MeToo), Lobel also shows how diversity in the workplace can make for a more successful team. This, of course, is something that Star Trek fans (present company included) already know about because of that initial crew on the Enterprise — for all others, though, it is a good thing to be reminded of nowadays.

Being a musician, this reviewer’s favorite chapter in Whatever Works explores the various benefits that can come from the listening of music in the workplace. Whether examining the “Mozart Effect” (a theory put forth about 25 years ago that cognitive performance improves while listening to classical music) or the importance of listening to music we love before we work rather than while we work (our favorite Hit Parade of tunes can actually decrease productivity), the fact that music is given its own place alongside keeping a tidy desk and finding ways to be creative in your work is especially noteworthy — and, dare I say it, very cool.

Whether used by one who wants to become a better team member in their work or embraced by human relations experts to make use of with hundreds, Whatever Works stands as a stellar addition to all bookshelves concerned with how our lives interact with our business. And just like Larry David at the end of Woody Allen’s same-named film (who says to the audience that he’s “the only one who sees the whole picture”), Lobel is the one who sees the whole picture when it comes to the modern workplace — and she has done us all a great service by putting that very picture into words. Now, let’s all get back to work — sooner rather than later, hopefully.