The fly and the urinal: how nudge can make "Back to the office" smarter

Future of work
May 22, 2023
Published by

Do you know what "nudge" is?

The theory of nudge is a concept of behavioral sciences that we owe to the economist Richard Thaler who explains in substance this:

Indirect suggestions can, without force, influence the motivations or decision-making of groups and individuals at least as effectively as direct instruction, legislation, or enforcement.

This theory stems directly from liberalism, which prefers to replace constraints and rules with incentive mechanisms, and has found many applications in everyday life.

One of the best known is the famous fly on the bottom of male urinals, designed to encourage users to be clean by aiming right. In fact, this simple device installed in the urinals of the Amsterdam airport would have allowed to reduce by 80% the cleaning expenses of these toilets.

Other less trivial examples may be familiar to you: messages of encouragement on the steps of subway stations, lines marking the recommended distance of confidentiality at the pharmacy, nutritional score of foods...

Coercion or Incentive: The Back to Work Dilemma

What does a fly in the urinal have to do with the future of the office? The link is more obvious than it seems.

Since the end of the Covid-19 epidemic, many companies have been wondering how best to get employees back to the office, to recreate the famous moments of cohesion and serendipity necessary to the corporate culture.

Several ways of doing things are then opposed:

  • The use of constraint, through various rules imposed by the management: imposed days of presence, minimum quotas of presence...
  • The definition of recommendations, thought for both the well-being of the employee and the company culture: proposal of rhythm, exemplary management... Without particular constraint.
  • The total "laissez-faire" approach, whether it is about the workplace or even about working hours.

Companies that chose the former solution may have experienced some major setbacks, such as Apple, which lost some of its most experienced executives by forcing a return to the office. Twitter, Amazon and others have not been spared the disappointment of employees who were committed to the flexibility implemented during Covid.

Nudge applied to remote work

Imposing a forced return to the office carries obvious risks, proven time and again over the last few months: resentment towards management, regret for the old flexibility, which can lead to the employee's disengagement or even resignation and search for a new position.

An ADP study shows that 64% of employees would be willing to leave their jobs if forced to return to the office full-time.

Rather than imposing this return to the office, incentive mechanisms have therefore been put in place by some Work Environment departments to encourage a return to the office.

These mechanisms can have several purposes:

  • Increase overall office traffic, which has been declining since the widespread use of hybrid work
  • Rebalance the presence of staff according to the days of the week, in order to better smooth the curve of presence in the office, and thus better respect the capacity of a building in flex-office
  • Encourage dedicated team moments, where the whole team would gather in the office according to a regular ritual (all-hands, weekly meeting, breakfast...)

A breakfast organized every first Friday of the month can be an example of a nudge set up to attract employees to the office on Fridays, a day often neglected by employees (see BVA study for Transilien, for example).

How to use nudge for the return to the office?

The exact definition of nudge given by its authors, Messrs. Thaler and Sustein, is the following:

Nudge, the term we will use, is an aspect of choice architecture that alters people's behavior in a predictable way without prohibiting any options or significantly altering their economic incentives. To look like a simple "nudge," the intervention must be simple and easily evaded. Nudges" are not rules to be enforced. Putting the obvious right in front of you is considered a nudge. Prohibiting only what not to do or choose does not work.

To be effective, these "boosts" must therefore be sufficiently visible without being intrusive; they must encourage without being restrictive.

If the absence of constraint is easily assimilated, it is on the good visibility of the incentive action that the Work Environment Departments can find themselves in difficulty.

Here, several initiatives are crucial:

  • Quickly involve the Human Resources and Internal Communication departments, which, because of their role close to employees, are able to have a direct communication channel with the entire workforce
  • Organize in advance, adopt a rhythm that gives visibility to employees, to maximize the perception of each nudge as an event to be marked in the agenda by employees
  • Create FOMO (Fear of missing out): by a limited number of places, a deadline for registration, the presence of recognized ambassadors... to make employees want to participate
  • Introduce novelty and break the routine: for the event to be attractive, it must take on a new form at certain intervals, in order to keep the employees attentive to these events. Changing the day, the form of the event, special editions... are all ways to bring variety!
  • Use digital solutions to make these "boosts" visible: invitations in the agendas, notifications on a dedicated mobile application, chatbots sending information proactively...

Over-communicating on these nudges is crucial to generate maximum visibility and adoption, and maximize their effect. As the hype is a virtuous circle, these nudges are likely to have a positive impact on office traffic, for the purposes mentioned above.

How does nudge work in Deskare?

We decided to implement the nudge principle within our hybrid work organization platform. With the release of the Events feature, Deskare takes a new turn in its goal to help companies organize the future of Work that fits them.

The creation of "nudge " events can now be done directly from the Planning page of your Deskare space. These events can be assigned to individuals or teams, or be open to all. They can be synchronized with Outlook and Google Calendar, and generate a Teams or Slack invitation notification.

The events appear directly and visibly on the Deskare planning page!

The visibility of the participants is essential to make the employee want to participate.

With Deskare's Events feature, at a glance, employees can identify the days that are important for them to get to the office.

Click here to discover the nudge in Deskare

And you, have you already implemented nudge in your company? Write to us at to share your best initiatives, or those you have observed in other companies. We will select the best ones to make a dedicated article!