In April, I was a lab rat. For three consecutive days, I jumped at any chance to perform "acts of kindness" for my co-workers. My good deeds included helping one colleague polish an article, picking up some administrative work from my boss, and buying cookies for an IT guy. Every evening, I filed reports on these acts. Before, during, and after the three days, I answered questions about my mood and my levels of stress, lone­liness, and job satisfaction. For this remote worker, who temporarily camped out in the office for the assignment, the outcomes were significant: My sense of "organizational citizenship"--voluntary behaviors that benefit a company--rose by 50 percent.

The experiment I participated in was a truncated version of research being conducted at the University of California, Riverside, on social connections. With work increasingly decentralized and remote, studies show that loneliness is degrading performance and retention. Behavioral scientists want to know how different kinds of interactions affect things like the sense of belonging and feelings of isolation. How important is face-to-face? Which has greater impact: more frequent social interactions or the nature of those interactions?

Typically, for an experiment like this, researchers would enlist a small group of freshmen in need of some extra cash. The results would be published in peer-reviewed journals dense with footnotes and citations, often trapped behind a paywall.

In other words, research meant to make employees' lives better has been, for the most part, neither conducted on nor read by people in actual workplaces. To Alexi Robichaux, co-founder and CEO of the leadership coaching company BetterUp, that's fundamentally problematic. Battered by corporate America in a previous life, Robichaux wants to liberate such knowledge from the laboratory and implant it, he says, "in the hearts and souls of managers who could actually use it to improve human existence."

Burnout's Toll 
$550 billion
Annual cost in lost productivity of employees "checking out" of their jobs  
$300 billion 
Annual cost to employers of workplace stress
 
95%
of HR leaders say burnout is hurting retention
Sources: Gallup; the Eastern Kentucky University online bachelor of science in occupational safety program; Kronos Incorporated and Future Workplace

So, three years ago, Robichaux sent a memo to his staff announcing an ambitious new project. BetterUp, based in San Francisco, would launch what Robichaux described as its own version of Bell Labs, the almost-century-old bastion of basic research that has produced, among other innovations, the transistor, the laser, and cellphone technology. (BetterUp later said it would invest up to $20 million in the initiative.) But unlike AT&T's enterprise (now owned by Nokia), which has sought to invent the bright, hard future of tech, BetterUp Labs would target a softer, murkier subject: management.

Bell Labs hasn't just built new technologies; it has wanted to understand how people are affected by them. Business leaders and scholars have been seeking the scientific principles behind how workers function since the 19th century. Yet for many people, work still sucks. Gallup reports that over the past 18 years, on average, just 30 percent of employees have been engaged in their jobs. (Last year, the number was 34 percent.)

And disengagement is the least of it. "Today 86 percent of U.S. health care spending is for chronic disease," says Jeffrey Pfeffer, a Stanford professor and author of Dying for a Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance--and What We Can Do About It. "Chronic disease comes mostly from stress and stress-induced behaviors," says Pfeffer. "Stress comes from work."

Robichaux describes BetterUp as "a tech company whose technology is behavioral science." BetterUp Labs functions as its research arm, creating the science that enriches BetterUp's products. It has also attracted a who's who of collaborators who want in on this new kind of R&D. The labs' scientific advisers include Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology; Adam Grant, Wharton's rock-star organizational psychologist; Fred Kofman, leadership development adviser at Google; and John Seely Brown, who, as the former director of Xerox PARC, knows a thing or two about ambitious research plays.

If Robichaux can succeed in translating science into practical actions, companies everywhere will finally know how to create happier, healthier, more productive workplaces. "Science is credibility. It is reliability. It is efficacy," he says. "Ultimately, it can be life-changing." 

Robichaux seemed slightly uncomfortable as he took the stage at BetterUp's customer conference, held in October at the Penn­sylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Probably because he was wearing a spacesuit. But the outfit was more than an excuse for some labored banter about business casual dress--and it did more than set up his talk about the "final frontier" of behavioral science. Researchers at Princeton, he had learned, found that the introduction of story elements synchronizes the neurons firing in speakers' and listeners' brains, creating greater retention. What was a ding to his dignity in the interest of science?

Back in Philadelphia five months later, Robichaux, 33, is more relaxed. Tall and thin in crisp jeans, he sits in a La Colombe coffee shop, talking about human potential. The egghead occasionally pokes through his tech-CEO veneer as he drops quotes from Seneca, Einstein, and Marcus Aurelius.

Robichaux first became a rabid student of human performance after his own career cracked up. When he was 26, the startup he'd joined, Socialcast, got swallowed by VMware, a global software firm, making him "overnight what I think is one of the youngest executives ever there," he says. After 20 months, "I was really stressed out and hurting on the inside," says Robichaux. "I left for sanity reasons."

Robichaux tried launching a business, but soon resigned as CEO. Fortunately, he'd made enough from the sale of Socialcast to support a period of soul searching. He returned to a passion that began in high school, when he and some friends launched an organization for peer-to-peer leadership development. For nine months following his burnout, he volunteered there (and still does), "helping 16- and 17-year-olds through critical moments," he says. "Meanwhile, I am going through a critical moment of setback and disappointment."

Robichaux experimented with therapy, life coaching, executive coaching, the Landmark Forum, and various self-help strategies. He hiked the Camino de Santiago, thousands of miles of trails for spiritual pilgrims ending in Spain. And he read voraciously. In particular, Seligman's work on positive psychology--which explores how people can thrive by leading meaningful lives and cultivating what is best in themselves--spoke to him. He hired a personal coach trained in the discipline and branched into related subjects like resilience and cognitive agility.

Then it came to him: If companies want employees to flourish--as he'd failed to do in his prior executive career--they needed to take a "whole person approach" to development, comprising emotions as well as skills. "When people feel work is oriented toward their growing as a person--a parent, a spouse, a Rotarian--then it feels most meaningful," says Robichaux. "But companies spend all their dollars on career development."

His solution was to provide workers with live, one-to-one coaching that draws on research. Managers would be the principle targets. But the service would extend to call center and customer service reps, even utility workers.

Robichaux and co-founder Eduardo Medina launched BetterUp in 2013. Today, the company has scaled to almost 200 employees and more than a thousand coaches who work remotely on contract and hold licensed therapist or executive coaching credentials. The company's clients include Airbnb, Logitech, and Warner Bros. It has raised more than $100 million from such investors as Threshold Ventures (formerly DFJ) and Lightspeed Venture Partners.

But even with a thriving company, it was always part of the plan to launch a new kind of R&D lab. "The science always came first," Robichaux says. "The difference between self-improvement or self-help and what I wanted to build was repeatability and reliability. That meant evidence."

The problem with management lessons--the kind found in airport bookstores and delivered from conference center stages--is that most are essentially anecdotal.

The term best practice typically means "what other organizations do and not necessarily what works best for my company," says Lorenzo Gallì, a consultant at Mercer and founder and managing director of ScienceForWork, a nonprofit that promotes evidence-based management. "As in, Google does this. Google is the best. It's a best practice." Or it refers to what happens most in most organizations. "In that case, it is not a best practice but the most common practice," says Gallì.

Robichaux is reminded of Plutarch's Lives. "You find a Caesar. You find a bunch of attributes of Caesar. And you say, if you do this, then you will be like Caesar," says Robichaux. "What's missing is having thousands of people do that and then seeing if they become like Caesar."

But BetterUp Labs and its academic partners gather evidence from tens of thousands of people working for roughly 100 large corporate clients. Those employees perform a wide variety of jobs in different industries, organizational structures, and cultures. To research a particular question, BetterUp studies segments of its client base and outside employees, and forms hypotheses about what practices might work. It then tests different approaches, including through its coaches, who interact with employees one-on-one. A study might involve a few hundred or a few thousand subjects.

By collecting abundant anonymized professional and psycho­graphic data on workers, the firm might be able to tell, for example, how promotion history or religion will affect someone's response to a resilience exercise. Its coaches deliver the same lessons in a consistent way, helping researchers create a reliable database over time.

The company also draws on an online database of tens of thousands of workers assembled through Amazon's crowdsourcing marketplace, Mechanical Turk. The Amazon group allows BetterUp Labs to conduct feasibility studies before rolling out something more formal with clients.

The ability to replicate studies across such a large, diverse group and to better understand how coaches can help people excel is what caused Grant, a best-selling author of books about generosity and nonconformity, to join BetterUp's science board last year. Grant conducts studies in organizations, typically spending "months getting to know one company, gathering data, and then wondering how would my results be different in a different organ­izational culture, or with a different kind of leader, or with different rewards," says Grant. But by working with BetterUp, "there could be huge economies of scale gained."

Sometimes, BetterUp studies subjects identified in-house or with input from clients. Other times, it partners with academics engaged in relevant work. It rolls its findings and practices back into its coaching and also intends to publish them both in peer-reviewed journals and in popular outlets, such as white papers, nonscholarly articles, and books. Disseminating the research as broadly as possible, says Robichaux, "is part of the moral mission of the company."

Martin Seligman, among the foremost experts on thriving and resilience, wants business people to get better at thinking about the future, a skill he calls prospection. In companies, the human power of imagination is supposed to be the great diamond freed to shine after technology hacks away the rock of ordinary work. "Our brain is built to think about possible futures," says Seligman, whose Positive Psychology Center occupies the second floor of a science building on the campus of University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches. "You want people to broaden the scenarios they dream up and become better evaluators of them."

Recently, Seligman postulated five types of creativity he believes underlie such thinking. One of those is figure-ground reversal, which seeks inspiration in the thing behind the thing, as when a startup finds a winning product not in the video game it's developing but in the messaging tool being used to develop it. (Result: Slack.) Another, called splitting, reveals when things that appear the same are really different, as when creators of a shopping app recognize that sharing apparel choices is not just part of the retail experience, but an end in itself. (Hello, Pinterest.)

Seligman hopes to develop an instrument to measure proficiency in prospection and tools to help people improve at each type of creativity, depending on what their jobs require. But as a psychologist and educator, he admits he knows little about business and would have trouble testing his ideas on real employees--the people meant to take advantage of them.

"I've been doing this for 55 years, and the most frustrating thing in my scientific life is that I have watched a whole bunch of good ideas sit on the shelf," says Seligman. "And that is because I have had no one to work with, no one I can ask, 'Hey, does this occur in business, and how can you use it?' "

Now Seligman has someone to work with. In late 2017, Gabriella Rosen Kellerman, chief innovation officer at BetterUp, invited him to join the project as a paid consultant. Seligman identifies and recruits other researchers and collaborates to test his own ideas. Among the materials Seligman hopes to produce is a business version of the DSM--the American Psychiatric Association's manual of mental disorders--with diagnostic guidelines for ailments like micromanagement instead of depression.

"I don't believe technology is the enemy when used right," says Robichaux, as BetterUp prepares to study the impact of robots on human workers.

Seligman also helps organize quarterly offsites, which bring together groups of big thinkers to address relevant topics in psychology and organizational behavior. Participants hash over particularly promising areas and begin designing experiments to explore them.

The first offsite, held in January 2018, focused on "mattering." As Seligman explains it, abundant research concludes that people are happier and perform better when they believe their jobs give them meaning and purpose. But meaning and purpose are vague concepts, hard to measure and to manage around.

"When the question is 'Does your life have meaning?' I don't know the answer," says Seligman. "But when it's 'Do you matter?' I know the answer to that. The hypothesis was that the more you feel you matter in a corporation, the better job you will do." The group produced a survey and, eventually, a measurement tool.

Many offsite-inspired projects involve creativity. Among those leading the discussions is Brown, who is now independent co-chairman of Deloitte's Center for the Edge. Brown says he is interested in how neuroscience, A.I., and cognitive science can lead to better coaching.

"Most of the work we did at PARC had a profound social technical point of view," says Brown, who was director of that earlier Bell descendant from 1990 to 2000. "Now we need to go beyond that to better understand how the mind works and how groups of minds work together. I think you are going to see some pretty substantial breakthroughs."

As BetterUp conducts its research, clients learn not just what works broadly but also what works best for their own employees. The firm creates "a very deep biopsy of their work­forces' psychology and behavior," says Kellerman, the NYU-trained doctor and behavioral science researcher who runs it. The company also asks clients for guidance, Kellerman says, offering as an example: "Here are the questions we could study next. Which would be the most impactful for your organization?"

Among BetterUp's next big subjects is the coexistence of humans and robots (and other advanced technology) in the workplace. If companies can get by with fewer people, I ask Robichaux, is all this attention to human potential even relevant? "One of my aspirations is how do we take technology back to be a major contributor to the rehumanization of work?" he says. "I don't believe technology is the enemy when used right."

Testing that, though, is another story. Experiments are challenging when few nonmanufacturing companies have dramatically disrupted employees' lives with A.I. and robotics. "We are starting to see the emergence of hybrid workforces," says Robichaux. "But it is not that prevalent."

So how will his company produce evidence-based guidance on what is, arguably, the most urgent management issue of this era? For now, Robichaux relents, "we may have to do it in a lab."

From the June 2019 issue of Inc. magazine