SAPHow much of an impact does our environment have on our performance? Psychologist Adam Alter explores this question in his book, “Drunk Tank Pink.”

The inspiration for the book’s title comes from a study psychologists did in the 1960s. They painted Canadian schools various colors to test whether they could calm the more badly behaved students. Of all the colors, bright pink had the greatest effect. It not only calmed the more violent students, but also created more engagement across the population.

The results of this experiment are fascinating, and draw attention to the role that environment plays in work and school. However, the “Drunk Tank Pink” theory was almost wholly debunked in 1988 by a group of scientists who discovered that in fact there was no scientific proof that being around the color pink could calm someone down by slowing their heart rate or reducing muscle strength.

The emphasis that employers place on office design shows that we do believe in some connection between performance and environment. Yet, to what extent does physical space enhance learning? Does the work itself matter more than the environment?

The Research

As the Chief Learning Officer at SuccessFactors, an SAP company, answering these questions is a part of my job. With the conflicting research on environment and performance, I decided it would be interesting to do my own study at SAP to measure how a learning environment affects employees.


Once a month we deliver a five-day Sales New Hire Boot Camp course in our South San Francisco offices. Due to room scheduling conflicts, half the sessions are delivered in the building Auditorium and half the sessions are in the 11th floor training classroom.

The Auditorium is a cavernous, windowless, cold, grey room in the unoccupied basement of our building. On the other hand, the 11h floor is bustling with action and vitality, and the classroom where the training is done has a beautiful view of San Francisco Bay.

People taking the course complained miserably when they were in the Auditorium.  Of the sessions delivered in there, a third of participants rated the environment as a negative factor in their learning experience. One participant wrote in the end of course evaluation, “The room we were in was horrible, no windows!”

For the same course, content and instructors, participants rated themselves as “very happy” when in the open, beautiful 11th floor classroom.  Clearly the environment plays a significant factor in participants’ perception of their learning experience, but how much of an impact does their perspective have on their actual performance on the job months after the course?

The Results

I measured post-course performance using customer relationship management (CRM) data of both sets of sales new hires (350 people) who attended Boot Camp and made an important discovery:

There was no difference in their sales performance based on the course environment they attended.

I measured the number of sales opportunities created after the training, the value of those opportunities, the conversation rate for these opportunities, the win rate and the value of those wins.

For both the Auditorium learners and the 11th floor classroom learners, there was no impact of the learning environment on work performance.

I’m not saying prolonged exposure to work environment doesn’t matter, there are plenty of studies that say that it does.  However, the training class is only five days long.  A short term exposure to a dreary training environment is not enough of a negative to outweigh the positive impact of quality instructors and quality course content.

Bottom line: it’s important to prioritize investments in quality content over a fresh coat of pink paint. Quality delivery, quality content, relevant and impactful learning can be delivered in a miserable setting and still make a huge difference on business impact and learner success.

About the Author: Jenny Dearborn is the Chief Learning Officer for SAP Cloud.  Jenny is responsible for learning and development of internal employees a well as training and certification for external partners and customers. Jenny is also on the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) Board of Directors.

Prior to SuccessFactors, Jenny spent six years at Sun Microsystems where she was the Chief Learning Officer. She also spent eight years at Hewlett-Packard in the following positions, Learning & Development Executive for Global Technology Services, for Global Sales & Enterprise Marketing, and for Corporate Learning Strategy.

Jenny was the recipient of the YWCA Silicon Valley Tribute to Women in Industry Leadership Award for 2013.  Check out Jenny’s blog, follow her on Twitter @DearbornJenny or connect with her on LinkedIn.