Over the past few weeks I've seen a number of articles questioning the idea of happiness at work and in fact have been sent one written by The Economist about a dozen times by people asking if I'd seen it and another titled "Are we actually meant to be happy at work?", the opening line of which was "The expectation of happiness on the job is gaining traction but some believe it’s not only unrealistic – it may even be harmful".

Harmful... Really?!

For many years, organisations like Gallup (to name but one) and a host of independent academic studies, have been telling us just how unhappy, disengaged and demotivated people are at work. We know the implications for companies and employees alike.

Alongside these studies telling us how miserable people seem to be at work, others have been hard at work providing the evidence that when we are happier, we achieve more. I'm not even sure that there is a sensible conversation to be had about whether happier people perform better - that ship has sailed (as the image below from a recent presentation I gave demonstrates).

Yet here we are sharing and discussing articles about whether its reasonable to imagine or dare I say expect work to be a place that people might be happy. They go further though, suggesting that an attempt to make the workplace happier is an infringement upon our human rights… almost encouraging readers to respond with a “hear, hear, it's my right to be miserable and I'll defend that right!”

For the avoidance of doubt, companies that mandate smiling, or insist on positivity, clearly go too far and have missed the point - mostly because they will not achieve the goal of having happier, more positive employees... but it isn’t unreasonable to be committed to the idea that we can create an environment where people can be happy at work and that they’ll do better work as a result - I mean, seriously, what is wrong with that?

Increasing numbers of executives are recognising that the quality of culture is about the only sustainable differentiator. That the ability to collaborate and innovate are essential ingredients in a successful company, and that to get these things you need to intentionally create a positive working environment in which they respect, value, trust and empower their people.

I also tend to believe that there are bigger issues at play here too... whilst extrinsic motivators (like pay and status) have been proven not to be the primary driver of happiness, we know that they play a huge part in the way we feel about work. If we're not moving forward, and we work because we need money, stagnating economic performance will shine a light on other aspects of our lives at home and a.

"The real incomes of about two-thirds of households in 25 advanced economies were flat or fell between 2005 and 2014." - McKinsey & Co
Wage growth has stalled in most advanced economies and to my mind this could make organisational culture even more important as a determinant of happiness and as a recruitment and retention tool - if we're unable to dull the pain of an even mildly toxic culture with bonuses and pay-rises, then other aspects of work will become more important - that presents a great opportunity to stand out and a significant risk for firms that treat this challenge as a tick-box exercise...

Getting the workplace right is about consciously and deliberately becoming the kind of business that is inspiring, nurturing, caring and stretching towards its people. That is what is going to make a business truly sustainable and a powerful force.

For us it is about Happiness - measuring it and working with companies to improve it. Of course if you've read my other posts you'll know that happiness is more than providing an occasional cake or a ping-pong table.

It is about work having meaning. It is about feeling part of something bigger, part of a supportive team - where kindness and relationships matter. It is about having the autonomy to determine how to fulfil your duties. It is about being stretched and developing as a person.

Our current organisational design principles are probably more limiting than we care to imagine for larger companies the challenges are starker because of their infrastructure and complex internal relationships but we know enough about what drives human performance and happiness to know:

  • That sitting 9-5 at a desk isn't the best way to high productivity, or indeed that working longer hours equates to better work. The famous 6-hour day study in Sweden has shown that productivity (and happiness) in fact went up with a shorter, more focused day.
  • That the future probably isn't about housing people in great big offices, whist it may offer us greater control over people, they are expensive and commuting eats into our happiness and our productivity - working much closer to home seems to be the best solution.
  • That our current habits of eating at our desks or on the run don't add anything to our state of mind and that experiments undertaken around the power of sitting and eating together, even once a week, has proven benefits to our feeling of belonging and commitment to our teams.
  • That it is neither helpful, nor sustainable to leave our personal lives at the door and adopt our working personas and still expect to be at our peak performance - the result is that people feel disconnected from their work and their colleagues.
  • That top down strategies and solutions aren't the answer in many cases and that when we invest in the skills associated with creativity, innovation, happiness - the things we want, but rarely invest in - and give people the freedom to utilise them, we're able to create much healthier, happier workplaces
The future of work is likely to be much more about experimentation, iteration, finding what works in an increasingly nuanced workplace. Involving people in the change but also allowing them to determine the changes for themselves rather than simply executing major top-down transformations. For that to happen though we need to apply focus to this happiness question and our people metrics need to keep pace - the annual employee survey is not the answer.

That's really where we started with Happiness Lab - that engagement wasn't improving (for a host of reasons) and it didn't seem to be something that we could measure simply enough to get to any real-time insights. If we could simplify a metric to something everyone can answer almost daily then we can help firms to see precisely what works and where...

We happen to believe that striving to make work a happier place is a worthwhile pursuit. Not just for us, or for the employees themselves but for the executives, the shareholders and customers of these companies. We also believe that making work happier isn't the preserve of famously employee-centric firms like Zappos, Apple or Virgin - there are so many ways in which we can improve the happiness of people at work...

... and now we can tell you what actually works!

“The way your employees feel is the way your customers will feel. And if your employees don’t feel valued, neither will your customers.” – Sybil F. Stershic