Can We Design Happier Workplaces?

AUGUST 14, 2017

Happiness is a big topic these days, with hundreds of books available on achieving it. Some authors write about how it can be attained through self-love. Others talk about meditating. Others say it just requires an active, daily choice.

Regardless of philosophy, one thing’s for sure — happiness is the feeling we’re all pursuing.

But it doesn’t start and stop at the individual level. In fact, happiness is a topic that’s discussed in workplace environments as well. Since we spend the majority of our days behind computer screens and among coworkers, we naturally want our work to support — and contribute to — our happiness.

With that in mind, I wanted to share five scientifically backed actions that support leaders to design thriving, happy work environments and in turn, inspire a new level of human consciousness.

1. Create daily opportunities for play
Yes, you read that right. Play. Play and work might sound like an oxymoron, but the reality is that play is scientifically important for survival. As Stuart Brown shares in his TED talk, “Play Is More Than Just Fun,” humans need play in order to survive and thrive. Take rats, for example, who have very similar brain structures to humans. Without play, rats don’t develop a brain that’s normal. Similarly, because humans are naturally curious and exploratory, engaging in activities that allow for play not only leads to more happiness, but it creates a level playing field (pun intended!) within the organization, which makes all employees more comfortable, open, and energized with the work they’re doing. Play has many flavors, and can include body movement (working out), play with objects (doodling, LEGOs), social play (building connections), fantasy (role playing), and more.

2. Develop challenging but reasonable goals to track progress
How often do you end a work day feeling set-back because you didn’t get to accomplish everything you were hoping to? In their Harvard Business Review article, “The Power of Small Wins,” researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer provide evidence that the most important thing for boosting emotions, motivations, and perceptions during the workday is feeling like we’re making progress in meaningful work. Typically, when people are able to attain the goals they’ve set, they’re much happier. This can be taken even further. Goals are not only best attained when there are terms set and deadlines provided, but when there are both proximal goals that track daily or weekly progress and distal goals, which allow individuals to think a bit more long-term about what lies ahead.

3. Imbue purpose in the workplace
Remember the famous quote by Steve Jobs, “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?” He used the power of purpose and vision to lure John Sculley to come to Apple. Comparably, McKinsey researchers report in “How Centered Leaders Achieve Extraordinary Results” that meaning in work contribution is five times more powerful than that of any other dimension. Each of us has an intrinsic desire to contribute, and when there’s a clear vision and purpose behind it, our engagement and happiness skyrockets.

4. Move beyond money
Take a moment and think of how many miserable people you know who are getting paid lots of money for what they do. This is because money (alone) does not breed happiness. On the other hand, the things that do make us happy are oftentimes non material. They include praise from immediate managers, leadership attention, and a chance to lead an interesting project or task force. In “Motivating People: Getting Beyond Money” McKinsey researchers explain that special projects particularly help people feel like they are part of “the answer,” which ends up being a much bigger boost than a cash bonus or stock options.

5. Provide the right tools
As the saying goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” In “The Dawn of System Leadership” Peter Senge and colleagues explore the idea that employee thinking can’t simply be changed by telling people what to think or do. But with the right tools, people can slowly start to think differently. In fact, the leaders people love and are happiest working with are those who don’t execute on their own, but instead inspire workers to do things themselves. These system leaders provide tools and constructs, but don’t micromanage. In other words, empowerment breeds happiness.

We need to recognize that applying these five principles isn’t a quick and easy fix. Designing a thriving and happy work environment takes lots of iteration, flexibility, and figuring out what ideas work best for the culture and business model. On top of that, it takes leaders who are humble, understand their limitations, and have an insatiable curiosity to drive change.

Are you ready to create more happiness in your workplace?

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