My unscientific poll on work and happiness

happy co-workers

Recently I emailed a dozen friends and asked them three questions about how happy they were at work. The results were very revealing. The people who responded work in all sectors, government, private sector and self-employed. Here are the results of my unscientific poll on work and happiness:

My first question was, “Are you happy at work?”

More than half were not happy at work. Some said they were ashamed to admit it, because “they have a pretty good gig”; one person said they weren’t happy but planned to slog it out until retirement. A quarter of respondents said they were happy, and one person said at different times in their career they’ve been happy, and unhappy at other times.

When I asked what was the cause of their happiness or unhappiness at work,

On the plus side, the common themes were working with great people, loving what they do, and the variety of work. One person said they work in a low-stress environment and have an eight-minute commute, so they can come home for lunch every day if they want.

For those unhappy at work, here were some of the reasons they cited for their unhappiness:

  • Lack of involvement and inclusion and team camaraderie.
  • Being tired of dealing with some teams who don’t appreciate the work they do.
  • The inactivity associated with being on a computer eight hours a day.
  • One person said working within an environment where there are too many people in authority who “literally don’t have a clue what they are doing” and a “poisonous” atmosphere as a result of so many people being off on leave, creating more work for those left behind who are still working diligently.
  • One person who is self-employed said, “I’m bored, but I like the flexibility of what I do, so I stay at it. Also, the administration associated with being self-employed is a tough slog. I’m always behind on that, so that creates guilt that I’m not keeping on top of things.”

My final question was “What would make you happy or happier at work?”

  • Being valued and respected and having their work acknowledged was a common theme, along with being able to do more of what they love to do and having challenging projects.  
  • Better work-life balance, and being compensated fairly and seeing more transparency in salary grids were cited as other key factors.
  • One person said they’d like to have a friend at work and work with a diverse team.
  • The one person who was unhappy at work in the “poisonous” environment said they cope by focusing on their family, volunteering and sports and outdoor activities to remind themselves of what’s important in life.
  • On a lighter note, one person wanted a Keurig machine, a fitness room with a treadmill or exercise bike and another an office cat (for me, it would be a dog!)

So what does this tell us and what can we do to be happier at work? Scientific studies show having at least one good friend at work is a key contributor to happiness. Making sure we choose a positive environment where we work with good people and where our work is respected is critical.

As we emerge from this pandemic, we have a unique opportunity to redefine our relationship with work. At the core of the discussion should be these three questions.

Special thanks to the people who participated in my unscientific poll.

More reading on work and happiness

The key to job satisfaction in a post-pandemic world

I love my job sign

You can’t read a business article these days without some reference to The Big Quit or The Great Resignation. According to a report by Morneau Shepell, one of the country’s biggest HR consulting firms, 25% of Canadians are considering leaving their jobs. Companies are scrambling to try to figure out how to hold on to their top performers and lure the brightest minds to their organization. We’ve entered a new war for talent.

Flexible and hybrid work and employee wellbeing seem to be the two top themes, with competitive compensation and benefits programs now being table stakes.

I believe while providing flexible work and focusing on employee wellbeing will be important, they will not be enough to create true job satisfaction in a post-pandemic world.

There’s an obvious answer to this pressing problem that everyone seems to be missing: the key to job satisfaction in a post-pandemic world will be in the work itself.

Let me explain.

The Friday before my birthday, I started working on a project around 3:30 in the afternoon. Fridays tend to be quieter days for me at work: there are less meetings and interruptions. It was a project where I needed concentrated time to think and focus. I worked away at it, and when I looked up at the time, it was after 5 p.m. So much for knocking off a few minutes early on my birthday weekend. But for the first time in a long time, I felt good about work. I was able to think creatively, immerse myself in a problem and logged off feeling an immense spurt of satisfaction.

I had achieved what the work experts call “flow”. Flow is a state of focused attention so intense it doesn’t allow you to have cognitive bandwidth to do or think of anything else. It is an intersection of optimal being and optimal doing and when we achieve it, it creates inner harmony and happiness since we feel engaged, productive and in control.

Flow is like REM sleep, but for work. To be healthy and productive, our body needs to experience deep REM sleep every night. If you don’t, you feel tired, irritable, and you can’t concentrate or focus.

For many knowledge workers, work has become a constant barrage of emails, zoom calls and interruptions which is affecting our wellbeing and happiness at work. We are not achieving REM at work.

In this article in positivepsychology.com, researcher Mihály Csíkszentmihályi summarized it this way: “The happiest people spend much time in a state of flow – the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”

One of the biggest benefits of flow is that it amplifies performance. Author Malcolm Gladwell claimed in his book Outliers that a person needs to do something for 10,000 hours to master a skill. In a 2014 study called the Flow Genome Project, author Steven Kotler estimated this time can be cut in half by achieving flow.

The interesting thing about flow is knowledge workers to some degree have control over flow. We can intentionally structure our workday to build in concentrated 60-90 minute sessions of work, we can turn off notifications, establish no meeting windows, and purposefully not check email. But I firmly believe companies need to wake up and create a more conducive environment to create flow in work and greater job satisfaction for their employees.

Some companies are already doing this. In my blog post The Future of Work, I talked about a Fortune 500 software company in India which tested a simple policy: no interruptions Tuesday, Thursday and Friday before noon. The company experienced a 65 percent increase in productivity but also reported employees experienced an increase in work satisfaction. They discovered the most important factor in daily joy and motivation was a sense of progress.

Hiring more employees, and cultivating a culture that encourages time spent on creative and strategic thinking and innovation are two more things companies should be doing to help employees do their best work and achieve job satisfaction.

This week’s #HappyAct is to achieve flow in your work this week. Leave a comment. How did it make you feel and did it increase your job satisfaction?

The future of work

future of work sign

There is a raging debate going on about the future of work. Companies are considering whether to continue to let employees work remotely, return to the office or adopt some form of hybrid model when the worst of the pandemic is over.

As I said last week, we’ve learned much in the past year. But I fear that as a society, we will let a precious opportunity slip through our fingertips: the opportunity to finally redefine our relationship with work, to seek a greater work-life balance and truly imagine a brighter future, one where we don’t just spend our days making a living, but living our best lives.

Here is my vision for the future of work.

First, employees would be able to choose how many hours they want to work a week. Imagine if you could say to your employer, I want to work 24 hours a week, 30, or 32 hours a week so I can pursue my passion, whether it’s painting, writing, running a side business, or volunteering.

Employees would have more flexibility to choose when they work. 6 a.m. to noon? No problem. I was reading one study where 15% of workers said they’d prefer to work in the evenings or at night so they could do things outside during the day. Depending on the role, why not? It could also help with child care challenges for working families.

We need to discover how to bring joy and fun back into our work world. The reality for many office workers is their day consists of never-ending emails and meetings, distractions and interruptions that is making us unhappy at work. When you feel like your day consists of putting out fires and you haven’t accomplished what you set out to do, it’s disheartening. Even before the pandemic, people were habitually checking email 74 times a day and switching tasks every 10 minutes. 

There are many, innovative solutions to making work fulfilling again.

Let’s start by hiring more people. I believe too many companies are running too lean. There are simply not enough people to do the work. If some people opt for shorter work weeks, there could be the opportunity to hire people and distribute work a bit more equitably to help ease stress and workloads.

We also need to be smarter about how we spend our time during the workday. Companies could establish designated meeting times, and work times to help people concentrate and accomplish meaningful work, without disruption.

Several years ago, a Fortune 500 software company in India tested a simple policy: no interruptions Tuesday, Thursday and Friday before noon. The company experienced a 65 percent increase in productivity but also reported employees experienced an increase in work satisfaction. They discovered the most important factor in daily joy and motivation was a sense of progress.

We’ve also learned working from home this past year the importance of human connection. We miss our colleagues dearly.

The future of work needs to include being together again, but not dictated by arbitrary policies. Being able to collaborate, have fun together, celebrate successes are all great examples of when it will make sense to bring employees together in person. Training is another thing we’ve learned is a much more richer experience in person than remote learning.

Good workplaces will develop a do good culture. Providing opportunities for employees to get involved in their communities, and volunteer for worthy causes will add a new layer of purpose to work. Some companies already offer up to five days a year for employees to volunteer for local charities.

The future of work also includes more vacation. There will be a pent-up demand for travel when borders open up. North Americans could learn from other countries like the UK where residents get 28 days of vacation a year, France 25, and Germany and Australia, with 20 days.   

Finally, companies need to adopt the ner way of business. Ner is the business philosophy where the most important aspect is people and leaders only need to create an environment where people can excel. Companies have no hierarchy, just self-managing teams. Ner companies donate 3% of their profits and 2% of employee time to contribute to social projects and top salaries can’t be more than 2.5X higher the lowest salary. The ner philosophy creates more human, meaningful and entrepreneurial workplaces. And it works. Watch this video to learn more about ner.

Yes, we have a unique opportunity before us: to reimagine the future of work. Companies that are short-sighted will focus on one aspect: place.

Companies that are progressive and visionary will focus on outcomes and a new, more human philosophy towards work.

Who would you rather work for?