Happiness at work go back to basics

In a complex world and given the difficulty of attracting staff and maintaining their motivation, companies may be tempted to resort to concepts that are so positive, it almost too good to be true.  After psychosocial risks, quality of life and well-being, we are now in the age of the even more ambitious ‘happiness in the workplace.’   A few Happiness Manager positions, or even Head Happiness Manager are timidly appearing in some start-ups, directly imported from Silicon Valley.  So is it a gadget, utopia, holy grail or the latest fad to deal with disillusionment at work?  Across all sectors, in Europe, and particularly in Southern Europe, we have seen the levels of employee engagement dropping over the last five years.  Depending on the country and the company, between a quarter and a third of staff say they are not engaged.  In such circumstances can we only dare to speak of happiness?

The concept is almost laughable to say the least, since good intentions cannot resist offshoring, redundancy schemes, forced retirement without mentioning burn outs and other musculo-skeletal disorders.  Nevertheless, this is a burning issue for companies who have to deal with large recruitment waves and need to staff positions over the long-term.   At the same time, expectations and behaviours change and the new X & Y generations and digital natives have no hesitation in sending clear messages which undermine traditional employee/employer relations.  So, what should you do?

The happiness drivers are changing

Let us think about the drivers that contribute to this happiness and which have also been evolving in recent years.

First of all – and its perfectly natural – interest in work takes many different forms. In addition to high expectations of job autonomy and managing the workplace environment, we need to consider the meaning that employees find in their work, both on a daily basis and over the longer term. This includes the company’s objectives, its ethics, and its impact on the planet and society.

Also, there can be no happiness without trusting the company, or its products, managers or teams.  This is expressed in the ability of senior management to set out clear strategic directions such as building momentum with a motivating vision of the future. It can also be seen every day in the relations that the managers develop with their teams, their ability to delegate and to demonstrate that mistakes are acceptable. We have noticed that confidence is stronger in companies where the organisational justice is respected (equal pay, clear rules that are followed, etc.). We should also not forget the need to instil a workplace environment between co-workers that is based on respect and mutual assistance.

Operational efficiency and connectivity

In many companies, it is also striking to note that operational inefficiency is one of the leading factors in job dissatisfaction. Roles and Responsibilities that are poorly defined or barely communicated, heavy or bureaucratic information circuits, procedures that are too numerous or poorly explained quickly get the better of engagement. While transferring knowledge and skills and providing access to information are major drivers for motivating younger generations in particular, the scores obtained in the employee surveys on these aspects remain low.

Similarly, at a time when everything is connected, the ability to access internal and external networks, to exchange information, participate in forums and have seamless, real time communication makes all the difference.  For many employees, belonging to communities and interest groups on social networks, which are active and kept up-to-date, are major satisfaction factors. Over and above the interest that these represent for financial performance (sharing business data in real time, enhancing commercial offerings, etc.), they create an enduring bond between employees.

Empathic management and fun working environment

Obviously, the role played by management is fundamental. The old adage “I join a company, but I leave my manager” is more than ever relevant, even if the expected skills have changed. Today, it is all about showing empathy, paying attention to others and letting employees develop without micro managing them. Skills development is still at the top of the list of motivation and fulfilment drivers in the workplace. In times of budget scarcity, we need to be imaginative to identify ‘on the job’ development areas, foster learning experiences and interdisciplinary projects which will expand and engender staff employability. We need to develop our staff for today, and above all for tomorrow, both inside and outside the current company. The best managers have well understood this and are showing considerable (intellectual, emotional and situational) agility and an excellent ability to anticipate.

We also need to foster inclusive behaviour and mutual respect. Emails sent on the weekend or late in the evening, unfriendly approach, inability to listen or make themselves available make people unhappy or at the very least reduce engagement.

A welcoming, friendly working environment also helps and many open spaces have been redesigned to include chat areas, open coffee areas and cosier discussion areas. Companies are providing services to help with everyday life (concierge services, etc.), while leisure and fitness areas are popping up in the reception areas of ultra-traditional companies. Nevertheless, what is considered as a ‘plus’ can pass for a gadget if the conditions mentioned above are not in place. The choice is easy to make between a fitness room and access to social networks in successful companies.

Can happiness really be measured?

It is not so much about finding happiness drivers as finding ways of measuring it in the minds of users, and therefore putting the right feedback tools in place. Digitialisation means the feedback repository can be more flexible, and more frequent, and in both directions: from the company to its employees along with spontaneous feedback from employees. The current trend for on-going feedback results in asking employees to give their opinion on many subjects at any time.  We have noted two major pitfalls:

First ‘too much feedback kills feedback.’ Employees who are endlessly asked to give feedback end up by not answering, the response rate drops, and the tool ends up being ineffective. Next, making use of this feedback, transforming it into relevant actions and circulating resulting achievements requires considerable resources that are often underestimated at the time of setting up the repository tool.  When staff are asked about this, they say it seems their actual happiness is less important than measuring it!

A question of credibility

Over and above terms and measuring tools, we have to look at the crucial issue of credibility. The company that decides to build its employer brand on happiness at work must demonstrate a certain audacity and also take many large risks. Employees will not fail to report the first sign of disappointment or dissatisfaction on the social networks, thus undermining all the efforts undertaken and questioning the very credibility of the promise. Conversely, a company that takes care of its employees, ensures that its humanist values are experienced on a daily basis, assesses its managers on their technical skills and their behaviours and acknowledges their performance with fairness can make their employers happier.

 

Didier Burgaud, Consulting Director, Qualintra SA

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