Want a happy office? Here’s what you need to know

February 05, 2015

By Steve Bloom The Conversation

Well-being at work is a prerequisite for flourishing in life. Most of us have some type of employment, if not a full-time job, and we spend the majority of our waking hours engaged in this work. Therefore the impact these hours have on our souls is of utmost importance to living a full and happy life.

So what is it that people really want and need out of work? What are the factors that make one productive and happy?

Money isn’t the right answer, even if it is part of what gets us out of bed and on our way to the office. After the first few paychecks, we begin seeking something else, something more. Of course we want to labor alongside good people, do quality work and get that sense of accomplishment that is uniquely tied to a job well done. Yet a recent Gallup study showed that 80% of workers still don’t like what they do each day. Clearly, there’s something else we want from the half (or more) of the day we spend at the office.

Our research shows part of the answer comes down to relationships, engagement and authenticity.

The importance of relationships

Relationships with coworkers and customers are a key outcome of work. In fact for some, relationships are a work objective. As part of our ongoing longitudinal research we found that professionals who lack vital connections to co-workers faced significant challenges to sustained well-being. This research also indicated that professionals are much more likely to flourish if they have strong relationships with their customers and clients as well.

In order to be well, we need healthy relationships, including at work. Nevertheless, the norms of many office environments discourage friendships among colleagues, particularly among supervisors and subordinates. We need to address the inherent friction created by human beings’ common need for meaningful relationships with the prevailing attitude in the workplace that human interaction be reduced to an arms-length or quid pro quo association. One solution is for companies to relax their views on workplace relationships and see them as powerful tools for collaboration instead of potential distractions.

Engagement and authenticity

Among the most powerful and potent ideas that are emerging from the field of employee well-being and our own research are the concepts of engagement and authenticity at work. Clearly, people are at their most productive, creative and resilient when they are able to be fully engaged in what they’re doing and express themselves fully in their work.

Understanding the concept of engagement begins by recognizing that, over the course of a day, people are constantly bringing in and leaving out various depths of themselves as they work. That is, people can use varying levels and dimensions of their physical, emotional, spiritual and cognitive resources in the way they enact roles, perform activities or fulfill responsibilities.

When people are able to bring their fullest and best selves, their performance is more dynamic and work is more gratifying and fulfilling. But when employees are less than fully present – and instead focused on some other task, such as day dreaming or texting – their work experience suffers. An environment that doesn’t energize and fulfill translates into less inspired performance.

Authenticity refers to being one’s true self. It bears a strong connection to engagement, but encompasses being able to enact one’s deeply held values and strongest beliefs — especially those beliefs related to transcendence, spirituality or religiosity. Being fully authentic requires that we be true to ourselves, expressing those most important, even sacred, dimensions that are our essence.

What companies can do: a case study

While engagement at work has become a focus for many organizations, authenticity appears less well understood by business leaders. This is likely because the notion of authenticity in the workplace is somewhat new and hasn’t been well publicized. Yet, if workers hold part of themselves back, their performance and energy will suffer. As a result, organizations need to find ways to change this.

Here’s one example.

In 2004, a Fortune 500 company faced the need to reduce turnover among its 3,000 Customer Service Representatives (CSR). These CSRs worked in five large call centers where annualized attrition hovered at around 50%. Critical to the health care company’s business strategy was having CSRs with a full command of the firm’s complex products and offerings. CSR training lasted six weeks, but this was only the beginning.

The company’s internal studies showed the job had a steep learning curve. It took 6 to 18 months for a CSR to become competent. However, there was still much to learn, and CSRs didn’t fully master their jobs until they had 4 or 5 years of experience. The data pointed to a clear need to retain CSRs for 5+ years in order not to lose all of that precious experience — a difficult tenure goal for the call center industry.

One of us was an HR executive at the company at the time, and together we crafted a multi-pronged program that, among other things, involved showing the employees how critical they were to its success; offering more training and advancement opportunities tailored to their strengths; and connecting their personal values to their jobs and customers.

As a result, turnover dropped nearly 50% as work experience improved and employee satisfaction jumped.

It all comes down to execution

What the company did isn’t terribly innovative or complex; any organization could develop similar practices aimed at increasing employee loyalty, satisfaction and retention.

What is difficult, however, is the execution. The executives at this company were relentless in their support of and personal involvement in the daily administration of these programs, and continued their commitment as years passed. For example, whenever executives visited the call centers, they took part in raucous recognition events, where they handed out rewards and hugs. Persistent execution was the difference between lip service and world-class results.

Clearly the old notions of fair pay and a reasonably satisfying job are not enough to lead to well-being in the workplace. And while there are a myriad of things we need and want from work, our research suggests there are three critical elements:

  1. The ability to learn, grow and be challenged by our work.

  2. High levels of engagement, in part driven by the use of personal strengths.

  3. A work environment that allows us to be authentic and enact our core values.

These three factors lead to optimal performance and well-being. If accompanied by a reasonable paycheck and good folks to work with, this likely represents what most of us want and need from work.