The truth about workplace happiness

Most bosses understand (if only in theory) that happy employees are more productive than miserable ones. However, it turns out that many of the things that make employees happier don’t make them more productive, says Geoffrey James in Inc.

For example, companies often try to make their employees happier by trying to make the workplace more fun, like by having an onsite video game parlor and or an in-house gym. Other companies host community-building exercises to build a greater sense of connection.

Unfortunately, while these approaches may make employees happier, they probably don’t increase employee productivity and may end up having the opposite effect. Let me explain.

Over the past three years, Harvard University researcher Matthew A. Killingsworth has been compiling data from users of a smartphone app called Track Your Happiness, which lets people report, in real time, how they actually feel.

The most surprising result of this study is that we’re most often the happiest when we’re lost in what we’re doing, aka being “in the zone.” Conversely, we become less happy when our minds wander.

Surprisingly, it doesn’t really matter what we’re doing when we’re “in the zone,” as long as we’re not being distracted or in a situation where we’re bored.

In other words, employees aren’t more productive when they’re happy. They’re happy when they’re focused, which can make them more productive as an accidental byproduct.

Therefore, an onsite video game parlor (for instance) can increase employee happiness because video games are mentally absorbing, but that happiness isn’t going to translate into more productivity.

On the contrary, if the work itself doesn’t allow the employee to focus and get “in the zone,” the activity will suffer by comparison to the “fun” part of the workplace.

Rather than trying to make employees happy by adding a sugarcoat of “fun” to a bitter pill of work, companies should make it easier for employees to become absorbed in their work, thereby making them more productive and happier at the same time.

With this in mind, there are four obvious strategies:

1. Don’t give people too much work. When people are overloaded to the point where they know they can’t get everything done, they immediately focus on how much work they’ve got to do, rather than on actually doing it.

2. Don’t give people too little work. When people don’t have enough to do, their minds wander and, with time on their hands, start finding other things to focus on, like workplace gossip or, yes, playing video games.

3. Remove distractions from the workplace. Provide private or doubled-up offices rather than bullpens or cubicle farms. Reduce the overall noise level. Set aside time during the day where corporate email is disabled.

4. Institute work/life balance policies. Flexible work hours, remote working policies, and generous paid sick leave allow employees to handle the distractions of their personal lives on their own time, so that they can focus on work when they’re actually working.