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Workplace Trends – The happiness footprint

Happiness molecules
I think we've found them!
2 November, 2012

If you think measuring your organisation’s carbon footprint is hard, try measuring happiness in the workplace.


What yardstick do you use – number of smiles, widest grin, how high people jump for joy, or maybe the amount of hugs passed around the office?

Unlike those pesky carbon molecules, happiness is literally a frame of mind and you can measure only the assumed results of people who are happy.

That assumption is that happy employees perform better, as delegates to the recent Workplace Trends conference in London heard.

But if happy employees perform better, do organisations actually know what makes them happy?

Importantly, can too much happiness have a negative effect on an organisation such that it should stop treating its employees so well? After all, they are there to work, right?

The clue to sorting it out is found in the conference’s title: “Wellbeing and Performance”. The event wasn’t called “Happiness and Performance”, but the words 'happiness' and 'wellbeing' often are used interchangeably, perhaps too often.

Concentrate on happiness and results will follow, said presenter Nic Marks, who founded the Centre for Wellbeing at the think tank New Economics Foundation. He pointed the US-based retail giant Costco who has consistently placed in the top 100 best places to work the America and equally consistently out-performed financial analysts’ predications by up to 4 per cent. The point is, happiness generates shareholder value, he said.

Happy people are more adaptive, more aware of their surroundings, react more quickly and -- importantly for businesses -- move open to relationships through increased communication.

People who are less happy are less outgoing, more insular and less likely to share ideas, at least positive ones that can move a business forward.

“You need to building offices where people collide into each other,” he said. “Organisations need this serendipity of personal contact.”

But sometimes a happy person can bump up against a not-so-happy line manager and the smiling stops, said presenter Jane Abraham, an adviser on healthy workplaces within the University of Exeter Medical School.

She also cautioned against too much hot-desking. Some employees simply need a personal space to feel contented. It may free the employer to be out and about more often with clients, or such, but some people are adrift without that personal safe space, said Abraham, who worked on a “Healthy Workplace Project” with Cornwall-based pasty-maker Ginsters.

Boosting the wellbeing of employees needn’t cost an arm and a leg, said Mark Duddridge, managing director of Ginsters. Some seed money to get projects going, but employees themselves will take over.

It’s not so much what you do, but how you do it, he explained. Also, the mostly male, over 40 workforce wanted to change: around 40 per cent of employees who lived within a half mile of the factory, drove to work.

It starts with a lot of consultation and listening by senior mangers.  Money was initially needed to set up a 24-hour gym at the bakery, which itself operates 24 hours. It was free in the first year to get people involved and employees now willingly pay for it.

But the gym is not a haven of lycra-clad athletes pumping iron into the heavens. Know your customers, said Duddridge; there are few dress rules save for suitable shoes and the atmosphere is non-intimidating to appeal to people not used to going to a gym.

Employees now organise their own outdoor activities of hiking, walking, canoeing, scuba diving and horse riding.

Ginsters also bought some land adjacent to the factory to develop as allotments for employees. Cafeteria food was also improved with a much wider choice of healthier foods, the majority of which are locally sourced.

Duddridge openly acknowledges that family-owned Ginsters is a paternalistic company. But employee wellbeing can’t be a top-down dictatorial programme. Allow the people to decide what they want to try, he said. “Give people permission to try to do something different,” he said. “Educate and train them, but always give them opportunities.”

Part of being happier in the workplace is allowing people more freedom to roam around, meet other people in several types of environment, from formal meetings to breakout sessions in coffee shops. This is ideal for the so-called “Apple generation” said Marie Puybaraud, director of Global Workplace Solutions (GWS) at Johnson Controls.

Their preferred method of communication is the laptop and mobile phone, both using Facebook, according to the latest GWS survey and report, Digital Nation; Born 2B connected, based on 1,700 responses..

But their happiness at having this freedom is often tempered by a feeling of being always on call for work. There is a creeping sense of overwork, said Puybaraud who also questioned whether “pushing people out of the office” is really making employees happy.

Office culture is often determined by national cultures, said Catherine Gall, research director for Steelcase in France and leader of the WorkSpace Futures team conducting their 360 Degree research.

In America, the open-plan workplace is very high-density where personal space takes a back seat to a lot of informal contact and informal communication.

However, in the Netherlands, open plan office design is less dense and employees guard their personal space. There is little sharing of space among employees.

China has high-density and high-intensity offices, where people work up to 11 hours a day. Employees taking a quick nap in the office is common, said Gall.

Indian office culture is very inclusive; employees who work together, go for lunch together as well, and generally socialise together, she said. It is not uncommon for the office canteen to sell more lunch covers than employees in the company because friends, relatives, clients and business associates dine together.

While open plan offices are accepted in India and China, it is for lower management. For senior management, the loss of their separate office is a loss face and authority.

But when is too much happiness at work bad for your organisation?

That’s easy, said panel speaker Paul Morrell, the government’s chief construction advisor and a former senior partner at construction consultant Davis Langdon. When the photocopier is on the blink again and there’s no one there to help you, again. But the company can provide you with a great massage if you need it.

(See Workplace Trends: Feng shui? Phooey! -- FM World’s report on the Workplace Trends conference debate, between Paul Morrell and Neil Usher, general manager of global property for mining giant Rio Tinto.)