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Happiness (Or is it really purpose?) at Work

Happy workers are more productive workers. Image © Gensler

One of the challenges facing design firms today is finding ways to create workplaces that people want to work in. Too many workers are unhappy with their place of work, as pointed out in a recent New York Times op-ed by Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath. As the article notes, upwards of 70% of U.S. workers are “emotionally disconnected from their workplaces.” Reversing this trend could boost productivity—happy workers tend to be more engaged at work.

Of course, a lot of factors contribute to worker unhappiness. Demanding bosses, lack of social stimulation and low compensation, to name a few. One other factor which is often overlooked but certainly contributes to worker happiness is the physical workplace itself.

Supporting Focus

According to Gensler’s 2013 Workplace Survey, people spend 53 percent of their time at work doing tasks that involves concentration and focus. And when people are lost in the “zone” focused on a single task they tend to be happy. For the past three years, a Harvard University researcher has been tracking happiness via a smart phone app. The most compelling finding of the study—which lets people report how they feel in real time—is that we're happiest when we're lost in what we're doing, when we’re "in the zone." Conversely, we become less happy when our minds wander.

Rather than trying to make employees happy by adding a sugarcoat of “fun,” companies should make it easier for employees to become absorbed in their work, thereby making them more productive and happier at the same time. That’s another way of saying free food, onsite massages and communal foosball tables should not be the first line of defense against unhappiness at work. Addressing the ability to work effectively may be a more direct, and effective, solution.

As Dan Pink’s insightful book Drive points out, people feel happy when they are working towards a purposeful goal. The workplace can have an enormous impact in helping employees do just that by supporting focus and allowing individual workers to stay in, “the zone.”

Imbuing Meaning (or Purpose)

There is increasing thought that happiness shouldn’t be the end goal at work, but rather, seeking out meaning is the real key to a positive work experience.

Here again, the workplace environment can make a significant impact. A well-designed workplace can be a place to re-energize and be inspired. It can help convey what a company stands for so employees (and even customers) can identify with it on a personal and emotional level. A brand-infused workplace can connect people to the mission and values of the organization and authentically reinforce individual work with a sense of meaning, purposefulness, and being a part of an organization greater than one individual.

A company’s brand is more than just logos and color palettes. A brand-infused workplace functions as the physical embodiment of the organization and what it values: collaboration, camaraderie, valuing people, and social responsibility (sustainable design). These workspace can evoke emotion so that workers feel like they’re a part of something bigger than themselves and is more meaningful than just a series of independent tasks and everyday responsibilities.

Enabling Friendship

Gallup is a leading authority on employee engagement and has established significant research on the importance of having friends at work. They have found that close work friendships boost employee satisfaction by 50% and people with a best friend at work are seven times more likely to engage fully in their work.

What has so far gone unreported is that the workplace environment can be designed to not only accommodate but also encourage friendships. Well-designed circulation can drive interaction between colleagues. Amenities and ‘collision spaces’ such as cafés, lounges, wellness spaces, can prompt collaboration and socialization. A workspace will not only connect workers throughout the day but cultivate no-pressure situations where people can comfortably and naturally connect to build work relationships and friendships.

Providing Choice

Gensler has been conducting independent research of work environments since 2005, and we’ve discovered that one of the most profound drivers of people’s feeling about their workplace is allowing for personal choice—in how, when, and where to work. Employers who offer choice to their employees have workers who are 12% more satisfied with their jobs and rated themselves higher-performing than those workers without a choice.

Feeling powerless can have a negative impact on people psychologically. Giving people the feeling of control in their work environment—even if it’s just the ability to rearrange their immediate setting—can positively impact their mood and, in turn, improve their performance.

An excellent example of how a workplace can provide choice is the implementation of on-site and off-site mobility programs. Giving workers the option to work from home or from an alternate location within the office improves workplace satisfaction, even for people who don’t take advantage of it. Simply having the ability to make a personal choice makes workers feel valued and empowered.

Enhancing Mood

Daylight, views of nature, fresh air, and color are all well-proven moderators of mood. Their positive effects have been extensively studied in the healthcare realm, but are increasingly being understood in the workplace environment for their effect on wellbeing.

Contact with nature can significantly reduce stress, reduce anger and fear and increase pleasant feelings. Reducing environmental stressors like noise, glare, and poor air quality can reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and realize other benefits to productivity.

Places within the work environment to “escape to” for a few minutes can help people decompress. We’re increasingly seeing spaces like meditation rooms factoring into workplace strategies.

In Conclusion

While it could be debated whether an environment can “make” someone happy, we definitively know it can make someone unhappy.

Even with all the foundational factors of a good job in place, a poorly designed workplace environment can foster deep frustration and unhappiness. Whether it’s the inability to concentrate because of distractions, not being able to find a conference room when needed, too hot or too cold, or even an uncomfortable chair -- a poor work environment can make people miserable.

Sometimes the most powerful role a workplace can play in happiness is by offering a vibrant and functional platform that frees each one of us to engage in the task at hand and get lost in the pure joy of the work itself.

Janet Pogue is a Principal in Gensler’s Washington, D.C. office. She co-leads the firm’s Workplace Practice and is a frequent writer and speaker on the critical issues affecting the design of high performing work environments. Contact her at janet_pogue@gensler.com.
Erik Lucken
Erik Lucken is a reformed architect who now develops research and client strategies for Gensler’s work practices. His core belief is that workplace design can improve business performance and the quality of people's daily lives. Contact him at erik_lucken@gensler.com.

Reader Comments (4)

Because I'm happy
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
Because I'm happy
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
Because I'm happy
Clap along if you know what happiness is to you
Because I'm happy
Clap along if you feel like that's what you wanna do
Pharrell Williams - Happy Lyrics | MetroLyrics

it sure seems to me that this song captures a similar feeling that you have in your last sentence, the part where you mention "...a vibrant and functional platform that frees each one of us to engage in the task at hand and get lost in the pure joy of the work itself..."
06.5.2014 | Unregistered Commenterdoug wittnebel
" happiness shouldn’t be the end goal at work, but rather, seeking out meaning is the real key to a positive work experience. "
So true, getting lost in "the zone" is one of the pure joys of work.
06.6.2014 | Unregistered CommenterSailaja Vedula
this is one of the best articles I've seen about happiness in the workplace and what that really means. Thank you!
I went to a lecture last week as well with Dr. Mark Rowe and he gave a perscription for happiness:
Prescription for Happiness
• Express gratitude regularly
• Set and work towards goals (small & big, consistent with who you are, write them down)
• Cultivate optimism
• Be more kind
• Become more self-aware
• Savour more
• Create flow experience
• Nurture your relationships
• Exercise the greatest pill of all – daily
• Value your time
• Live in the moment
• Laughter… take daily
• Choose happiness
• Take these regularly and repeat regularly for life enhancing vitality
06.24.2014 | Unregistered CommenterKatie Battaglia
Great article. If you are interested in trying to take the employee experience another notch higher you may consider reading Maverick by Ricardo Semler. Though the book describes a revolutionary style of management in manufacturing (I have heard the "It won't work in our industry" argument plenty of times) I am positive that many of the principles described by Ricardo could - with a little imagination - work miracles in changing the way the workforce provides service and feels about their contribution.
06.27.2014 | Unregistered CommenterSierk Oudemans

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