Happiness and Work Progress and Performance: Is there a role for the workplace?

December 15, 2011

Jim Meredith, LEED AP, Workplace Strategy

There is an increasing body of scholarship and other analysis linking positive feelings and happiness at work to the progress and performance of the organization.

The Gallup organization has been conducting an annual survey and index on “well-being” at work, for example. The more recent surveys indicate a continuing decline in staff engagement as a result of the context and characteristics of the working environment. In their recent book, The Progress Principle, Amabile and Kramer assert that relatively small moves can have a big impact on the feelings of workers and therefore on their individual and organizational performance. In a recent article, they say that, “Our research shows that inner work life has a profound impact on workers’ creativity, productivity, commitment and collegiality. Employees are far more likely to have new ideas on days when they feel happier. Conventional wisdom suggests that pressure enhances performance; our real-time data, however, shows that workers perform better when they are happily engaged in what they do.”

Several factors for increased happiness and performance seem to have potential connections to the ways that workspaces are designed. That is, it seems that the design of the workplace, by removing barriers and supporting certain behaviors, can have a significant impact on how people feel and how they perform.

  • Providing clear goals
  • Making progress visible
  • Supporting autonomy
  • Providing good resources
  • Supporting learning from problems
  • Providing support when and where it is needed
  • Removing obstacles, even minor hassles
  • Attending to the little things

Consider how the design of the workplace can support these values, activities and behaviors. Here are three quick concepts:

  • Provide a variety of settings for the varying tasks and activities that make up the workday. This signals a culture in which independent or autonomous moves are accepted. These settings are  rich resources that give everybody access to affordable and appropriate shared resources rather than compromise by allocating an even set of resources to everybody.
  • Design for visual connections. This can help people understand the larger context of their work and recognize the value in their part in the work that is being done. These visual connections make it easier for managers to assess and become comfortable with the progress of the work and, more importantly, for workers to identify and access the right support when it is needed.
  • Provide places that support casual and spontaneous conversations and make contextual learning a pleasure. Too many managers ask for offices so that they can counsel staff, but an easy chair and a cup of coffee might be the most effective setting for a conversation in which help is sought or an observation about a better way can be offered.

In our work, we guide people to observe and record the physical attributes of their work spaces – things that are barriers to what they want to achieve, and things that support their engagement and accomplishment. We find that the best experiences at work – the experiences of accomplishment of purpose, achievement of goals, and growth in capabilities – have a spatial footprint. That is, great work comes from great experiences that come from supportive places and spaces.

As we’ve said so many times before, the leading organizations of the future will be the ones who “own” the experience of working – by providing the right places and spaces for those experiences.