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Office Happiness

This article by Simon Gear first appeared in the Investec internal magazine in March 2011.I always get mildly irritated when I hear young international cricketers and golfers complain about how relentless their schedule is and how desperately they need a break. 

 I can see how being away from a wife and kids can increase stress, but for the youngsters?  Come on.  Getting paid to swan around the world playing the game you have loved since you were a small child sounds like pure bliss to me.  And yet, they do apparently get tired and suffer burnout, even though their average work day looks a lot more like my Saturday afternoon than my Monday morning.

This raises a few interesting points.  The first and obvious one is that no matter how much you love what you do, it is possible to do too much of it.  Rest assured, none of these young sports stars would rather have your job.  In fact, I remember the story of the Gauteng cricket captain who liked to call his troops together during a hot afternoon’s fielding.  “Look chaps, he would say, “in five years time you are going to be looking out of some office window on a Thursday and you are going to wish you could be back here.  So forget about how tired and hot and thirsty you are and just remember that life could be a lot worse.  You could have a real job.

Yet we still hear of the stress of a long season and see how performances deteriorate towards the end of a long tour.  Perhaps it isn’t that playing games all day is somehow more stressful than sitting at any of the desks in Sandton’s Golden Mile.  Could it be that sport just happens to be one of the jobs in the world with the most open performance appraisals?  So when these youngsters start to get tired, it shows?

What would happen if your performance was as easily quantified and commented on as Graham Smith’s?  I bet one of two things.  Either, you would get fired around November each year or, if your boss was a bit more understanding, you would get some enforced rest every third week.  I have little doubt that the stress of the professional sportsman is not hugely different to the stress everyone else feels, but in pro sport, there is nowhere to hide and the transparency of performance forces bosses to rest their team regularly.  No such luxury is afforded those of us who have to buy tickets to get into the Wanderers, though.

A top sportsman has skills rare enough that those in charge of the team have it in their own best interest to molly coddle the players through a season.  Business managers however, may need a little more encouragement that their bonuses also rely on ensuring that the people who work under them are treated with the same care.  Every sallow-cheeked, middle manager ever to walk out of an exam hall with a newly minted MBA certificate under his arm, is able to wax lyrical about Human Resource law, appraisals, profit curves and talent acquisition, but very few of them have paused to realise that if they can just make the people below them happy, most of the battle is won.

Over the past decade, a slew of research has surfaced showing that people who work in offices appear to be human beings, subject to the same hopes, desires and influences as affect them at home.  This comes on the back of a move internationally to start realising that countries themselves are not made up of units of capital flows or tax revenue streams, but of people who could use some looking after.  In 2006 (then future-) British Prime Minister, David Cameron mooted the idea of disposing with GDP indices in favour of measures of GWB – general well-being.  In 2008, Nicolas Sarkhozy added the environment to the mix, in asking a panel of experts to create measures that assessed a population’s quality of life alongside their environmental impact. How it took over a century of capitalism to wake up to the fact that striving for (and benchmarking) people’s happiness was a good idea is beyond me.  Even livestock owners must have realised that relaxed, healthy livestock do better.

The major finding of all this research, is also the most obvious one.  A happy workforce experiences higher productivity, lower staff turnover (and so lower costs) and results in a stronger bottom line than teams who are overworked and living in fear or exhaustion.  Or, in the endearing language of the Kansas State University business school, “happiness (is) a valuable tool for maximizing organizational outcomes.  They really are a barrel of laughs down in Kansas.

An interesting aside is that it is not necessary to do too much to get people happy.  The University of Alberta showed that just encouraging people to focus on the positive aspects of their work was enough to drop absenteeism by two-thirds and staff turnover by three quarters.  Prof Robert Emmons’ work out of California (where else?) reads like a show transcript from Oprah.  In Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life he found that just compiling a short list of things for which you are thankful is enough to improve everything from your marriage to your memory.

So once you have instituted a few handy psychological tricks (and 2 minutes spent jotting your day’s ‘highs’ on the back of an envelope is probably enough), it is time to tackle the workplace itself.  Astonishingly, there are still offices which aspire to conformity with religious zeal.  A friend of mine out on business from the UK commented wistfully on my computer’s desktop background (I have a picture of Calvin and Hobbes, stargazing). His company insists that all backgrounds are uniformly the corporate logo, I suppose in case anyone nods off and forgets where they are.

And yet the research regarding in what type of physical environment people prefer to work shows exactly what you might expect.  People like work places that are clean, simple, reasonably peaceful and decorated to personal taste.  If you want your team to be happy where they work, let them have a hand in what it looks like.  Employees who are responsible for the layout and design of their workspaces are a third more productive than those poor round pegs that get hammered into square cubicles every day.

Like the correlations between well-being, longevity and the environment, which the French and the British have drawn at countrywide level, so green workplaces prove happier and more profitable too.  Just the addition of indoor plants and windows is enough for workers to report decreased stress and increased job satisfaction.

Of course, the very best office worker is one who does not have an office at all.  I have no idea why managers are so afraid of telecommuting.  Perhaps it is the fear that when senior bosses see the increases in quality that result from allowing workers a flexible mix of home and office based work time, the truth that most micro management consists of preventing people from getting anything done will be cruelly exposed.  As communication technology improves to the point where almost any job can be done from almost anywhere, the case for allowing your team emancipation from nine to five slavery is as clear as day.  Partial telecommuters on a flexitime system show better productivity, more hours worked and, interestingly, a better home-work balance, despite the obvious temptation to work outside of regular office hours.  At the very least, working from home wins back the two hours that the average Sunninghill to Sandton commuter spends in the car each day.

Somewhere around the 1950s we stopped designing cities for pedestrians and started designing them for cars.  Our buildings became odes to accountancy rather than architecture.  Work ceased to be what we did and became who are.  Even as technology leaps forward, massively increasing the workload we can handle in any one day, the effect is to shorten deadlines, rather than to lengthen weekends.  The idea of a strict, ‘8 to 5 with an hour for lunch’ workday is a hangover from the rise of factories when the human hand was an integral part of the machine and the co-ordination of a thousand souls was essential to the smooth running of the line.  To still hold ourselves accountable to these early ideals while sitting in a modern office is as old-fashioned  as steam engines and fax paper.

Striving for happiness is not such a radical idea.  Treat me like a human being and I will repay you by working to my full potential.  Even if I do spend a little more time than expected in the next month watching Graham Smith do his job.



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