The confusion over workplace happiness

Profile picture for user gonzodaddy By Den Howlett December 9, 2014

Happiness is only one piece of the employment puzzle
Choices for employees may be more limited than is suggested
Cultural change is exercising the minds of businesses in transition
There are no magic bullets

Jacob Morgan, author of the Future of Work and the Collaborative Organization believes that the results of recent surveys clearly points to measures of workplace happiness as the number one thing that matters to employees.

In coming to his conclusion which he frames in the context of the 'war for talent,' Morgan contrasts a variety of recent surveys including those that place compensation as the number one priority and one that firmly places happiness as a top priority. With such conflicting views, is Morgan correct in his assumption?

Hold on tiger - not so fast!

The short answer is an emphatic no. In coming to his conclusion, Morgan has made the fatal error of making cherry picked facts fit a theory that only applies in specific circumstances. The tell is where he says:

It’s important to remember that the “balance of power” is shifting away from organizations and towards employees. Today, we have a lot of choices to consider and several opportunities to evaluate when exploring how to make a living.

This is simply untrue for the vast majority of people and directly conflicts with what the majority of prospective employees can know in advance of taking up a position, what they actually know prior to becoming employed in a particular place and what they discover once they are in post. In that context, Morgan is confusing the pre and post placement experience - a vital difference.

The report upon which Morgan hinges his entire argument makes the point as it relates to a more fluid global workforce:

Individuals may think the trends are all moving in their favor—but like most things in life, it isn’t that simple. If workers have exactly the skills that are needed in their country of origin or in the country they want to move to, they may indeed be in great shape. But the better the opportunity, the more likely there are to be hundreds or thousands of highly skilled foreigners coming in to compete for the available positions, especially in economies and companies that have laid the right groundwork.

In other words, there is likely to be a much freer flow of talent in the workplace of the future. If they want to be part of it, individuals may not have much choice but to spend parts of their careers in places that aren’t home. To do anything else could be career ­stifling.

That is not to say that softer measures of employee satisfaction are unimportant. I cannot think of a single person I know who has stayed in a job where they were deeply unhappy, regardless of the compensation or job security. That is a far cry from workplace happiness as a predictor of prospective employer choice. Even where workplace happiness is considered a prime requirement, management may have little or no influence over how that plays out. Again, from one of the example studies Morgan chooses to highlight:

Employee happiness is more dependent on co-workers than direct managers. Employee happiness is 23.3% more correlated to connections with co-workers than direct supervisors. There is a very strong correlation between employee happiness and their rating of co-workers with a .92 correlation coefficient compared to a .74 correlation coefficient between employee happiness and how they rate their direct supervisor.

In plain English - it's not where you work but with whom you work that matters. We see this time and again in companies where some people are having the time of their lives while others consider themselves as little more than wage slaves and yet may only work yards apart.

A subtler question

The more subtle question centers around whether the workplace happiness quotient is different for that small number of people who are currently in the fortunate position of being able to make employment choices? The answer to that would seem to be a firm 'yes.'

Recent conversations with colleagues who are voluntarily on the move suggests that time taken to explore the company which is wooing them is time well spent. One recently said to me that the time he'd spent asking questions across several meetings gave him a clear understanding of the culture into which he was going and the extent to which he would likely be happy in post. His view has not changed since joining the company in question.

Others say that having worked alongside a company in a collaborative role and then making the switch didn't turn out as they anticipated. This second group 'thought' they knew what they were getting into where in reality what they actually knew was the public face of the company they eventually joined. This is a common paradox.

But in listening to a number of CEOs of new businesses, it is abundantly clear that they have (almost) always set out with a desire to establish a place of work where people want to be and which is not based upon the well established, hierarchical framework that served (and still serves) the industrial age so well.

Going back in time, Henry Ford wanted to build a car for everyman. That required the creation of production processes with which we are familiar today but which seem at odds with the workplace Morgan envisages. Yet at the time, Ford's ideas, coupled with a determination to pay his people well AND have a decent workplace environment served as a very successful model that others followed down the years.

Newer companies, like Zappos, have come up with a different model where the individual is valued in much the same way as a customer would expect to be valued. These are companies where workplace happiness takes a high priority. But these types of company are far removed from the early 21st century norm. Anecdotal evidence suggests however that even in these firms, ensuring workplace happiness is not without difficulty. In short, it is relatively easy to establish the happy workplace when the business is small. It is far harder to sustain as it grows. More on that for another day.

The more important question becomes: will these new businesses provide the models for the future that in turn define the new style of workplace? That is hard to tell. The studies are providing plenty of information to suggest that change is in the air and that a premium is being set upon workplace happiness.

Even then I am not convinced that what we're seeing is anything especially new. Isn't it more likely the old term 'job satisfaction' is getting something of a makeover as surveys dig deeper into the reasons behind people's satisfaction or otherwise in the workplace? That is a net good but doesn't take us forward. Such surveys provide plenty upon which to chew but don't provide an operational framework around which to build these businesses in the context that Morgan sees.

robots in tech

One size doesn't fit all

More challenging to me are the problems with which businesses under threat are finding themselves.

In technology for example, the outsourcing models of the past which were basically about labor cost arbitrage are giving way to new requirements. In the established model, it is all about bodying up for repetitive tasks that, according to Phil Fersht, CEO Horses for Sources, are becoming 'roboticized' or more automated. In other words, much currently outsourced work such as invoice processing can now be delegated to a machine.

In those circumstances, outsourcers are left with a vacuum. What do they do with x-thousand people who are only used to performing repetitive tasks? How do they change to a different type of culture where customers are demanding innovation which in turn requires creativity? What kinds of worker are needed and what kind of work environment is necessary?

If the challenge was simply to provide a happier environment that motivates change then all would be well. But then I noticed Vishal Sikka, CEO Infosys reportedly saying:

“When I look at the feedbacks from our clients, not only for us but also for the entire industry, I see the primary thing is that we don’t speak up. We are great at following orders but we are not great raising issues and we are not great at raising opportunities that we see for our clients,”

Sikka said. “That change in mindset is what we fundamentally go after. I think the way to get there is that we have to rely on our greatest strength education.”

He was talking in the context of being 'disappointed' at what he sees in the services market. But is Sikka right? Is education the pivotal input that defines the path to prosperity for the new services market? I am not certain. It is a good starting point but it cannot be everything that defines the kind of workplace where people are satisfied. In this case, the culture of following orders would appear to work against a new form of business of the kind Morgan envisages. Which brings me to the final point.

The culture of work is both generational and situational. Sikka notices for instance the sharp differences in the culture of work in the US to that in India. I can point to the same across multiple cultures. In the 'latin' countries of Europe for example, work is often regarded as a means to an end, not an end in itself. In Germany, the almost strict following of a 9-to-5 working day seems at odds with the 'working all hours' startup culture of Silicon Valley and yet the German economy is in far better shape than most others around the world.

In short - there ain't a magic bullet. While Morgan may be right for a tiny subset of the overall workplace and those fortunate enough to make choices, we will continue to see many variations on a theme as businesses transition, die and emerge.