Tag Archives: Purpose

Today’s Labour Day. What do good jobs and happy companies look like?

Happiness at work. For some workers it is a contradiction in terms or a mirage, for other an aspiration or even reality. As today is Labour Day, it’s a good moment to answer a few questions how happiness at work can be pursued.

Happiness at work has been a powerful trend in recent years. Many companies have jumped on the bandwagon, rethinking how personnel find purpose in their work or recruiting happiness officers to organise fun activities and provide entertainment.

But what makes a happy company?

Characteristics of good jobs

As happiness at work is studied more seriously, there are more and more ideas and knowledge about what is needed to make us thrive in the work-place. The UK Business, Industry and Skills Department surveyed how employee wellbeing affects workplace performance. The survey’s 11 main takeaways on what makes a good job were summarised in the visual below by the What Works Wellbeing Center.

A lot of these elements are common sense: ownership and responsibility, variety in tasks, open communication, positive relations, learning, and a good balance between life and work. Implementation is step two, though. It requires a good company structure and the right culture to make sure they’re adequately implemented and not mere window-dressing.

Elements of good jobs. Source: What Works Wellbeing, https://whatworkswellbeing.org/blog/what-we-know-good-work/
Elements of good jobs. Source: What Works Wellbeing, https://whatworkswellbeing.org/blog/what-we-know-good-work/

 

The business of happiness at work

Some firms endow their HR department or another function, or even a dedicated Chief Happiness Officer, to bring happiness to the work place. Others work with external consultants specialising in the science of happiness at work and implementing changes at a project basis.

One such organisation in my current base of Warsaw, is the Employer Branding Institute (EBI). Apart from assisting firms is creating happier work places, it also runs a project called Pracuję bo lubię (I work because I like it). The project aims to raise the number of employees that are happy at work. There certainly is work to do: one Gallup study found that about 87% are unhappy or unengaged at work.

Health, atmosphere, purpose and flow

I sat down with Aleksandra Grabska of EBI, who rans the project and co-wrote the report, to ask her how they evaluate happiness at work. She explained me that they broke down happiness in four dimensions:

  • Health: a working culture that helps employees to live healthily. A job should not lead to too much stress, and employees should have the possibility to eat healthily. Even having a few good lunch options close to the office can contribute to happiness.
  • Atmosphere: humans are social animals, and the interaction with our colleagues – with whom we spend more time than with our partners! – is important. Thus, good employers invest in team dynamics. Hence all the Chief Happiness Officers organising champaign parties – and good managers focusing on open communication in their teams.
  • Purpose: ultimately, apart from basic needs and fun we also want to feel we are achieving something worthwhile. According to Aleksandra, this especially requires a bit of effort for bigger firms whose purpose is more abstract. These should make sure that employees with more technical or administrative tasks see how their support helps the firm achieves its mission. For instance, admin staff in an accountancy firm facilitate the work that accountants do in reviewing clients performance, and thus also support that those clients are well run and stable.
  • Flow: a final part of the picture is how we feel those 8 hours at work. Good jobs are those that create flow, or activities that can absorb employee who are  passionate about what they do.

And what about me?

But what, you might wonder, can I do to pursue happiness at work? There are a few thinks you can do. First of all, it helps to have a job in a company where you feel comfortable in the work environment and the sector. In some cases, that means simply packing up your things and leaving elsewhere.

A tool Aleksandra told me about is ‘job crafting‘, or slightly reshaping your job to match your ambitions. In many corporations, not all the content of the job is fully fixed. There will always be tasks that you can will have to take on, but many bosses are flexible enough to allow some degree of pro-activity and creativity. Volunteer to take on new projects, and try to carve out some time within your working week to do what gives you flow.

Good luck with the pursuit of happiness at work back in the office tomorrow!

Ikigai: the happiness of always being busy in Japan

Only staying active will make you want to live a hundred years

The proverb comes from Japan, the origin of the concept of ‘Ikigai‘. Ikigai is now the subject of a new book, and writers Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles claim the idea has a great promise. They say ikigai – meaning ‘purpose’ or ‘raison d’etre’ – is the Japanese secret to a long and happy life.

Japan is indeed a good place to look for longevity. At 74.9, it has the highest healthy life expectation at birth. A Japanese person that is 60 years old can be expected to still live 21.1 years in good health. And the share of centenarians is far above the global average. In the region of Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost region with a subtropic climate, there are even about 50 in 100,000 people who are older than 100 years.

The happiness of always being busy

Ikigai, say Garcia and Miralles, is what makes people reach one hundred years. Putting it more poetically than purpose, they refer to Ikigai as ‘the happiness of always being busy’.

In Japanese, it is written as 生き甲斐. It can be broken down in 生き, life, and 甲斐, to be worthwhile.

Everybody has an ikigai. If we know what it is, it shapes our days. If we are unsure what our raison d’etre is, we still carry it in ourself. And it’s broader than our passion or desire. Instead, ikigai combines four elements: what you love, what you are good at, what the world needs, and what you can be paid for.

The four dimensions of Ikigai. Source: Toronto Star, diagram by Mark Winn.

The four dimensions of Ikigai. Source: Toronto Star, diagram by Mark Winn.

Long lives in Okinawa

All good so far. Now we know what ikigai is, let’s turn to Garcia and Miralles to find out how Okinawans live to a hundred years and more, and how we can find our personal purpose following their lead.

The authors map a few factors that explain the high age reached by Okinawans:

  • healthy diet, based on a lot of green tea, large amounts of vegetables and fruits, soy products such as tofu, and low sugar consumption. Also, people tend to eat from smaller plates, and until their stomach is 80% full. No all-you-can-eat buffets!
  • closely tied communities. Individuals are part of a moai, or a support group of people with similar interests who look out for each other.
  • a good dose of daily activity of low to moderate intensity: Lots of walking around, and people spend time to tend their gardens.
  • regularly sports activity. Again, these tend to be low to moderate in intensity, like yoga, tai chi or qigong.

Finding your purpose

One of the promises the book makes is that it helps find our purpose. To this end, they share a few stories of what made the life of the eldest residents of Ogimi, Okinawa worth living. A few stories they shared:

The secret to a long life is not to worry. And to keep your heart young – don’t let it grow old. Open your heart to people with a nice smile on your face. If you smile and open your heart, your grandchildren and everyone else will want to see you.

I plant my own vegetables and cook them myself. That’s my ikigai.

Chatting and drinking tea with my neighbours. That’s the best thing in life. And singing together.

Do smiles, vegetables and tea really provide purpose to a life?

While these stories are nice to read, they come from a different origin than ours. Of course we can feel inspired by Japanese 90- or 100-year-olds to do tai chi or qi gong, and to replace our third cup of coffee by a green or white tea (I am trying!), but helping me to find the purpose in my daily life here in Europe is a bigger feat.

Rather than spending a few dozen pages on explaining all tai chi postures, the book could have expanded to offer insights from, say, Japanese philosophy or global psychology on where people find purpose, to inspire the reader to apply these in daily life. Is it really as simple as smiling, growing vegetables, and drinking tea with neighbours. These are sure moments that provide happiness, but does this mundane enjoyment of life really provide purpose? Is it all we need to come to terms with the negative sides of busy lives in the West?

The book also doesn’t dispel another myth. While concrete data on Okinawa itself are hard to come by, as a country, Japan is not too happy. It has indeed the highest Healthy Life Expectancy worth wide, but isn’t scoring as high in the World Happiness Report. In the 2018 edition, it ranks 54th, just below Latvia and just ahead the happiest country of Africa. Asia’s happiest country – Taiwan, is far ahead at spot 26 in the ranking.

Having an ikigai helps, but might be more of an ideal picture than a story representing society at large.

The robots are coming. What purpose do we have left?

A life without purpose is no life all.

Our purpose – a key element of a happy and fulfilling life – could be radically overturned by the rise of robots. Automation and artificial intelligence, sometimes referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, are threatening work and the economy as we know it. With that, even our happiness levels could be at risk.

The robots are coming

A seminal study on the future of employment by Frey and Osborne of 2013 put the figure of US jobs that could be automated by the early 2030s at around 47%. Imagining that about 1 in 2 employees lose their jobs is massive, but it is an average. For some sectors, like truck drivers or cab drivers, the figures are 70% or higher. If self-driving cars deliver on their promise, they will drastically reduce, or even eliminate, deathly car accidents. They will also radically cut employment in a sector that now represents about 3% of the US economy, and offers people with low education access to a middle-class lifestyle.

The gastronomy sector is another example. In a few years, you can order your pizza capricciosa online, and have it delivered home without any human intervention (we’re already almost there, though we still need a few humans). The dough could be prepared by one robot, the stuffing and sauces by a second, a third could bake it, and it could be delivered to your doorstep by driverless vehicle. Hygiene and efficiency would increase. For a capitalist, it is great: robots can work 24/7, without asking a salary, requesting additional training, getting bored, or going on strike.

White collar jobs are also at risk

But it’s not only blue collar jobs that can lose out. Also part of complicated jobs, like lawyers, accountants or radiologists can be automated. Again, their performance can be better than of humans. A well-programmed (or ‘trained’, through machine learning), robot accountant does not make the mistakes a human makes. A robot radiologist sees more cases during its training that a human during their entire career, and scores better in its diagnoses. These are just some examples: robots might also threaten your job, because humans can be beaten in every repetitive task.

Dramatic social effects

All these developments have massive social and economic effects. If robots take over so much of the current work, what will we do? Can we create new jobs for the 47%? Or will only be half the population be able to be employed? The demand-and-supply laws would posit that salaries would go down. Only those who control robots, the new means of production, would earn good salaries. Inequality would massively increase. This development is already visible in places like San Francisco. A four-person family with an income below $105,00o is now considered poor.

Maybe the entire economy would collapse. If only few people work and earn salaries, who can afford to consume of all products and services that robots produce? Henry Ford’s production line only started to take off when he realised that he needed to pay his staff enough to buy his T-Fords. Supply is nowhere without demand.

A new social contract?

Many in the tech industry, from Elon Musk to Mark Zuckerberg spoke out on basic income as a tool to protect those who lose out. In an interview last year, Bill Gates advocated a robot tax: “The human worker who does, say, $50,000 worth of work in a factory has his income taxed and you get income tax, social security tax, all those things. If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level”. Policy makers, such as San Francisco counsellor Jane Kim, have started to think what it could look like. Basic income might be part of the new social contract in a robot-driven economy – who knows?

What is our purpose?

At the moment, we have many more questions than answers. We know robots can do many parts of our jobs, and that some sectors are destined for radical transformation. But we don’t know what comes next. When coal mines in Western countries were closed in the 1970s and 1980s, nobody could tell coal miners not to worry – we didn’t know yet that their children and grand-children could make a living as social media managers or YouTubers.

Similarly, the jobs that will be needed in the 2030s may not exist yet. At the same time, there are a few things that can give us hope. Coding is safe – robots cannot programme themselves (yet?). Social skills and social relations will remain important. And while robots are great in performing repetitive actions in situations they have seen before, they cannot (yet?) deal with completely new situations and decide what to do.

So, there are at least two avenues to find our purpose: one is to do the non-routine, creative work that is hard to automate (some creativity can be automated though – robots can create music and paintings). Another thing we can imagine is living the life as in Keynes vision – with a 15 hour working week, we can spend so much more time on holidays. There are a few big ifs – firstly, we need to have a new social contracts that allows it. Secondly, we  need to find a raison d’etre, a purpose outside work.

We should hurry to do so. The 2030s are close.

Mojitos, Lego and Beyond: Work and Motivation

Is there more to work than a means to pay for your mojitos?

Post-modern times require us to have complex skills in order to do our jobs well. This also influences how we feel about work in general: it is not just about making a living but also a way of self-realisation and a potential source to bring flow, meaning and happiness to our lives. TED speakers Dan Ariely and Dan Pink share their thoughts with us on the question: what motivates us to work?

Work and motivation

Dan Ariely

Dan Ariely is a behavioural psychologist who is on his way to becoming a TED star. His talks on irrationality, loss aversion and dishonesty have been watched by millions. Two years ago, in 2012, he was a TEDxAmsterdam guest in De Stadsschouwburg.

This time, he chose a different topic: work and motivation. Ariely discards the simple theory that most people only work in order to spend their money on mojitos while sitting on a beach. Beyond mojitos, what motivates people to care about their jobs? According to Ariely, meaning and creation are the main motivators.

Meaning

Ariely tells us the story of one of his former students who used to work for an investment bank. For weeks and weeks he worked on a presentation for an important business deal. He worked overtime, did the research and put together a slick powerpoint presentation. He delivered a stellar job and received the well-earned appreciation by his boss he was looking for. Then, things changed: he learnt that the deal was off and that the presentation wouldn’t be used after all. This news was such a disappointment to him that it took away all of his motivation to work (even though his work was beyond his boss’s expectations). As a researcher, Ariely’s job is to translate similar anecdotes and theories into experiments. In this case, he came up with an experiment to test the effect of demotivation on performance. Being a Lego lover, he thought Lego robots would bring him closer to the answer.

Ariely paid two groups of research subjects to build bionicles – a type of Lego robot. The standard condition comprised of presenting the robots built by the first group. But in the ‘Sisyphic condition’, the robots were destroyed in the presence of the subjects just after they finished building them. The result: any motivation to build the robots was crushed. Even those who stated they loved Lego, actually built very few of them.

The IKEA effect

It is not surprising that meaning and purpose are an important part of our motivation at work. Creating something that is yours is another source of motivation. Or in Ariely’s words: the IKEA effect. If you spend a number of hours assembling your own IKEA furniture, it’s very likely that you will be more attached to it: labour leads to appreciation. Children are another example. You may experience other people’s children as horrible creatures. But when they’re yours, you have already invested so much time and energy that they have become valuable to you. Ariely informs us that this effect has also been studied in experiments involving origami figures made by the subjects themselves.

Dan Pink

Autonomy, mastery and purpose

Career analyst Dan Pink has formulated his own answer to the question of motivation. He argues that in the current business climate, staff management is no longer suitable for the 21st century employee. Our jobs today require a specific set of skills. We do not live in a time anymore where a task is simply being executed as ordered. As the content of our jobs has changed over time, our management has to change, too.

Engagement can be reached with the help of three factors, says Pink: autonomy, mastery and purpose. We have the urge to be the director of our own lives, both in our private lives as well as in our jobs. We want to become increasingly better at what we do and we yearn to be part of something more meaningful, something larger than ourselves.

Thus, Dan Pink argues, our working cultures should be redesigned. We should build more (software) companies like Atlassian, where people have ‘Fedex days’, giving them 24 hour to solve a problem posed by themselves. Or, we should learn from radical reformers like Google, where engineers can spend 20% of their working time on projects they believe are important. Or we can work via the ‘ROWE’ (Results Only Work Environment) eliminating fixed working hours and meetings.

Challenge is what drives motivation. And companies can do so much more to create that challenge.

This article was first published on the blog of TEDxAmsterdam, as part of my series ‘TED & Happiness’. In this series, I explore some of the about fifty talks on happiness in TED’s library.

With great thanks to Tori Egherman for editing.