Getting into the flow: How to build a happy workplace

What is the flow state, how does it impact employee experience and how organizations can leverage the concept to make their workers and workplaces happier.

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From education to religion and spirituality through gaming, the concept of “flow” has been widely used across a variety of fields. More recently, it’s been gaining increased popularity within human resources as a powerful technique to keep employees happy and motivated, and therefore more productive in the workplace.

Developers of computer software describe getting into a flow state as "wired in", sometimes as “being in the zone”, “hack mode” or “operating on software time” when developing in an undisturbed state of mind. We will now look at what the flow state really means, how it can be achieved and what benefits of flow to individuals and organizations.

First things first, what is flow?

It’s not a new concept – in fact, it has existed for thousands of years, for example, embedded in the Japanese concept of “Ikigai”. This literally means “a reason for being”, “a reason to get up in the morning”, and it’s considered one of the reasons why people in the Okinawa region in Japan have one of the highest life expectancy in the world. To get into the flow, or to find your “Ikigai” in life, you need to find an activity that you love to do, which you are good at, through which you can earn a living and for which there is a demand.

Modern psychologists like Csíkszentmihályi and Schaffer describe “flow” – also referred to as “the zone” - as the mental state in which a person is effortlessly and fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, with complete involvement and enjoyment when performing an activity, whether it’s work or play. In a work environment, the cycle from getting an opportunity to tackle a challenge to performance feedback which leads to a new call-to-action forms a flow loop.  Having clear goals, continuous feedback and a balance between opportunity and capacity make up the conditions that need to be present simultaneously for people to feel happy, active, involved and creative.

Getting into the flow in the workplace – model and conditions

What are the benefits of the flow?

A brain in flow is more relaxed than usual. In flow, our brain waves shift from the beta waves of concentration to the alpha waves associated with relaxation and the theta waves that occur during meditation. Theta waves are the gateway to creative genius, a prerequisite for those great moments of insight. The fact that our inner critic is silenced during flow also helps our ideas glide effortlessly towards creativity, rather than being judged and discarded.

In a workspace this means:

  1. People who spend more time in flow also spend more time working at the office
  2. Happier and less stressed employees produce more
  3. People come up with more creative ideas
  4. These people have a better focus on tasks (which avoids wasteful tasks, aka “Muda” in lean manufacturing and software development)

According to a study, top executives reported being five times more productive while in flow. If challenges are small, one gets back into the flow by increasing them. If challenges are too great, one can return to the flow by learning new skills.

How to get into the flow in your workplace?

Some working methods and business tools can facilitate getting into the flow. Instead of providing an exhaustive list, we’ll share tips and tools that have proven successful with our teams worldwide.

IT projects are often carried out by small teams implementing Agile methods like Scrum, DevOps or Kanban. Meanwhile, these teams follow the Kaizen principle of continuous learning and improvement, which comes from “lean manufacturing’’.

Project goals are analysed and written down in a structured way. Kanban boards and sprint backlogs help team members to visualize the work that needs to be done to accomplish these goals. They also represent an easy way to determine priorities. Daily stand-up meetings, peer reviews, sprint demonstrations, internet fora all provide a continuous stream of feedback.

Today’s workforce values flexible workplaces and workstyles more and more. We’ve said it before but we’ll say it again - the right collaboration ecosystem can help teams across your organization become more productive and happier. From web-conferencing to real-time document co-authoring, these shared team interfaces help not only structure teamwork but also enable direct and concise feedback on-the-spot to make sure workflows keep rolling and team members remain engaged “in the flow”, regardless if they are in the same room or in dispersed offices around the world.

Bootcamps for new recruits are an alternative education model that offers a new way to introduce new employees to their teams, internal workflows and working methods and best practices. Providing such a fast-track program to get new hires up to speed on the work environment and expectations regarding their responsibilities is something that our human resources and internal teams have found has a high impact in their motivation and future performance.

Working in consulting means by definition dealing with increasingly complex challenges from customers as well as complex project management, often on a global scale. Across business units, we have large teams working on assessing the best solutions to meet the needs of diverse client organizations, ranging from private to government sectors, and developing state-of-the-art tailor made solutions. These processes offer meaningful challenges to individuals and teams. When combined with the agile working methods and platforms that facilitate collaboration and fast feedback loops, they can even make more seemly uninteresting or repetitive tasks more like an enjoyable game, and thus keep team members engaged in continuous flow loops.

Reading blogs or industry portals that can provide new insights about your area of expertise or help you develop new skills is a good example of an activity that provide freedom and distraction, while still fulfilling the “action” requirements in the flow model. Social networking and online shopping also use a simplified flow-based concept to fulfil users' intrinsic motivations.

If you want to do the test, Schaffer published the Flow Condition Questionnaire to measure each of his seven flow conditions for any given task or activity.

Published on 31/01/18    Last updated on 01/08/18

#Employee Experience

About the author

Kjell Leenknegt is a Digital Experience Project Manager at AMPLEXOR based in Belgium.

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