How offices can forecast happiness to head off problems early

Some factors in workplace happiness are random, but some form patterns you can respond to

 
Header for The Happy Office Project
Line of happy coworkers
(BraunS/Getty)

“How happy are you today?”

There was the question again—it pops up regularly when you open the Plasticity Labs app—and by Week 3 of our Happy Office Project, my answers started to surprise me. During the first week of our experiment, I’d assigned myself scores in the high 70s (out of a possible 100), but now they were suddenly inching up. By Day 18 or so, I’d dialed the app’s pop-up bliss-o-meter to a whopping 92.

Does that number seem crazy-high to you? If so, you may be the type of person happiness expert Gretchen Rubin calls an Eeyore—someone who’d rather eat their iphone than give themselves a contentment score in the 90s. I wouldn’t describe myself as an Eeyore, but the number still surprised me. I liked seeing it there, blinking optimistically on my computer screen, but it felt a little like getting an A on a school project that I hadn’t really worked at. All we’d been doing was posting positive messages on Plasticity Labs’ digital platform, and answering occasional questions about things that make us feel good. Was my brain so easily hacked that a couple of weeks of forced positivity could send my happiness levels soaring?

Or could my newfound sense of wellbeing have something to do with the fact that we’d just come through a fairly intense deadline week? Or with something else even more banal, but inescapable: the weather?

All of the above, according to Jim Moss, Plasticity’s co-founder. It’s too soon to say whether perusing our office social feed has actually helped me focus more attentively on the positive aspects of my work, but my self-assigned scores are typical of a trend that he and his staff have noted: When employees start assigning numbers to their happiness levels, they vary dramatically. But by the end of Week 3, the range usually starts narrowing: You realize that weather is only weather; deadlines are only deadlines. For the most part, you get through them. As weeks pass, your happiness levels out and are affected only by more drastic events—layoffs or cutbacks, for instance, or bonuses and awards.

Or spring. Certain cyclical, calendar events create noticeable spikes and valleys in employee morale, Moss says. “You definitely see [scores] float a bit at this time of year,” he says. And in September, at about the first Wednesday after Labour Day, they “go haywire,” as parents with young kids scramble to readjust to a new school year. “The numbers suddenly become really volatile,” he says, for about three and a half weeks.

Monitoring how walloped employees are feeling by weather or cyclical events is one of the functions of measuring workplace mood so closely: by taking the pulse of a workplace and offering feedback, employers can develop happiness-boosting policies and practices (flexible hours in September, for instance, could help parents deal with the start of the school year). It can also identify groups of employees who are experiencing unique challenges.

One company Plasticity currently works with has employees around the world, Moss says, and its data has revealed what he calls a “black hole”: a cohort of staff in a region that’s suffered a significant economic downturn who are struggling with morale. How do you deal with a group like that? Moss points to a number of options, including targeted communications that let them know that management is aware of their concerns. Maybe even a promise that there will be no layoffs for the next six months, so that employees can focus more effectively on work.

Through the data it collects in a growing number of companies, Moss and his team hope to eventually put numbers to the value of just about any office practice or perk, enabling employers to instantly answer questions like, What would make my staff happier—free food at work or a shorter commute? And when events happen that are beyond a manager’s control, like last fall’s shooting on Parliament Hill, how will they affect morale and engagement? (Plasticity’s data showed a dip that lasted 24-48 hours, depending on the workplace.)

“Having data allows you to be an opportunist,” Moss says. “You’re not going to make policy changes in response to every blip. But if you don’t have the data, you’re throwing darts.”

So is my 92 a true 92 or just a symptom of the sunshine we’re all suddenly experiencing? Ask me tomorrow.

PREVIOUSLY IN THE HAPPY OFFICE PROJECT:

The Happy Office Project is a special series initiated by Canadian Business. Plasticity Labs is neither providing nor receiving payment for our participation, and has no involvement in its editorial content.

 

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