Work Happy: Exploring the Now and the Future of Happiness at Work

Business advice Workplace wellness
Estimated read time: 7 mins
Published: 18/01/2019

On January 16th, we held the first ever event in our ‘Work Happy’ event series geared towards opening up the discussion on happiness in the workplace.

With workers increasingly looking to take home more than just a salary our work is no longer simply transactional. We want to talk to people in the know about what happiness, positivity and collaboration in the workplace means for team engagement.

What strategies are currently being applied to create happy workplaces? What will make teams more productive and take fewer sick days? And what challenges does this new employment landscape pose? We heard from two trailblazers in the team happiness and engagement world who talked to our attendees about the what’s and why’s of engaging the future workforce.

Here’s what we learned:

First up, we heard from Henry Stewart, founder and Chief Happiness Officer of Happy Ltd.  Henry founded Happy after years of working unhappily himself and the company has since been rated one of the top 20 workplaces in the UK for five years running. His book, The Happy Manifesto, was published in 2013 to high acclaim and his methods have been applied to make people happier in organisations around the world.


Kicking off his interactive conversation, he posed the question:

“Would you agree that people work best when they feel good about themselves?”

Cue a murmur of yeses and collective nodding: “So, this is what every company should be focused on. Simply, making their people happy”. From higher profits in Fortune 500’s World’s Best Workplaces to less deaths in hospitals where staff are happier and more engaged with their patients- “5,000 deaths a year in the UK wouldn’t happen if we had entirely happy hospitals”– the data speaks for itself.

Empowering your people

“People don’t like being forced to have fun. There’s the in the moment happiness and the long-term happiness, we’re talking about long-term happiness”

Henry asked us to cast our minds back over our careers and consider specific times when we felt truly proud of our work. After a quick show of hands, the majority of us felt the strongest connection with times where we’d had autonomy and achieved something challenging.

Henry explains, “there’s an absolute relationship between being trusted with challenging work and long-term happiness in your role”. He said that a great way to instil this sense of freedom in an employee is to relinquish some control as a manager.

We’ve all felt the unwelcome frustration of micromanagement and Henry explained that approving an employee’s solution before they’ve thought of it releases some of that pressure, leaves room for innovation and boosts confidence. You’ve hired staff you think will do their jobs well, “if you truly delegate you wouldn’t get what you’d have chosen to create” and that’s real innovation.

Be a good coach

Henry said he commonly speaks to managers who maintain it isn’t their job to get the most out of their employees. He explained that this misconception comes from a preoccupation with short-term success and micromanagement, “a manager is there to help you find your own conclusion and give you confidence- not to tell you what to do”.

With increased freedom there is undoubtedly an increased possibility that things will go wrong. According to Henry, the key is to celebrate these mistakes: “Crucially, the problem isn’t the mistake, it’s the cover up”. The best way to learn is to do it wrong the first time.

Hire for attitude, train for skill

At Happy Ltd., once someone is hired the job description is thrown away and rewritten by the new hire: “We ask: what are you best at and how can you do more of it?”. When it comes to appraisals and drawing up strengths and weaknesses, Henry advises acknowledging the weaknesses but engaging with the strengths,“if you aren’t good at it then don’t do it”.

He explained that as a manager you are “a natural barrier for change” and contrary to popular belief “people love change, they just don’t love being changed themselves”.  The easiest way to become a more effective organisation is to give people that freedom and ownership of their area of expertise, “Everyone can learn to embrace change, and I live in hope for a world where a happy workplace is the norm and not the exception”.

Next up, we heard from agile coach, Andrea Darabos, who spoke to us about transforming the attitudes and abilities of your workforce through strengths-based development and motivation theory.

Bring your whole self to work

Andrea explained that finding happiness in your work lives and career should be found not just through your manager but within yourself. She has found that a real barrier to moving forward in our careers and enjoying what we do, comes from not truly understanding how best we work and what motivates us in the workplace.

Our happiness at work is a complicated equation that is unique to all of us and can be made up of any number of things, “what we do, the environment we work in, how much sleep we get, the systems we use and the colleagues we interact with”. Crucially, she believes we need to ask ourselves: “What is your unique need? It’s easy to think yours is the same as mine, but that isn’t necessarily true”.

Moving Motivators

A method Andrea often uses with clients looking to boost their team happiness is finding each employee’s top motivators, asking our attendees to rate their top three. The goal within a team should be to relate to and use each other’s strengths: “Ask how you can help yourself. Find the motivators that are undernourished, communicate them to those you work with”. She explains that it’s vital not to rely on someone pointing them out for you, “You don’t need to sit and wait for HR to recognise them. You can drive those needs yourself”.

Judge less, communicate more

Andrea explains that a team’s motivators may not all complement each other, but that there isn’t a right way: “For example, power isn’t a negative motivator to have, it doesn’t necessarily mean a desire for higher status. It may mean you prefer to work on more purposeful tasks or need more clear goals and challenging work to feel satisfied”. The key for Andrea is authentic communication amongst employees and managers, as it’s a way for your team “to be connected to your organisation’s purpose” as there resides productivity.

Panel Discussion

Our host for the evening, writer and digital marketer Jennifer Riggins, sat down with Andrea, alongside Work.Life co-founder Elliot Gold and Trigger Conversations founder Georgie Nightingall.

Jen wasted no time in hitting them with the million-dollar question:

What is happiness at work?

For all three of our panellists, the resounding answer was the ability to be your true self. As Georgie put it, “Connectedness to who you are and what you do. We are bringing everything to work and when people show up as themselves, we’re finding more and more that people are more present and real”. She believes that this spirals into being more personally involved with your works mission.

Elliot agreed that people no longer want to put on a suit and become someone else for 9 hours a day: “They want to be themselves and connect around a common purpose”.

How, as a manager, can you find a shared purpose and connection for your team?

Elliot said that the important thing to remember is that it’s different for each person: “It’s very difficult to script. You have to work out who you’re managing and what their needs are. That takes sitting down with everyone in the team and asking the right questions”.

Georgie suggests having this conversation around your expectations and motivators at the beginning: “It’s important to be proactive and collaboratively engage to get what you want”. She’s found that this can be translated to most social interactions and relationships in her life, as it helps to reduce frustration later down the line- “and by the way, it’s never too late”.

What challenges do you face managing people?

Andrea finds she is frustrated mostly by the lack of urgency and general acceptance of traditional, restricted ways of working: “There are so many questions we should be asking but aren’t, so progress is very slow”. Elliot explained that this is because it’s very difficult to flip commonly accepted practices on their head and apply new processes like Henry’s ‘preapproval’ method, “the idea of passing on control of something that’s important to you is a very difficult thing to do but it’s important to pursue new ideas and accept that it’s a difficult challenge”.

To implement any of these management methods requires a trustworthy and motivated team; a lot hangs on hiring the right people. Elliot said that, “a wrong hire puts a huge amount of pressure on the business”. Georgie admits that in order to create an open culture, “you have to be the kind of team that wants feedback”. She sometimes struggles to obtain feedback on her work: “Part of me knows I’m doing something wrong, so I don’t want to ask, but it’s immensely important in regard to improvement”.

Now she uses 360 Feedback with her team: “We talk about what went well and what didn’t. It’s about being curious with no judgement”. Everyone empathised with the struggle to feedback without colleagues and employees taking it personally, agreeing with Georgie that it’s all in the language: “I don’t tell people what they’ve done wrong but ask questions, so they can tell themselves what happened.”

Andrea highlighted the importance of finding tools to feedback in a way that is meaningful to the specific person and in an environment where they feel safe. She’s seen that creating a celebratory culture amongst your team where wins are acknowledged by peers and managers promotes a great interchange of feedback between all levels within the team.

Work.Life is focused on providing happy workspaces and we hope that this event series will help us to understand how better to promote happiness in the workplace. Our next in the series will take place in our London Fields space on February 13th. Thanks to everyone who made our debut “Work Happy” event so great and we hope to see you all at the next one – keep an eye on our events page for more details!

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