In this episode, our guest is Dr. Tracy Brower, Principal, Applied Research + Consulting, Steelcase, Author of the books 'The Secrets to Happiness at Work' and 'Bring Work to Life'. Tracy is also a Forbes and Fast Company contributor. Her many articles are bursting with insight around work-life balance, flexible work, the physical workplace and the relationship between our work and the rest of our lives.
Below is a short excerpt from the conversation. For more insight, please listen to the podcast, either via the player above or on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or on Google Podcast.
Agnes Uhereczky: Welcome to the listeners of the WorkLife HUB podcast to this new episode! We are thrilled because a long-time friend and idols of ours is joining today's episode, Tracy Brower, from the US. Today's discussion is going to be a bit of a mixture between Tracy's most recent research into happiness at work and also the pandemic, which we of course can not ignore. So, I wanted to ask you to begin with Tracy, how do you define happiness at work, what is your definition of joyful work, this sometimes seems to be a little bit of a cliché, sometimes it seems to be overused, so I just wanted to get your researcher's take on it. What is it to you and how do you define it?
Tracy Brower: That is the biggest question and I love that we start with this. I think that we need to think about happiness and joy holistically and I think we need to think about it in a more long-lasting way. If we are happy at work, if we have joy at work, it may not mean that every single day is full of butterflies and lollipops and we are singing in the streets. It is not a 100% every single minute kind of experience, I think it's more about a general sense of peacefulness, a general sense of being in the right place and making a good contribution, a general sense of positivity, and a general sense of optimism. That comes with ebbs and flows, it comes with ups and downs; overall, it is that resilient feeling of positivity.
Agnes Uhereczky: I wanted to ask you about expectations from both employers and employees, which I see as something that is coming out more and more as the pandemic has accelerated transparency in organisations with Zoom calls, where no one can hide in the ideal worker norm and we might need to advocate and speak up more. So, there is now perhaps a shifting mindset in terms of what employers are expecting from their employees and vice versa in terms of what is work, what is the place of work. Do you see that there is a contradiction and maybe different expectations from the two sides?
Tracy Brower: Yes, I think so. I think our conceptions of work overtime have shifted and I think previously we may have thought that work needed to be all-encompassing and work needed to be your primary priority and life, and if it wasn't you weren't adequately committed to the company or your job. I think we become so much more enlightened shall we say over time that work is a part of a full life. But I also think that it is important for us to know that hard work is a good thing. I think we do not want to go far in the other direction either where we think that work was hard today, work was a challenge today, those are not bad things, those are good things, when we feel challenged, when we feel engaged. When we have that ideal level of contribution that we are making, that is not so easy that we don't have to think about it. That is rewarding. So, I think we want to consider hard work, work that challenges us, work that is rewarding both extrinsically and intrinsically as really good things.
Another thing for me about the way we conceive of work is that we are empowered to make that our own. You used the word, empowered, just a little bit ago. That is a critical thing, it is not like we need to go to work to our companies and organisations and have work laid down for us on a silver platter and have it match exactly our needs. We have a give and take relationship and we want to grab that empowerment, we want to empower ourselves to create the condition for great work. Our companies or organisations have a responsibility to create those conditions. We can empower ourselves to create those conditions as well by choosing the kind of work we are doing, by choosing the way we engage, by choosing the people with whom we are connecting in terms of our colleagues, by giving feedback to our leaders and our employers. So, I think that this is a two-way street and hard work can be very empowering.
Agnes Uhereczky: How is it possible to get that sweet spot? What are the things to look out for if you want work to be both challenging so not too easy, but also not too draining, you want to give empowerment but not too much autonomy, not some kind of freefall? Do you have any - one or two - favourite practices on how a workplace and an employee-employer relationship get that right? How do you figure out what is this place where this happens?
Tracy Brower: This is a super simple framework, but a framework that I like very much is a 2x2, that says: what do I have to do in my job, and what do I love to do. You want as much overlap of those two things as possible, and I think depending on how much overlap you have you might be in a sweet spot, and you know that's all good. If you don't have enough overlap between those things, I think that is the moment where we were given feedback to our employer, where we were seeking that better fit in terms of a role, in our current employer, or maybe a different employer. And I think that we can have that open communication between leaders and employers and employees to discuss what do I need, how do I need to grow. One of the things that I have written about in the past is just the idea that we want to see a future in our roles, in our organisations, we want to have that opportunity to grow and to stretch. That is different for everybody that may not always look like climbing a hierarchy, it may look more like spreading out across nature, or building our social capital, but I really like that idea of trying to find as much intersection between things that I have to do and things that I love to do. Because every job has a mix and you want to have as much overlap as you can.
Agnes Uhereczky: Absolutely, I think what you are saying is so true about wanting to see a future because after a while your work becomes routine, and it flattens out the excitement and the honeymoon phase and the learning is flattening out and that is when you either stay in that role but maybe get disengaged or get bored and look for excitement and look for challenges elsewhere, or you start looking a new job. So, it is important for managers to even if it is in an environment where the employee would not necessarily know how to advocate for themselves or communicate this but for the managers also to understand where to see the signs and what to look out for.
Tracy Brower: Yes, and I love your point about learning.
New learning is such a source of motivation and engagement, even if we stay in the same job with the same job description and the same role. That new learning and new challenge can be such a source of motivation. And I think it is important to look holistically at the work-life ecosystem.
Sometimes we are feeling frustrated with our paid work that we do, from 9 to 5, Monday to Friday. If we find other ways to express our gifts and talents, that can actually make us more satisfied in our work. So, maybe I am not getting as much as I want in a certain part of my life but I can take a leadership role in my neighbourhood association, or I can take a role at my child's daycare, that starts to give me those opportunities to express my talents in new ways. And thinking about that happiness and satisfaction in a big picture of an ecosystem of work-life can actually have a positive seepage back to my job properly, just a new way to think about it.
Agnes Uhereczky: I know from your previous research and your work that you are looking a lot into fundamental human needs and how they manifest in the world of work. What are the drivers that influence us at work? I also wanted to ask you if you could maybe remind listeners a little bit about what they are? What are they? How do you see them in the context of the pandemic evolving?
Tracy Brower: It is so important to understand those needs, and, interestingly, there was some beautiful research that was done across multiple countries and societies and found that many of these needs are fundamental no matter where you are or who you are. So that gives extra credence when we see it across multiple societies that it is something kind of deep within us that we need. One of those things I think is a sense that we matter, the sense of purpose. I think that's been tough in the pandemic as we have had more distance from our work. We need to see that line of sight, you know, I serve him and he serves her and she serves the final customer, whether it is a literal line of site or figurative line of sight we need that connection to the big picture and how my work ladders up to that big picture and how that matters to people. We can seek that for ourselves thinking about our purpose and how that ladders up and I think leaders can provide that as well. That sense of what it is that we are doing that matters reminding us. And I think we need a clear sense of belonging, connection, of community. I heard a wonderful presentation recently from a neuroscience perspective and that said that belonging isn't just being with other people, it is not just showing up and being in a group together virtually or physically. It has to do with the sense of common social identity. Common identity and neural dependence. So, we can look for ourselves to connect, connect, connect. Some people need less connection if they are introverts or they just tend to work more alone. That's cool, we all need different amounts. But every human needs that fundamental connection. Another thing that's interesting to look at is this idea of safety, psychological safety.
More and more we are worried about physical safety or physiological safety because of the pandemic but I think psychological safety as well. We are seeing through the pandemic connected with less community and less belonging, we are seeing more and more mental health issues arise. And that has everything to do with psychological safety. The feeling that I can bring my whole selves to work. The feeling of a level of trust. Feeling that level of proximity that affinity distant matters in terms of I got that, closeness, and connection with others.
So those are some of the fundamental things. The last thing is just this idea of learning and growth and resilience. That's critical to a healthy community, and it is critical to healthy members of a community. And we get that significantly through our work and that has been something that you know has also been tougher through the pandemic. So the opportunity is what are we learning all of this and what ways can make us stronger. What is the opportunity for post-traumatic growth as an alternative to post-traumatic stress?
Agnes Uhereczky: In your research and your work observing what is happening have you come across maybe one or two examples of how leaders could tackle one or the other human need and strengthen employee engagement, strengthen the wellbeing of their employees and I guess by proxy have an impact on performance?
Tracy Brower: Yes, absolutely! Leaders have such an outsize role to play. One example is the idea of lots of communication and transparency. One of the things that we have found is that people are increasingly looking to their organisations as a single source of truth. When we have so much information coming at us and we are overwhelmed and so much feels out of control it is so helpful to look to our leaders and our organisations to say okay what should I be paying attention to, what does this mean for our organisation, what does that mean for my job, and me in particular. So, communication and transparency are one. Another is empathy and making sure that leaders are staying super present and accessible to people. There is a beautiful study that looked at when people felt like their leaders were more empathetic they tended to report a greater sense of mental health and wellbeing so empathetic leaders are another. Leaders being clear with people about purpose and how their work matters, we talked about that. And leaders who could connect people and not just in terms of relationship connections and virtual happy hours, that is great, but also task connection as well where we thrive together. So, leaders who help connect their teammates. And, then finally, leaders who hold people accountable and find that right mix of giving people space to work through things and have their challenges and figure out their new righty answer to childcare or learning or finding their way through. Giving people space for that and then also reminding people how much their work is critical and holding people accountable to results because it is empowering to know that I matter enough that you need what I am doing in my work. Those are a few things that I think leaders can do to really help people through and help themselves through as well.
Tracy's new book THE SECRETS TO HAPPINESS AT WORK, which will be out in May, is about choosing and creating joy in work and life. It shows how we can thrive at work by making empowered, wise choices about the kind of work we do, the people we work with, and the ways we manage our work-life boundaries.