How do you increase employee engagement? How important is employee satisfaction in the workplace? In a world of quick turnover, employees who don’t find fulfilment at a company will often leave to pursue other avenues of employment. Good leaders must ask themselves how a business can sustainably ensure that their employees are at their most productive, while simultaneously ensuring they are at their most engaged.
We can often fall into the trap of viewing workplace satisfaction as superfluous, an added bonus to reaching targets. However, pursuing productivity and engagement are not necessarily mutually exclusive. When an individual finds their work enjoyable, challenging, and meaningful, they will be more productive and their employer receives the best from them. Promotions or bonuses can’t buy invaluable engagement like this. You must cultivate it.
This is where flow comes in.
What is flow?
Flow is a state of mind when an individual is actively focused and engaged in a particular activity. Prof. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a trailblazer in the field of organizational management developed this simple principle.
Flow can occur with almost any activity. Reading a book, playing a video game, or participating in your favourite sport will result in a state of flow. It is absorption so intense that one loses track of time and automatically tunes out external distractions. Flow is the perfect balance between our skills sets and the challenge a task represents. It happens when we find ourselves engaged and stretched by a task, rather than the task overwhelming us. It is “a constant balancing act between anxiety, where the difficulty is too high for the person’s skill, and boredom, where the difficulty is too low” (Csíkszentmihályi, 1990).
Flow and other productivity theories are based on neuroscience. In a state of flow, a concoction of performance-enhancing neurochemicals such as dopamine, anandamide, serotonin, and norepinephrine surge through our brains. They serve to fuel our motivation and tighten our focus. We can process information from different areas in the brain and link it quicker. Studies have also found that flow is often an essential part of creativity, originality, and problem-solving abilities.
Cultivating flow in the workplace
For flow to occur, there are several essential conditions that employers must adopt. Firstly, employers must make clear how the individual task will fit into the shared mission of the business. How important a task seems to an employee is a predictor of flow. It’s difficult to be both productive and satisfied when an employee doesn’t see how their work makes a difference in the company.
Secondly, a level of autonomy is necessary for flow. Employees with more control over their work are more productive than those who are micro-managed. People are more likely to reach a state of flow when they are allowed the freedom to problem-solve and be creative.
Thirdly, the task must have the potential to grow inherent in the challenge. The more complex or challenging a task, the more effort and energy is necessary to master it. The result is learning and a sense of achievement. This then provides a surge of those feel-good hormones that increase productivity.
And finally, the employee must feel that their skills, whether they be psychological, organisational, or social, are enough to meet the challenge in the work given to them.
The role of a leader is to create these conditions for employee engagement. They must connect the dots and show their employees that both their work and their engagement, are important elements to the overall success of the company. A good leader can make the subtle, yet profound shift from squeezing the most out of their employees, to encouraging the best from them.
A whole business’ productivity is drastically improved when individuals find their work engaging. Work that can allow a business to hit the ground running, work that differentiates from the competition, work that truly makes a difference.
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