How To Create A Happy Work Environment

Having a happy team means more productivity and innovation. Here's how you can transform the morale of your company.
Innovation Evangelist, 24/7 Innovation
July 01, 2011

While speaking at a conference on "happiness at work" in Copenhagen, I met Cathy Busani, the Managing Director of Happy, a training and consultancy business operating in the U.K. Although they only employ 30 people, Happy has won wide recognition for its innovative approach to management and to customer service. I was intrigued by her philosophy and asked her five questions about happiness at work.

Q: Why is happiness at work important? What evidence do you have that it improves business performance?

A: We believe that if your people are performing their best, then your business cannot fail to perform at its best. And people perform their best when they are happy and feel good about themselves. Therefore, ensuring this is the primary job of every manager. We feel so strongly about it, we ask our staff to complete a "happy check" every few months, which asks questions like "How do you feel walking in the door in the morning?" (from Depressed & Despondent to Eager & Excited) or "How stressed do you feel at work?" (from Very Stressed to Never Stressed). Making staff happy is a serious business! 

Q: I heard you say that in happy organizations, the employees pick their boss and not the other way around. Can you say more about that?

A: We believe the people who manage staff should be in that position because they are great at it, and not just because they are great at their core job. Therefore, we believe people should have the right to choose who supports, nurtures, coaches and challenges them.   If they do choose this person, they are much more likely to value that relationship and get the most from it. So throughout your career at Happy, if you want to change who manages you, you just have to ask. In most cases, we find people don’t change managers, partly because we have picked managers for their people skills. However, sometimes a change is requested. For example, one person chose a new manager because he had taken on a new role and felt the new manager would challenge him more. On another occasion, someone asked to change her manager because they had become friend’s with their current one and this was causing some issues between them.

Q: I love what you say about failure. Not only do you embrace it, but if someone is not failing enough, you assume something is wrong. How do you practically apply this in your organization?

A: We strongly believe that in order for there to be innovation and creativity in the culture of your business, people should "celebrate" their mistakes. In other words, try something out—if it goes wrong, adapt it and learn from it, but don’t try to hide it. We don’t actually throw a party when someone makes a mistake (and we don't condone somebody getting the same thing wrong over and over), but everyone is very open and non-judgmental. We believe if you haven’t made any mistakes in your first three months at Happy, you aren’t really trying very hard.

Q: In your company, everyone knows what everyone makes, from the managing director down to the janitor. What are the advantages of this? And has it ever caused any problems?

A: One of the clear advantages to this is that you avoid all of the guesswork and whispering around who earns what, and who got what raise. There have been some issues, but we listened to the feedback and addressed them. For example, when people kept asking questions like, "Why did ‘x’ get such and such a raise, we decided to extend the transparency of our information by publishing the three key reasons for each performance increase. Another benefit of doing this was that those deciding how much of a raise to give had to be really clear why it was being awarded. In the past few years we also introduced a salary panel to decide how much extra people would earn in relation to their performance. This panel is made up of Happy’s Chief Executive, the Managing Director and two people voted onto the panel as chosen by staff.

Q: Have you seen a correlation between happiness and innovation/creativity in an organization?

A: Yes definitely, when our people have been positively engaged on a project, it is clear they feel motivated and empowered and are inspired to innovate and create. Virtually all of the new ideas we try out come from the people who actually do the job, rather than the managers. For example, one of our trainers came up with the idea to offer clients a day of accelerated learning, where five short sessions are run throughout the day and you can pick which one you want to attend every hour. So you might do an hour on Excel charts, followed by something on Emotional Intelligence, followed by a session on Access queries, and finish with sessions on Time Management and How to Create a Great Place to Work. This idea has been adapted across a whole series of offerings to our clients and has been a huge success.