The Biology of Workplace Happiness

1 Apr 2021

In today’s disrupted world, the Employee Value Proposition – how businesses entice and engage employees – has shifted. After a year of incorporating extreme flexibility, one of the most pressing concerns for leaders right now is how to encourage people back into the workplace to collaborate and innovate, while ensuring that the gains made in equality and flexibility are built upon, not lost.

Alice Drew

Head of Workplace Futures

High performance and the biology of happiness 
 
If there’s one thing we know from our work with customers the world over, it’s that working together in high performing teams is at the heart of business success.  

High performing teams have unique qualities that set them apart from others. Research shows that members of such teams are able to anticipate each other’s needs. They seek diversity of thought outside the team, bringing in new ideas. They are self-critical and debrief effectively and often. They are in regular physical contact and interact multiple times per hour, benefiting from tacit knowledge exchange. And higher performing teams, more than other teams, invest in quality social time together. 

Working from home through 2020, teams relied on all the cultural capital built up before lockdown to deliver on performance outcomes. In many cases, teams became closer than ever. However, bonds between separate teams became weaker and new bonds were harder to form.  After initial discomfort, teams settled into a rhythm and people started to enjoy the benefits of working from home. 

So how can leaders reinforce the importance of returning to the workplace?
 
The secret might be found in the biology of happiness. Four hormones – dopamine, endorphins, serotonin and oxytocin – are the cocktail we rely on to feel motivated, valued and engaged. These hormones ultimately support personal and team performance.
 
Dopamine and endorphins help us get stuff done. You get a dopamine hit every time you tick something off your to do list. Endorphins are the runner’s high, the second wind. Both are useful and can be replicated anywhere. These highs rely on constant revival and are quickly forgotten once we crash! 
 
Serotonin and oxytocin are slow burning. Serotonin is released when we feel valued and appreciated for a job well done. Oxytocin is released when we feel connection and trust. Both take a long time to build and rely on touch, warmth, closeness and the duration of interactions.  
 
Toxic productivity 
 
Over time, the toll of maintaining “productivity” during lockdown became increasingly evident. Toxic productivity (working in a way that negatively impacts our relationships and wellbeing), online fatigue, virtual presenteeism, burnout and other impacts to personal wellbeing increased over 2020. Leaders are dealing with more and more difficult conversations, around both team motivation and getting people to stand down when their health needs attention. 
 
It’s only a matter of time before the “new normal” of productivity won’t be maintained at toxic levels.  Leaders need to act now to return teams to their prime levels of performance and wellness.  
 
What shifts can leaders make now to rebuild these important connections?  
 
First, randomly bringing people back to the office is fine, people will benefit from serendipitous encounters. But even more effective, is bringing teams back to work together in a shared space, on a regular, predictable basis.  
 
Second, if you’re planning on providing perks, make them shared experiences that build trust and connection. Provide facilitated sessions that help teams define their new operating rhythm or host team lunches or events.  
 
Third, get on the same page about the expectations for team performance. While presenteeism and rigid hours are a thing of the past, showing up for your team remains critical. Teams need to participate in the culture to truly deliver on expectations.  
 
Activate your workplace 
 
Never leave culture to chance. Physical workplaces are still a key lever for competitive advantage. More than ever, they need to be socially connective and create a psychologically safe place for teams to build trust and encourage participation.  

This isn’t the time to simply open the doors and hope your business bounces right back to normal. Great cultures don’t happen by accident, but poor ones do. Great cultures, like great relationships, are carefully crafted and need continuous work to truly thrive. Leaders who adapt, harnessing the biology of workplace happiness, will attract the best talent and remain competitive, even in today’s uncertain landscape.