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3 ways companies can build joy in the workplace

Workplace happiness should be a non-negotiable. Companies can do more to build joy at work for employees.

Workplace happiness should be a non-negotiable. Companies can do more to build joy at work for employees. Image: Unsplash/@jasongoodman_youxventures

Alex Liu
Managing Partner and Chairman, Kearney
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on working lives has prompted a "great reflection" among many employees.
  • The joy gap — the difference between the employee's expectations for experiencing joy versus their actual experience of joy at work — is increasing.
  • To build feelings of joy at work among employees, leaders must focus on purpose, people and praise.

Earlier this year, The Conference Board released the results of its 2022 CEO survey, in which it asks leaders to identify the biggest business challenges for the year ahead. The results revealed that fewer than 40% of CEOs believe they are well prepared to handle a major crisis related to challenges such as inflation, recession, cybersecurity, supply chain disruptions, or climate change — much less all at the same time. This sentiment shines the spotlight on the pressing need to enhance the resilience of organisations, and the people at the heart of them. But are we already too overwhelmed?

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In recent years, we have all experienced the disruption and upheaval stirred up by COVID-19 firsthand. But it has also prompted many of us to take a step back and re-evaluate our working lives at the most basic level. Rather than the great resignation, this is actually the great reflection. What do we really get out of our jobs? What are the things that genuinely give us joy in the workplace?

Even before the ravages of COVID-19, workplace joy and justice were a reservoir of untapped people energy. And if we spend more than a third of our lives at work — the same amount we spend asleep — isn’t insisting on joy in the workplace and the communities they touch, a non-negotiable?

The joy gap is real — and it’s growing

These kinds of externally driven issues may have provided a timely catalyst for change in organisations, but research into best practices for building joy at work have shown that a tangible corporate shift has been underway for some time now. The impetus for that shift is largely coming from employees and stakeholders themselves.

Back in 2018, well before the pandemic erupted onto the global agenda, Kearney conducted a survey to delve more deeply into the issue of joy at work. It explored the workplace experiences of more than 500 executives and employees from the Americas, Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and Asia Pacific. The responses revealed that nearly 90% expect to experience a substantial degree of joy at work, but only 37% actually experience it. This points to a glaring “joy gap” in the workplace.

37% respondents feel very high level of joy at work, while 53% indicated a substantial joy gap.
37% respondents feel very high level of joy at work, while 53% indicated a substantial joy gap. Image: A.T. Kearney analysis, 2018

Three years later, in 2021, we repeated the survey — this time from the vantage point of a global pandemic — and the joy gap had widened further still, growing from 53% to 61%.

While this joy gap is alarming, it also creates some unique opportunities for positive action by organisations and their leaders. Triggered in part by the pandemic, issues like social justice, diversity, and gender equality have become a top priority for leaders and employees alike. Being part of an organisation that neglects vital broader issues in favour of a focus on financial success alone is hardly a recipe for joy in the workplace.

Building joy at work: purpose, people and praise

So, what can leaders do to build solid foundations for joy at work? We’re talking about cultural change here — and that’s an ongoing task — but there are some specific actions that you can take now to get your journey to joy started. Here are three areas of focus for leaders who want to authentically create more joy within their organisations:

1) Purpose

Your organisation’s purpose is inextricably linked to the joy experienced by the people who work there, so make that link crystal clear. Keep that purpose as simple as you can: everyone within the organisation must know and understand it. From there, you’re perfectly placed to harness the combined power of purpose and joy at work to develop areas like inclusion, sustainability, productivity, belonging, and allyship.

And it doesn’t stop there: the biggest impact comes from personalising your corporate purpose by helping team members recognise the people who are personally affected by their efforts every single day. That can be by helping customers or by supporting internal stakeholders and empowering them to deliver the organisation’s purpose in the first place.


2) People

The stress, worry and fear that emerged during the pandemic mean that people need social connection more than ever, so foster a sense of sociability and fun on teams.

One quick way to do this is to rethink (and eliminate) meetings. Working from home, without casual chats or eye contact with colleagues, has turned many meetings into passive events. Try adding an interactive element: build true apprentice-based teams, work on tasks together — physically or in hybrid mode — exploit small opportunities to rejuvenate broader rapport and one-to-one connections, even briefly.

3) Praise

People deserve — and need — recognition for the work they do and the vital part they play in the organisation. Make sure you give them that by offering regular, focused praise to acknowledge their efforts.

Simply directing praise at a broad group of people, up to company-wide “town hall” meetings, is hollow and insufficient. Instead, look beyond this to find ways to praise individuals and small teams in a more personal way. Share specific, sincere praise with your peers and the people you manage on a weekly basis.


How is the World Economic Forum promoting equity in the workplace?

As business leaders, we spend a lot of time thinking about success but less time thinking about how to embed the purpose behind it. A renewable superpower is building joy at work. If we foster it in the workplace as an organisational priority, as leaders, we will be better positioned to maximise the energy and resilience of our people and apply the full power of their human potential to improving business performance.

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