As long as people remain the center of organizations, attracting, retaining, and motivating those people—keeping employees happy at work—will be one of the most important elements of a leader’s job. Work is central to our lives. For most adults, work occupies the majority of waking hours. And being happy at work can make a big difference in whether those hours are a drain or not. And, by extension, whether those hours are productive or not.
But that job as become more and more difficult over time.
In recent years some of the circumstances around job satisfaction and happiness at work have been outside of leaders’ control—global pandemics and being always on the verge of a recession come to mind. But there are a few adjustments inside of leaders’ control that can dramatically effect happiness. In particular, research from Mark Mortensen and Amy Edmondson suggests four specific components effect the “employee value proposition” and hence their happiness at work.
In this article, we’ll review those four elements of employee happiness and offer suggestions on how to leverage each to make employees happy at work.
The first element that makes employees happy at work is material offerings. Material offerings include compensation, bonuses, and perks, the office and individual workspace, location, and even schedule and flexibility. This is what most leaders think about when they think about satisfaction and happiness at work. But unless you’re a senior leader or business owner, there’s not a lot you can change—and even if you are, some of those changes will take a lot of time. If you’re a front-line leader or middle manager, then your options are even more limited.
However, there’s always some room inside the organizational/industry constraints you might be able to find. You may not be able to move offices, but you could give the team more autonomy over the design of their workspace. You might not be able to set the working hours, but you can work with the team to find a little more flexibility inside of those hours. And it’s worth considering any area you do have control over. Even if you can’t make big changes, your team will appreciate that you’re making the effort.
Opportunity to Grow
The second element that makes employees happy at work is opportunity to grow. This refers to an organization’s opportunities to develop and grow employees, which include assigning new roles, implementing job rotations, and offering training aimed at helping them acquire new skills. Humans are intrinsically motivated by progress—they want to know they’re growing in their knowledge, skills, and abilities. In addition, they want to know they work in an organization that has room for them to grow into new roles and take on new challenges.
And leaders at all levels can help create (or increase awareness) of opportunities to grow. So long as the organization isn’t shrinking, there will be opportunities for individuals to get promoted or take on new challenges. But often those opportunities don’t present themselves fast enough to be salient. So as a leader, it’s vital to get to know the people on your team—their career goals and their development needs—and create opportunities to learn for them. You may not be able to promote them immediately. But you can help them feel growth by assigning them new tasks or projects that will help them prepare for that desired promotion.
Connection and Community
The third element that makes employees happy at work is connection and community. This refers to an employee’s sense of being appreciated and valued for their identity, experiencing mutual accountability, building social relationships, and being supported by an energizing culture that encourages candid expression and fosters a sense of belonging. Humans are social creatures. And as social creatures, the people we work with have a significant effect on our satisfaction and happiness. People want to feel they belong and that they’re appreciated.
And connection and community is where middle managers and front-line leaders make the most difference in employees being happy at work. Because most people’s experience of work—and connection and community—is actually a reflection of the team they work with or the location the work at. If you take time to connect with each of your people and hold space for group conversations and experiences unrelated to work, that will help amplify your team’s feelings of connection. If you take the time to celebrate small wins, and encourage others to do the same, you’ll help increase everyone’s feeling of appreciation and belonging.
Meaning and Purpose
The fourth element that makes employees happy at work is meaning and purpose. This refers to the organization’s aspirational reasons for existing and employees desire to see their contribution to work that makes the world better. Many organizations attempt create a sense of meaning and purpose through mission statements or vision statements. But just like connection and community, meaning and purpose is felt more strongly on the individual and team level. Which means leaders at all levels need to create a direct connection between the larger mission and the individual purpose of their specific team.
People want to do work that matters, and to work for leaders who tell them they matter. And as a leader, one of the most powerful ways you can do that is by helping people answer the question “who is served by the work that we do?” And then reminding them of that answer on a regular basis. This not only creates a more motivated team, but it also creates a team that feels more meaning and purpose as well.
It’s important to look at these elements both individually and collaboratively. Individually, you may have noticed a specific element which your team lacks. But these elements work together to create an overall experience. Material offerings are great, but there is a diminishing return on their increase in happiness. It takes all four to create an environment where employees feel happy at work and hence feel like they can do their best work ever.
About the author
David Burkus is an organizational psychologist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of five books on leadership and teamwork.