Naysan Firoozmand: If a happy worker is a productive worker, how happy are yours?

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You’re probably familiar with a children’s song, If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands, although I’d wager a small bet that it’s not something you hear regularly in your office. While your initial thought might well be “A little too childish, perhaps?”, recent research suggests that accuracy might be more of an issue than maturity. Indeed, I’m reminded of a promotional postcard from a few years back that carried the rather more arresting phrase “If You’re Happy and You Know It, You’re Unusual”.

It depends what we mean by ‘happy’, of course.  In most professions, dancing on the tables probably doesn’t figure prominently in the typical working day. But if we accept a definition closer perhaps to ‘sufficiently contented and inspired to feel positively engaged and productive’, it seems Britain might benefit from a touch more gleefulness.

When Randstad surveyed 45,000 employees in several countries, they found that the British were among the least satisfied, both in Europe (where we achieved the lowest scores in 9 out of 13 past quarters) and in the English-speaking world (lowest scores in 9 of the last 11 quarters). There may be a British stereotype of ‘enjoying a good moan’, but those figures suggest our grumbling isn’t particularly comforting: maybe that company song should really be Peggy Lee’s Is That All There Is? 

Surveys can, of course, be contentious: the figures they compile are driven by the questions they ask, and our interpretation may be conducted more in the spirit of optimism than analysis. We sometimes need to look at several elements to begin to glimpse the reasons lurking under the ‘facts’. As Tim Smedley wrote in an Oct 2013 article for Raconteur, Empower and Inspire the Right People and They Will Excel:

“Employee engagement, measured as discretionary effort and intention to stay in the company, is the highest it’s been in five years, according to leading member-based advisory company CEB. Record numbers of employees are volunteering for extra roles and responsibilities at work. Yet this is largely to protect their jobs, rather than feeling more engaged with the company. In fact, 60 per cent of highly engaged employees report they are now less engaged and that they work they do is not aligned with company goals.”

Organisations that are genuinely concerned to uncover the true levels of engagement and commitment might want to pause to reflect that answers often require questions to unearth them, and that the nature of the questions needs to be carefully considered. If, as so many commentators are clearly convinced, a happy workforce is a more productive one (and I wouldn’t disagree), it’s instructive to look at PwC’s 15th Annual Global CEO Survey. PwC asked CEOs how adequately they are informed with regard to six categories of what was classified as ‘performance data’. 41% felt that the data available to them about Labour Costs was ‘comprehensive’. But the two categories that CEOs ranked as the most important, ‘Employees’ Views and Needs’ and ‘Staff Productivity’, were also those where the ‘Information Gap’ (PwC defined this as areas where CEOs believe information is important but don’t receive comprehensive reports) was significantly larger. The fact that only 12% of them felt that they received comprehensive ROI data on human capital isn’t therefore particularly surprising, but a lack of surprise isn’t necessarily a cause for celebration. The further PwC revelation that “82% of business leaders don’t trust talent data”, however, is closer to depressing.

There are plenty of other facts and figures that can provide ample food for thought: Engage for Success predicts a £25.8bn increase in UK GDP if engagement levels match middle-to-top performing countries; the Hay Group claims that 94% of the world’s leading companies believe that their employee engagement efforts have created competitive advantage; Randstad links low job satisfaction and professional fulfilment levels with higher absenteeism, which currently costs an average £975 per employee per year.

Those working in HR might wish to briefly congratulate themselves on being amongst the most fulfilled of the categories in the UK (73%) identified by Randstad’s research but, as before, another set of figures may shine a rather different light. Alain de Botton, who spoke at the launch of Randstad’s related How I Became campaign, has frequently mentioned the time in each employee’s week that perhaps most accurately pinpoints the true depth of their engagement, commitment and willingness to go the extra mile:

“The anxiety of Sunday evening: unformed ambitions & insights into how to reform one’s career, struggling to cohere into a plan.”

On Sunday evenings, each of us faces the prospect of Monday: we may all be full of anticipation, but what we are anticipating seems to be rather variable. Given that the emotional make-up of that anticipation can impact so clearly on not just our own week, but that of the organisation as a whole, we should hope that one group well placed to seriously address engagement – HR – will be gathering the most relevant data and ensuring they have a detailed and comprehensive understanding of the changes that they need to help bring about. Yet CEB’s research found that only 24% of HR professionals feel they have an understanding of the potential of their workforce, and only 44% use objective data to make decisions around the talent agenda: 75% of staff decisions are still being made based on gut feeling and instinct.

Creating a working world in which everyone is whistling a happy tune is no easy task – Disney’s Seven Dwarves may have sung a jolly marching tune, but animating the workplace in more than two dimensions is a taller order. If your human resources are currently singing a rather different song – Friday on my Mind, perhaps – the real work of engagement still lies ahead, but a Sunday evening is as good a time as any to start working out the questions that you need to ask most.

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