Are you happy? Your boss asks.

Garry Ridge, who runs chemical company WD-40, has a leadership style guided by two sources – Aristotle and BlackRock CEO Larry Fink. “P...


Garry Ridge, who runs chemical company WD-40, has a leadership style guided by two sources – Aristotle and BlackRock CEO Larry Fink.

“Pleasure in work puts perfection in work,” Mr. Ridge first said, quoting the Greek philosopher.

Then he took a recent note from BlackRock. “Companies that have forged strong bonds with their employees have seen lower turnover levels and higher returns throughout the pandemic,” Mr. Ridge read aloud.

He punctuated it with his own comment: “Well, duh!”

WD-40, which comes in a bright blue and yellow canister familiar to many homes with squeaky doors, is a cleaning product with a secret formula that can loosen a rusty bolt, scrub the crayon on the wall, remove insect splatters from a car and removing rust from a bicycle chain. Mr. Ridge likes to remind the nearly 600 employees in his 17 offices of the usefulness of their work.

But he also thinks some are carried along by the company’s unorthodox culture. WD-40 has no managers, only coaches. Workers can receive “Mother Teresa” awards for giving “their time, talents and treasures” to the community. They can remind colleagues at meetings to create “positive lasting memories” together.

Long before the pandemic, many were skeptical of companies that portrayed themselves as being responsible for keeping workers happy. There were the tech companies whose college campus-style offices had ball pits and slides. There were offices with lunch buffets and frozen rosé. There was a growing number of employers measuring staff happiness with surveys, often hiring consultants to cook up fun at work.

For some people, the pursuit of happiness at work — and its associated price tag, like an $18,000 program for managers on how to lead happy teams — may seem like corporate alchemy that tries to turn feelings into productivity. . It may feel like a push to smile and put aside demands that are less convenient for bosses, like remote work or a higher salary.

Those criticisms have taken on new urgency as workers and employers clash over return-to-work plans, in what economists continue to call a tight labor market. Some workers say they prefer flexibility, or inflation-adjusted increasesto corporate carrots like a Lizzo concert for Google employees and beer tastings at Microsoft.

“It’s ‘I’m not going to help you solidify your schedule ahead of time in a way that will help you, but here’s a discount code,'” said Jessica Martinez, 46, a program manager at a global foundation that has long held Wine on Wednesdays and now distributes back-to-the-office freebies like bottled water.

“People try to get everything back to ‘normal,’ but the truth is normal was terrible for some people,” she continued. “Why not just give people what they really want?”

In some workplaces, “happiness” may mean letting employees choose their own supervisors. This may mean getting rid of performance reviews. It also usually means measuring levels of happiness – although not everyone agrees on what happiness even means. To see the Dalai Lama, Dale Carnegie and Barbara Ehrenreich to start.

Economists and behavioral psychologists have in recent years shown employers that there is a business case for their fixation on positivity. A study in the Journal of Labor Economics found that people who were given chocolates to eat and comedies to watch — common happiness generators — were 12% more productive than a group left alone. Another study in the Journal of Financial Economics showed that companies on the 100 Best Workplaces list have higher shareholder returns than their peers.

“There’s evidence that we’re wrong about the causal arrow of happiness,” said Laurie Santos, a cognitive scientist who teaches the theory at Yale. popular course on happiness. “You think, ‘I feel productive at work and things are going well at work so I’m happy.’ But the evidence seems to suggest that the other arrow also exists, that happiness can really affect your job performance.

The idea that businesses should care about happiness arose with the rise of non-manual jobs, said Alex Edmans, professor of finance at London Business School. As some work outcomes became more difficult to measure – moving to the quality and quantity of ideas, not the number of pins made or screw caps on toothpaste tubes – officials decided that they needed to make sure their employees felt motivated. Compensation was important, but so was the way people felt at work.

But many see it as a risk for workers to believe that their employers have an emotional relationship with them, when in reality the relationship is about money.

“Your boss isn’t here to make you happy,” said Sarah Jaffe, author of “Work Won’t Love You Back.” “No matter how much they say they focus on happiness, they focus on profits.”

“Someone is getting paid to bring this exciting new culture of happiness to work,” Ms Jaffe added. “I would like to know how much my boss spends.”

Happy Ltd., a UK consultancy, calls a program it runs for senior executives its Happy MBA. The cost is around $18,000 and participants receive a certificate, not a real degree, through the Institute of Leadership and Management. In a recent session, heads of nonprofits and businesses traded advice, including letting employees choose their own supervisors.

Woohoo, a Danish company that helps create employee happiness surveys, and its software partner, Heartcount, typically charge companies about $4 per employee per month, in addition to the consultancy fee that Woohoo founder Alexander Kjerulf, declined to share as they vary widely.

Woohoo and Heartcount consult with psychologists and statisticians to ensure that their assessments focus on people’s emotional rather than logical responses to their work. The weekly surveys, emailed on Fridays, include questions such as: Are you proud of the work you do? Have you been congratulated lately for the excellent work you have done? Woohoo then helps employers interpret the data.

This data, however, raises its own set of more slippery questions than those typically covered by an online survey. What does it even mean to be happy?

Kjerulf defines it as the extent to which people experience positive emotions at work or when thinking about work in their free time. WD-40 leaders understand that it’s a combination of meaningful work and a sense of belonging.

Another workplace assessment company, Culture Amp, which works with around 4,500 companies, doesn’t believe in measuring happiness at all, favoring metrics like engagement and well-being instead. Its leaders view happiness as something unstable that differs from person to person and is largely beyond the employer’s control.

“I admire the sentiment behind it, but measurement is where it gets tricky,” said Myra Cannon, director of people science at Culture Amp. “Happiness is fleeting.”

One of the companies supported by Woohoo is Vega, a software developer in Serbia. Vega publishes a monthly newsletter called Happiness Central, as part of its intention to “over-communicate our accomplishments”. In “meme wars” twice a year, employees are rewarded for creating memes that “make fun of people in C-level positions” in the company. The general manager sometimes surprises everyone who walks through the door with a fruit salad.

“If people have better relationships with each other, especially within teams, we can expect better performance,” said chief executive Sasa Popovic, co-founder of Vega. “We can expect people to be more engaged, and in the end, our customers get better service and are more satisfied with our work.”

But those office relationships aren’t paying workers’ bills, a criticism that has intensified as happiness becomes a fixture in boardrooms.

“A lot of start-ups started out giving people terrible perks and overworking their employees, and they tried to mask that by having snacks in the kitchen,” said Ms. Martinez, the foundation’s head. But, she noted, the labor shortage gives workers more leverage to say they won’t tolerate what they once did.

“Vacancies are not being filled because you have treated people badly,” she said.

The flexibility of working from home has made some workers more comfortable telling employers what actually makes them happy — the freedom to spend time with family, not free dinners at the office.

“Having cereal in the break room doesn’t make up for not being able to pick up your kids,” said Anna King, 60, a mom who works for an energy utility company in Portland, Oregon. employees feel like part of the team, not because they play ping pong together, but because they achieve real goals and work decent hours? »

As millions of workers make bold demands of their employers, especially for permanent flexibility, some say the focus on happiness is a distraction. “Mother Teresa” awards, after all, do not improve working conditions — and may in fact encourage workers to devote more hours to their corporate community at the expense of their personal lives.

“I don’t think these things like meditation or anything that employers can do to increase well-being are bad initiatives,” said Heidi Shierholz, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think tank. “But they’re no substitute for decent wages, decent benefits, healthy hours.”



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