Running A Business

How to Make Work Joyful for Your Employees

May 11, 2021 • 8 min read
Group of employees sitting and happily talking in the office
Table of Contents

      You can call 2020 a lot of things, but joyful is not one of them. “There is a general sense that we never stop being in front of Zoom or interacting,” wrote HBS professor Raffaella Sadun in the Harvard Business Review. “It’s very taxing, to be honest.”


      Source: “You’re Right! You Are Working Longer and Attending More Meetings,” Harvard Business School.

      Shifting to remote work has turned every room in your home into the office, making workdays 8.2% longer, with 5.2% more emails and 13% more meetings.

      All the things we love about work, right? 

      As we look toward the future of work, technology—and a broad acceptance of remote work—offers up some hope that work can become joyful again, instead of a monotonous grind of Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting. As you think about your small business, ask yourself: can work actually be fun for you and your employees?

      What Makes Work Joyful

      Prevailing wisdom says work can be fun—if you choose the right profession. In his famous 2005 commencement address at Stanford University, Steve Jobs said, “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.”

      If only. 90% of people report expecting to feel joy at work (no doubt from inspirational quotes like this one), but only 37% actually do. That’s because work is, well, work.

      Inspirational quote aside, you can be truly satisfied at work if you’re able to feel harmony, impact, and acknowledgment, according to research. Employers need to facilitate a culture where employees feel like part of the team—where joy is part of day-to-day life at work, not just success.

      Graph showing what drives joy at work

      Source: “Making Joy a Priority at Work,” Harvard Business Review.

      How Individuals Can Make Work More Joyful

      Of course, there’s a lot about working from home that can be joyful, but switching to remote work has been anything but easy. 

      It starts with the space you have to work in. “Just like in any office space, even when you’re working from home, you want to begin with asking yourself, what kind of workspace do you want?” Marie Kondo told Apartment Therapy. “Visualize your overall goal, imagine how you like to start your day when working from home. I think those questions still apply, even when you’re not in the office.”

      Kondo, in her book Joy at Work, recommends a few tidying tips to add more joy to your workday:

      • Keep your desk uncluttered, with only the essentials on hand. Any objects you add on your desk should be intentional, like a photo that makes you smile, a potted plant, or something to write with.
      • Set boundaries. Keep your work and personal items separate. Designating a specific “work” space in your home allows you to find the right mindset while you’re there.
      • Create rituals that begin and end the workday. Whether it’s faking your morning commute, walking at the end of the day, or giving yourself an exit playlist, creating that boundary makes it easier to keep your laptop closed after hours.
      • Push back against always-on culture. Don’t feel like you have to respond to every single email, Slack message, or ping. If you do feel like you have to respond, do it on your own time. Set specific time blocks to respond to messages or let your colleagues know that certain periods of the day are “flow time,” where you’ll be turning off notifications to get more done.
      • Create a “sparks joy” folder that can turn a tough day around. “For me, this might include files such as a research publication I’m really proud of, a recent teaching evaluation, or a video clip from a speaking engagement,” Kondo told Apartment Therapy. “I refresh these items as I publish new papers, teach new classes, or take on new speaking clients.”

      However, the success of some of Kondo’s tips requires a culture that facilitates them. “Many of us feel a degree of helplessness with regard to our jobs. We feel obliged to check emails in the evening, we feel obliged to spend evenings catching up on what we missed,” Bruce Daisley told Forbes. “We’re witnessing record burnout levels across the US—by some counts half of all office workers report feeling burned out, with even higher numbers in professions like teaching and healthcare. We need to find a way to bring balance.”

      How Employers Can Make Work More Joyful

      If your employees are constantly afraid that their managers don’t trust them, they’re not going to be able to set those boundaries. 32% of managers believe employees perform worse while working remotely, with 22% unsure, according to the Harvard Business Review. 41% of managers were also skeptical that employees would be productive long-term. 

      Graph showing manager opinions on remote work

      Source: “Remote Managers Are Having Trust Issues,” Harvard Business Review.

      What’s ironic about this finding is that in study after study, remote employees are found to be more productive, not less. And it’s indicative of far deeper manager-employee issues than a shift to remote work.

      To bring more joy into the workplace, employers need to:

      • Embrace joy and mental health as a part of employee culture from the highest levels of leadership. Managers echo the behavior of leadership above them—which means all of those managers who reported a lack of trust in their teams? They probably aren’t trusted by their managers, either.
      • Measure employee happiness and satisfaction, not just customer satisfaction. Do your employees dread logging in each day, or are they excited to hit the ground running?
      • Set the tone with designated ‘kudos’ moments on Slack, regular shout-outs, and celebrating milestones big and small.
      • Encourage employees to take their vacation time and breaks, include mandated mental health days or company shutdowns, and make it clear that employees aren’t expected to work or respond to emails on weekends.
      • Train managers and teams on employee autonomy and focusing on results rather than real or virtual “butts in seats.”

      Whether you’re embracing remote work, cultivating a hybrid approach, or hoping to return to in-person work full-time, think about a future where you’re excited to go to work. Now it’s up to you to make it happen for your employees.

      About the author
      Kayla Voigt

      Always in search of adventure, Kayla hails from Hopkinton, MA, the start of the Boston Marathon. You can find her at the summit of a mountain or digging in to a big bowl of pasta when she's not writing. Say hi on Instagram @klvoigt.

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