From Bhutan to Bermuda, San Francisco, and New York everyone seems to be talking about happiness at work. Just take a look at the deluge of news and blog articles by “coaches” discussing everything from how to motivate your employees to how to tell when it’s time to quit. The recipe for a perfectly satisfying job is both sought after and elusive.

Yet, few of the primers acknowledge that the recipe for workplace happiness cannot be universal. Most of the writing on topic is based on the premise that the people striving to be happy at work (a) live in the post-industrial Western world and (b) usually work on-site at their companies.

This premise ignores reality. The traditional workplace model is being pushed to its limits. The very concept of who is and is not part of the increasingly permeable enterprise is in flux. Easily accessible global, freelance marketplaces, democratized IT systems, collaborative SaaS technologies, and declining connectivity costs, coupled with an economic recession in recent years have led to

  • American workers spending less time in a physical office 

  • American companies distributing more knowledge work to contractors – both at home and offshore

Managing these remote workers requires complex new skills, even just on the domestic front. Motivating someone who sits oceans away from you is even more difficult, given both the geographical and economic spectrum between managers and workers. And its challenges are very different from those of on- or off-site employees at US companies.

At Quickskill, we spend months of time and thousands of dollars learning and teaching how to manage people across political jurisdictions with wide gaps in economic privilege. Keeping our overseas workers happy, engaged and committed to the company is essential to delivering the services we’ve promised to our largely American customer base. That’s why we’ve developed strategies to foster meaningful collaboration and team work across three continents, and from locals on very different rungs of the world economic ladder.

We’ve done this for our “micro-multinational” of fewer than 200 employees. In doing so, we think we’ve learned things that would help even the largest, most sophisticated management teams keep their workers happy. These include:

  • Why happiness at work matters;

  • The most common factors of happiness at work, and how they are similar and different across the world;

  • How happiness at work differs when working with a globally distributed workforce; and

  • Strategies for managing remote employees to maintain the sacred tropes of meaning, autonomy, and mastery

1 Why Emphasize “Happiness?”

When we use the word happiness, we don’t necessarily mean a gregarious, effusive, carnival sort of happiness. Nor are we referring to the tasty anticipation when you see the words “Happiness Inside” on your feel-good can of coconut water. The very definition of happiness is, in itself, a topic of great discussion. But it is clear that only an engaged workforce can deliver a great product or service, and workforce engagement rests on an overall sense of well-being.

Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh, credits a happy workforce with the success of his phenomenally successful online shoe business. According to him, Gallup and many others, happiness gets at all the “soft” skills that would be ideal in an employee: commitment, loyalty, ownership, passion, etc. The ways in which that happens are pretty simple.

  • Increased Productivity: Employees who are happier to be at work are more likely to do their work.

  • Better Health: Happier employees tend to also be healthier. This means fewer sick days or office pandemics to worry about.

  • Reduction in Turnover: If employees feel valued and excited about being at work, they are less likely to leave. This reduces turnover and training costs and the morale loss of colleagues jumping ship.

  • Improved Employee & Customer Loyalty: Passionate employees inspire passion in customers. It is, after all, infectious.

  • More Sales: Engaged employees, excited customers and a strong culture of service ultimately lead to more sales. This is what the concept of “buzz” is all about.

2It’s Rarely About the Money

So what do employees need to feel happy at work? The factors aren’t always what you’d imagine them to be. Drawing from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Chip Conley made the case that once someone has moved beyond the basic physiological needs (food, air, etc.), other more complicated factors come into play to make them truly happy or, as he puts it, in a “transformational” frame of mind. Across the happiness at work literature, the following appear to be the key factors to increased happiness.

  • A sense of purpose: Even those employees not directly involved in company strategy need to know the meaning of their work. Whether they’re working to collect trash from the side of the highway or engineering the construction of a new bridge, the goal is to make roads safer for drivers. Daniel Pink, among others, cites this big picture purpose as a primary motivator on the job.

  • Mastery: Remember when you hated practicing piano for Mrs. Flitworth’s class? If you ever eventually learned to love it, the transition likely happened when you got to be good at it. As with that piano, Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi points out that having the necessary expertise to do something gives you the “flow” that makes it effortless and perfect.

  • Ambition: Scientist Dan Gilbert looked at happiness from a physiological perspective and realized that sometimes, too much choice prevents one from becoming happy. Being able to narrowly focus on excelling in a particular space that is both achievable and challenging is key to keeping an employee engaged.

  • Challenge: This one is related, and often confused with, ambition – but not the same! The idea is that the achievement of one’s professional goals should be an uphill task. Achievements that come too easily often don’t feel like achievements at all.

  • Autonomy: Workers must feel that they have the ability to make decisions about their work themselves. Yes, everyone has to report to someone. It’s still never productive to feel your boss looking over your shoulder all the time.

  • Enough money to cover the employee’s basic needs: Maslow nailed this one as being the foundation of his pyramid. The ability to eat or sleep or breathe is the foundation for everything else. There’s no point being the highest paid banker on Wall Street if you don’t have a place to live.

3The Global Workforce Effect

Delivering each of these happiness ingredients is much more complex at the global level. Still, there are several approaches to fostering a consistently supportive cross-border culture. In the next several blog posts, we’ll be exploring a variety of ideas to do just that.