As custodians of employee engagement and satisfaction HR plays a critical role in enabling a happy workplace, writes Purnima Nandy, who explains that HR can learn a number of important lessons from Denmark

In 2016 the Happiness Research Institute, a think tank focusing on mental wellbeing, happiness, and quality of life, in partnership with Krifa (one of the biggest trade unions in Denmark) and global survey firm TNS Gallup, conducted a study on what creates a happy workplace. In business terms, happiness at the workplace is measured and gauged in terms of employee job satisfaction and engagement.

The aim of the study was to understand some basic drivers of a happy workplace, through questions such as what drives job satisfaction, why are some employees happier than others, and how inspiration can be drawn from some of the happiest employees in the world to improve wellbeing at work on a global scale

2500 Danish employees were surveyed to arrive at the responses. There is a critical reason why only Danes were chosen for this study: they are known to top the happiness quotient in the world – despite the dreary weather conditions and the environment they live in. Just like in personal happiness rankings, they seem to rank as the happiest workers as well. According to Eurobarometer 2014, Denmark has the happiest workforce in Europe: 94 per cent of Danish employees report themselves satisfied with their conditions at work, compared to the EU average of 77 per cent.

The purpose of the study was to understand what makes Danes so happy at work and how this information can be used as a model to create similarly happy workplaces around the world. In this study, seven factors were identified as contributing to happiness in the workplace.

The Job Satisfaction Index 2016 report found that the highest contributors to a happy workplace are having a sense of purpose on the job and in the role being performed (81/100), achieving goals and wins on the job (75/100), having a friendly and positive work environment (77/100) with good leaders (70/100), and being able to master and perfect a skill or a task (74/100). Salary and being able to influence others ranked the lowest (62/100).

“By having a sense of purpose on the job, one can experience a positive presence every day in the workplace”

These findings can be linked with the principles of Hygge (pronounced as “hoo-gah”) which is “the Danish way of living cosily”. The word and concept dates back to the 18th century and is loosely connected to the English word hug. The three main principles of hygge are:

  1. Pleasure: pleasure to all the five senses of the human body and a feeling of comfort and safety to the mind.
  2. Presence: living in the present and seeking simple pleasure everyday
  3. Participation: camaraderie and belonging; living and working together with family, friends and colleagues.

The principles of Hygge contribute to not only happiness in daily life but a happy workplace as well. By having a sense of purpose on the job, one can experience a positive presence every day in the workplace. By seeking to master a skill and to achieve, one experiences pleasure in what they do and in the workplace in general.

With a positive team spirit and by working under good leaders, the sense of participation is also fulfilled. By understanding what creates happiness at the workplace, workplaces around the world can recreate the same experience. And it has been proven time and again that happy employees result in low attrition and high engagement, which ultimately results in increasing profit margins and successful businesses.

As custodians of employee engagement and satisfaction, HR plays a critical role in enabling a happy workplace. It is not merely enough to have an employee benefits program and related initiatives but to create a culture and environment that creates or enhances employee happiness.

“In most exit interviews, the common reasons given by employees for leaving is either a poor manger or a poor role”

3 steps to increasing workplace satisfaction and happiness
There are three main strategies HR can employ to help build a happy workplace and increase workplace satisfaction.

1. Creating a performance culture. One of the most difficult responsibilities for HR is to conduct performance reviews and to manage a performance system for the employees. The most talked about performance management system in the history of the corporate world was the “forced ranking system”

The most talked about performance management system in the history of the corporate world was the “forced ranking system” practised by Jack Welch during his tenure as CEO of GE. In this system, every employee every year had to be placed in a category – high, middle, or low performers, with the latter routinely and systematically managed out of the business.

With the evolution of management systems and practices, this system was left behind to performance appraisals conducted by managers for their teams. Although this system was less brutal than the earlier one and was looked to as a tool, the flaw in this system was identified as the person behind the tool and their understanding of employee performance which was influenced by personal bias.

Many leading companies such as Dell, Microsoft, Accenture, Adobe and New York Life are abandoning the appraisal method altogether. Performance is now be measured by more human parameters like a “check-In” feedback system adopted by Adobe. The aim of systems such as these is to improve the bad name given to performance management and make it more people-oriented.

2. Creating a positive workplace culture. From the time an employee joins an employer, to the moment they leave, it is the responsibility of HR to create a workplace that is positively challenging yet safe and happy to enable performance and create engagement. Workplace culture is impacted not only by people and practices but also by the physical environment of the workplace.

“It is the responsibility of HR to create progressive and compelling role descriptions, which not only tell the employee what and why they are doing something, but how these fit into the overall plan and competency framework of the organisation”

In Melbourne, Danish software company Zendesk has its Asia-Pacific headquarters in a heritage-listed building in Collins Street. Hygge is evident in its layout, with desks that are divided into team sections and a central collaborative space for stand-up meetings. Staff make phone calls from dedicated booths and the whole space has a modern, clean Danish feel.

“Drawing on the concept of hygge, the design is characterised by simplicity, functionality and minimalism,” said Amy Foo, vice-president finance and operations of Zendesk APAC. “Open space and comfort in our workplace encourage autonomy and movement. People should be able to stand, sit or lounge on the couch – it generates creativity, collaboration and energy within the team.”

3. Challenging and progressive job roles
One of the most common questions asked during the recruitment process is “where do you see yourself in the next five years?” and yet, when an employee joins the workforce, after the first year or so he/she starts to hit a glass ceiling as the roles are not designed progressively.

Not all roles have a compelling job description. In the absence of a job description and KRAs (key result areas) an employee is reduced to just performing tasks. He/she is unable to see the bigger picture and where this role is taking them. They start to feel frustrated as their work gets monotonous and repetitive and this leads them to quit and look for better roles. In most exit interviews, the common reasons given by employees for leaving is either a poor manager or a poor role.

It is the responsibility of HR to create progressive and compelling role descriptions, which not only tell the employee what and why they are doing something, but how these fit into the overall plan and competency framework of the organisation. This can be done even for an organisation that is as small as 10 employees, to larger organisations.

In the journey of creating a great place to work, HR professionals and leaders are on the verge of a breakthrough in understanding what people are really looking forward to every day, and that is happiness – which can only be created by connecting at a basic human level (as explained by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) safety and comfort, before esteem and self-actualisation.

Image source: iStock