Some thoughts on why “empty labor” makes us miserable

The Atlantic has an absolutely fascinating article that reveals how little work actually goes on at work.

From the article:

…the proportion of people who say they never work hard has long been far greater than those who say they always do. The articles and books about the stressed-out fraction of humanity can be counted in the thousands, but why has so little been written about this opposite extreme?

And this:

I talked with over 40 people who spent half of their working hours on private activities—a phenomenon I call “empty labor.” I wanted to know how they did it, and I wanted to know why. “Why” turned out to be the easy part: For most people, work simply sucks. We hate Mondays and we long for Fridays—it’s not a coincidence that evidence points towards a peak in cardiac mortality on Monday mornings.

Read the whole thing – it’s great!

Similarly, two Swiss consultants have defined the term boreout. They posit that you get burnout from having too much to do and boreout from a lack of meaningful tasks at work.

If you’ve ever seen the movie Office Space, this is one of the things they get exactly right in this dialog between lay-off consultant Bob and IT employee Peter:

Bob Slydell: You see, what we’re actually trying to do here is, we’re trying to get a feel for how people spend their day at work… so, if you would, would you walk us through a typical day, for you?
Peter Gibbons: Well, I generally come in at least fifteen minutes late, ah, I use the side door – that way Lumbergh can’t see me, heh heh – and, uh, after that I just sorta space out for about an hour.
Bob Porter: Da-uh? Space out?
Peter Gibbons: Yeah, I just stare at my desk; but it looks like I’m working. I do that for probably another hour after lunch, too. I’d say in a given week I probably only do about fifteen minutes of real, actual, work.

My sense is that this goes on in a lot of big workplaces, where there can be any number of tasks that don’t serve any meaningful purpose. Much effort instead goes into things like:

  • endless meetings
  • enforcing bureaucracy and red tape
  • writing and reading memos
  • internal politicking and backstabbing
  • activities intended only to CYA (Cover Your Ass).

For me, this is a tragedy because above all else, what we crave at work is meaningful results, i.e. knowing that we make a difference at something that matters. Having to pretend that you’re contributing while knowing that your job is essentially meaningless is a recipe for stress.

What we need to do instead is eliminate all work that is not meaningful and then work hard to make sure that each and every person in the organization:

  1. Are good at their jobs (i.e. what they do)
  2. Know that what they do is important (i.e. why they do it)

This is a recipe for not only greater happiness at work but also for more energy, motivation and engagement.


Top 5 awesome corporate email policies

If you feel like email is stressing you out, there might be something to it. A study conducted at the University of California found that giving people uninterrupted time where they weren’t dealing with email generally made them less stressed and better able to focus:

Without email, people multitasked less and had a longer task focus, as measured by a lower frequency of shifting between windows and a longer duration of time spent working in each computer window.

Further, we directly measured stress using wearable heart rate monitors and found that stress, as measured by heart rate variability, was lower without email.

This Fast Company article has a great overview of the findings. It’s a rather small study, so take it with a grain of salt, but it does support the sense that emails are a source of stress and distraction at work.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not against email. It’s an awesome communication tool, but in many workplaces it is used poorly, and mostly the burden has been put on employees to figure out strategies for dealing with the resulting email onslaught.

I think it’s time for workplaces to take responsibility for this issue at a corporate level and fortunately, some workplaces have done just that and are trying new and better email policies.

Here are the 5 best we’ve found.

5: In France you can check out at 6pm

French trade unions recently negotiated a deal for some of their members, which:

…allows staff to shut down their phones and computers after 6 p.m. and not have to worry about checking in.

Part of the deal is that companies can’t pressure or make their employees feel bad about not checking or responding to their email either.

This is a good first approach to reduce the pressure to handle emails outside of working hours. While it can definitely help, it has the limitation that it puts full responsibility on employees to not check emails. Which is why I like the next one even better.

4: Email not delivered after hours at Volkswagen

VW made an agreement with the company’s work council to limit employees’ access to email on their Blackberry devices outside of working hours:

Under the arrangement servers stop routing emails 30 minutes after the end of employees’ shifts, and then start again 30 minutes before they return to work.

The staff can still use their devices to make calls and the rule does not apply to senior management.

I really like this idea. Now it’s not up to employees to not check emails in their free time, email is just not delivered.

3: Quiet Tuesdays at Intel

Intel tried an experiment where 300 engineers and managers went “offline” every Tuesday morning.

During these periods they had all set their email and IM clients to “offline”, forwarded their phones to voice mail, avoided setting up meetings, and isolated themselves from “visitors” by putting up a “Do not disturb” sign at their doorway.

The purpose was to see the effect of 4 hours of contiguous “thinking time”.

The experiment was a hit:

It has been successful in improving employee effectiveness, efficiency and quality of life for numerous employees in diverse job roles. 45% of post-pilot survey respondents had found it effective as is, and 71% recommended we consider extending it to other groups, possibly after applying some modifications.

However it’s telling that this experiment was conducted in 2008 and nothing’s changed inside Intel. It shows just how ingrained corporate attitudes to email are.

2: Email not delivered during vacation time at Daimler

One of the most insidious effects of email overload is that any longer stretches of time away from the office is punished immediately upon return, because your inbox will be full to overflowing. I haven’t seen any research on this, but I could easily imagine that this would subconsciously discourage people from taking vacations or at the very least increase stress around any time off.

And that’s why this policy from Daimler is so awesome:

The car and truck maker has implemented a new program that allows employees to set their email software to automatically delete incoming emails while they are on vacation.

When an email is sent, the program, which is called “Mail on Holiday,” issues a reply to the sender that the person is out of the office and that the email will be deleted, while also offering the contact information of another employee for pressing matters.

So you can go on vacation knowing that when you come back your inbox will contain the same number of emails as when you left.

1: No internal emails at Menlo Innovations (and many others)

US software company Menlo Innovations have ditched internal emails in favor of what they call “High-speed voice-activated technology.” Yes, if you want some information from a coworker, you’ll have to actually talk to that person.

Several other companies have done something similar. Typically, employees can still receive emails from external sources like clients and vendors but there is no way to email colleagues.

This makes a lot of sense considering all the great tools that can replace emails in many cases. We use Podio internally and it has seriously cut down on the number of internal emails we need to send. Others use Yammer or chat or even facebook.

 The upshot

Email can be awesome. It can suck. It’s time for workplaces to create policies that address some of the problems and reduce the stress.

Your take

What’s your take on this? How is email affecting you? Which of the policies above would you like to see implemented in your workplaces? Know of any other great corporate email policies?

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Can you nudge people towards workplace happiness?

This article was written by Woohoo inc’s newest employee Thomas Christensen.

Have you ever wondered why you have to walk all the way to the back end of the supermarket to get milk? Or why there are mountains of candy close to the checkout, where you always have to stand in line and wait? It is a carefully planned ploy to ensure you walk through the entire store to get to your everyday groceries, thus increasing your exposure to other items, which makes you more likely to buy something more than milk. Similarly, candy is placed where it is most likely that you will stand around bored for the slow eternity that is queuing in the supermarket. This increases the chance of you given in to your urges and purchase some candy.

You are probably familiar with the term “Nudging”; it has been thrown around a lot in relation to health initiatives and government legislation. Nudging is the latest branch on the tree of buzzwords, thus nudging has plunged behavioural science into the mainstream. Numerous articles and books has been written on what nudging is, so we will not go deeply into that. However, we will discuss just how useful nudging is when it comes to workplace happiness.

The main thing to be aware off with nudging is that it is not a magical solution, obviously. At its most basic level, nudging is about choice management. The idea is that you present the choices available to your customers, clients or people in general, in such a way that a particular choice or set of choices seems more desirable. This sounds easier than it is. The nudge should be almost invisible, and non-invasive. Plastering large brightly coloured signs around the office with quotes on how to be happy, is not close to being nudging – nor is it likely to work.

Because nudging revolves around choices, you will have to break down complex behavioural patterns, into smaller more manageable chunks. Looking at workplace happiness, it is quite complex. Being happy at work requires a large number of things to go right, as happiness is an inherently complex behavioural pattern. Luckily, you can break down workplace happiness into two categories of effect: results and relationships. Watch the video below for more information.

This makes nudging for workplace happiness much easier.

However, one of the most severe limitations of implementing nudging, and other behavioural sciences, is their symbiotic nature. What we mean is that nudging can only enhance an existing process. It cannot create a new. Let us image that you want to create an environment where there is an added focus on results. You want to encourage employees or co-workers to share their results, but in order to nudge them towards your goal, there has to be a process in place that you can nudge them towards using. Which means that in order to use nudging you need to have a very good idea of how people interpret the processes in your organisation. This symbiotic nature also means that it is incredibly difficult to give advice on how to nudge people towards more workplace happiness within the confines of a specific organisation.

Nevertheless, we do have some tips.

  • Start by determine whether to focus on results or relationships. Workplace happiness can be complex, so it can help to focus on one of the two. Establish a specific goal you want to solve within one of the two areas. Such as “how do we make people celebrate their victories?”
  • List the processes your organisation have in the chosen subject. If your organisation is lacking in processes that can facilitate either results or relationships – you have bigger problems than nudging can fix.
  • Once you have both chosen an area of focus and have a list of the existing processes, you can begin to examine them both. You need to focus your attention on how people interpret these processes. Their original or intended purpose is less relevant compared to the interpretation.
  • Then you can rate your internal process based on which one is most beneficial to your goal.
  • Using your customers or employees sense of purpose and expectations, you can begin to shape how you want them to perceive the choices you present to them.

Now comes the fun part

As you have defined your goal such as “people should spend more time in my store” and a list of processes such as “people mainly walk around in my store”. You can start combining them to find nudging solutions. However, nudging has to be almost invisible and non-invasive. Therefore, you cannot remodel your store into a labyrinth and expect it to be anything less than totally awesome.

Unfortunately, you will probably not sell more. The key is that your costumers or employees have a sense of purpose and a set of expectations. You do not mind walking 20 meters more in a supermarket, because you expect there to be walking and browsing when entering a supermarket.

Let us look at the example presented above, how we nudge employees to “celebrate their results”. A key component of the results-oriented part of workplace happiness. For the sake of argument, let us assume that you have several processes that highlights the results of your employees, but no one uses them. In order find out which one is more likely to yield the results you want, you examine how your employees interpret the processes already in place, so you can rank them. Sometimes the process does not have the desired effect, for example, having a “scoreboard of achievements” where your employees can list their achievements could be interpreted as being a place to brag. Instead, your employees might celebrate their successes with small post-its on their keyboards, because they interpret this process so be more personal and sincere. The point is then to either reframe the “scoreboard of achievement” to make it less about bragging, or to try and bring to light all the praise left on post-its stuck to peoples keyboards.

The main take away is that is nudging for increased workplace happiness requires awareness of 3 things.

  1. Processes available to your employees/customers
  2. Knowledge of what your employees/customers expect
  3. Knowledge of how your employees/customers interpret your processes

Top 5 great quitters

If you gotta quit your job, why not go out in style. Here are 5 of my all-time favorite quitters:

#5: With a brass band

#4: With cake


#3: Live on the air

#2: With interpretive dance

#1: With a beer in hand

Steven Slater, a flight attendant, announced over the plane’s public address system that he had been abused by a passenger and that he quit his job. He then grabbed two beers and exited the plane by deploying the evacuation slide and sliding down it.


Leading with Happiness – Free Webinar December 3rd

Kjerulf 7

Update: Over 100 people have signed up already.

We believe that there is a new style of leadership emerging – one that focuses more on doing what’s good for employees and customers than on short-term profits. A form of leadership, in short, that has happiness at its core.

Join our free webinar on Wednesday December 3rd if you’d like to learn about:

  • What does happy leadership look like? How do you do it in practice?
  • How can managers themselves stay happy in their careers?
  • What are great examples of happy leaders?
  • Could it be that happy leaders ultimately create better results than traditional leaders?

Date and time: Wednesday December 3rd at noon US East coast time / 9am pacific time / 5pm GMT / 6pm Central European time.

Over 250 people signed up for our last webinar and just like that one, this one will be short (only 30 minutes) and punchy. We will get to the point quickly and leave you with new information and tools you can actually use.

The webinar will be held live on our youtube channel, so there is no login needed and no software to install. If you can watch youtube, you can join. There will be a chance to ask questions via chat.

Sign up for the webinar right here:


How to balance natural and synthetic happiness at work

This article was written by Tais Lyager Rasmussen and Woohoo inc’s newest employee Thomas Christensen.

In a previous blog post we explored the concept of synthetic happiness at work and how it can be a powerful tool to relieve the stress of having to achieve. In this post, we will explore more deeply how synthetic happiness or personal happiness might be a sorely needed way of thinking in society today.

To recap the previous article:

  1. Synthetic happiness is what you make when you do not get what you want. This is in contrast to natural happiness that is when you get what you want.
  2. Synthetic happiness is just as real and genuine as natural happiness. Having many choices is great for natural happiness but bad for synthetic happiness because choices hinders the internal validation process that occurs when you are “stuck” with something.
  3. This means that natural happiness, being reliant and influenced primarily on external forces and validation, can safely be called external happiness.
  4. Synthetic happiness in contrast, can be labelled as internal happiness as it is reliant and influenced primarily by internal validation.
  5. We ended on the idea that the relationship between the two could be a driver behind overall happiness.

This article will explore how difficult it can be to navigate in a world skewed towards external happiness.

In today’s society, there have never been more opportunities available than there is now. The possibilities in what career you can pursue, hobbies you can take up, clothe you can wear, TV-shows you can watch and the list goes on. All of these options provide you with the opportunity to design and create whatever life you want. However, this large amount of possibilities ends up becoming a problem as you might experience choice overload. Choice overload is when an individual’s decision-making process is hampered by too many options. When a decision has too many alternatives, it becomes so complex that it is impossible to rationally evaluate every option against each other. When this happens, people become overwhelmed and might chose not to choose at all. This can lead to stress and potential regret from believing that you have chosen the wrong option.

When we combine the idea of internal happiness with choice overload, you get a society where individuals’ decision-making processes are being sabotaged by the number of options they have. This results in potential stress and regret but it is also a terrible foundation for internal happiness. As proposed earlier, choice is good for external happiness but bad for internal happiness.

How do you train yourself to appreciate internal happiness in a world geared towards highlighting external happiness? How can you make yourself be happy where you are right now, when everywhere you look you are expected to grow, to surpass, to go somewhere and buy something; in short use the endless possibilities there exist.

Social media is generally a wonderful thing, but it can be easy to look at other peoples’ adventures and consider them missed opportunities for you. It is natural and intrinsic to human nature to compare ourselves to other people, but what is really happening is that you are comparing yourself to a highly stylized ideal presented through a media of your choice, not an actual person.

This is also true in work situations where the idea of growth is ingrained in the way we think of ourselves in the workspace. In a performance culture, you are compared to other people and the benchmarks of other people. Your own contributions are rarely seen in comparison to yourself, they are most likely seen in comparison to your coworkers or company benchmarks. This could rob you of the ability to be satisfied with your own work.

With all of that in mind, here are 4 tips for living in an environment skewed towards external happiness

1. When contributing to a shared project at work, or anywhere else, you should not continuously compare your efforts with other contributors. Instead, you should focus on the work you have contributed with and compare with your own previous work.

2. A small dosage of nostalgia is advantageous. Try to key significant memories to items, this adds value to them, and makes you less likely to feel the need to replace them.

3. Try always placing yourself in a situation where you do not have the possibility to change your choices. This will initiate the internal validation process and act as a catalyst for internal happiness.

4. Be critical of the notion that happiness is getting what you want. The world might be geared for external happiness but at the end of the day happiness is a perceived experience, and whether it comes from getting what you want or enjoying what you get, it is still reliant on each individual’s own perception. The difference is that learning to like what you get is much more stable than getting what you want, as it does not rely on external forces for validation.

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Positive thinking doesn’t work (and makes us unhappy)

I recently wrote an article called 5 Ways Positive Thinking Makes Us Miserable At Work. Among other things I argue that faking happiness and positivity is stressful and contributes to quelling dissent and problem-solving.

And now I can add a 6th reason: positive thinking doesn’t work. From the article:

across dozens of peer-reviewed studies examining the effects of positive visions of the future on people pursuing various kinds of wishes — from health-related, such as losing weight, quitting smoking, or recovering quickly from surgery, to the improvement of professional or academic performance (for example, mid-level managers wishing to reduce job-related stress, graduate students looking for a job, or school children seeking to get good grades) — we’ve consistently found that people who positively fantasize make either the same or less progress in achieving attainable wishes than those who don’t.

So while happiness at work is a fantastic thing that we should all strive for, positive thinking is not the way to do it.