Happiness at work and balls

I’m not a huge fan of employee satisfaction surveys for a number of reasons:

  1. They measure job satisfaction, which, to me, is not what matters. What matters is happiness.
  2. They’re no fun. Filling out 50 (or more) questions in an online survey is a chore – not something people enjoy.
  3. They’re so time consuming that companies typically perform them once a year. But what good is knowing how happy employees are once a year? What if they’re really unhappy now, and the next survey is still 7 months away?

So how DO you measure happiness at work? This is exactly the question British social media agency Nixon McInnes were asking themselves:

According to recent studies, happiness in the workplace is positively correlated with productivity, so as happiness increases, productivity follows suit, but when unhappiness gains a foothold, productivity and, ultimately, the health of the business, suffer.

The first prototype, or version 0.1, has been live for a couple of months now and has provided some illuminating insight into our collective emotional condition (Tuesdays, for instance, are a regular, recurring low point in the week).

So, what’s the ground-breaking technology that makes all this possible?

The answer… A couple of buckets and a few dozen tennis balls. :)

Exactly – why not go low-tech and do it with balls. Tennis balls, that is.

Every day as employees leave work they drop a ball into either the “Happy” or “Unhappy” basket. The balls are counted and the daily and weekly results are displayed on a monitor in the office:

Yup – that’s all it takes. It’s simple, so it actually gets done and it’s almost real-time because it presents daily data. An additional benefit is that it gives employees a chance to reflect every day on their happiness at work, which is also a good practice. Kudos!

Have you tried something similar in your workplace? Would this work for you?

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18 thoughts on “Happiness at work and balls”

  1. It’s nice, when worker can express their emotion through this little act before they off to work.
    Never try that before in my working place, even though we’re under creative agency :P

  2. Would people feel shy about putting a tennis ball in the unhappy bucket? What if your boss saw you do it, after he gave you a new task or something? Almost too low-tech. Perhaps one could add a booth with a curtain and a cover for the bucket. Just my thoughts.

  3. Nice idea but as Bill said, I can see this becoming something where people may feel inclined to put their ball into the happy bucket when in fact, they are not.

    Some workplaces are so obsessed with being good at everything that some employees may be made to feel like they’re not team players if they express discontent. There needs to be a level of anonymity so employees feel safe to speak their minds.

  4. I agree with Bill and Ken.

    Also, I think that the balls into the bucket might tell if the people are mostly happy or unhappy, but how are they going to tell WHY people are happy or unhappy. And if you don’t know why, you cannot be sure how to address the reasons for unhappiness or what to do more to keep or even increase the level of happiness.

  5. At the end of each day, I’d stand five metres away from the buckets and see if I could land my ball int he right one. This would automatically make me happy. But I’m simple like that.

    It’s a work of genius.

  6. Hey all, it’s Tom here from NixonMcInnes. Thanks for blogging about our balls Alex :) And for the inspiration to do this. Incidentally, The Aussie dentist Paddy Lund has been doing something similar for many years.

    I agree with the concern that people could feel a pressure to say they’re happy even if they’re not. I think you have to have the right culture where people can express themselves freely without fear. Hopefully, if a colleague is seen putting a ball in the unhappy bucket, they’re more likely to get a friendly rub on the shoulder and an offer of support than any sort of negative consequence. On a practical level though, the set-up in our office makes it pretty easy to drop your ball in a bucket un-noticed if you want to.

    Vesela, you’re also completely right that this is only a very crude measurement tool. What it does do it prompt conversations about happiness. Sometimes we have good weeks and other times we’re miserable as sin. It’s good to recognise that and talk about it. We had one day where someone had such a bad day that they emptied the entire bucket of balls into ‘unhappy.’ That certainly caused us to reflect! Also, having a daily point of reflection makes you better able to talk about your overall happiness at work, for example when you have a one-to-one with your manager.

    One of the interesting things I’ve noticed from our experiment is that as Alex says, the normal method of asking people how happy they are once is year is far too infrequent. But even measuring it once a day is often not enough. I’ve heard colleagues say that they had a nightmare of a morning with things going wrong and felt really unhappy, but in the afternoon they got everything back on track and felt happy again. Where does their ball go? It shows that happiness can change from moment to moment.

    We certainly don’t feel like we’ve cracked the perfect formula for happiness at work part of me feels sad when I see even one ball in the unhappy bucket. But we’re all just human and we have our ups and downs. This has been a useful experiment to help us understand ourselves a little bit better which I hope will have a positive impact.

    Thanks everyone for the comments, it’s really interesting to hear what you think. And please do drop us a line if you try if for yourselves. Would be great to compare notes.

  7. As someone who uses these happy buckets at NM I can see that this probably needs some developments in the future, but right now it’s fantastic to see how the happiness can range from one week to the next.
    Sometimes it is clear why a week has been particularly good or unhappy. But sometimes it is not so obvious and this is when discussions are needed to pinpoint where the unhappiness stemed from and we are able to find a solution.
    Otherwise it may have gone unnoticed and unresolved…

  8. A complex process executed simply. In my mind, the challenge isn’t about someone putting the tennis ball into the bucket. For me, it’s more about the organisation itself. The happy/unhappy-o-meter reflects the culture/mindset of the organisation.

    If the organisation is closed, then no amount of tennis balls will necessarily change that. If people put tennis balls into the happy bucket because they feel pressured to, then that is a reflection of the company. If the company does nothing should the level of tennis balls in the unhappy bucket increase, then that is also a reflection of how the company views its employees and itself.

    If the company is open, then it will embrace ‘unhappy tennis balls’, and do something positive to ensure a change takes place.

    Game, set, match!

  9. Reminds me of Innocent drink’s market research, before they launched. Sometimes, the simplest ideas are the best.

  10. Hi all, I’m from NixonMcInnes too and thought I’d chip in with some of the practical questions that have come up.

    ‘What happens if work’s OK but the rest of your life sucks? Where do you put the ball?’

    We’ve had a lot of discussion of whether there should be a third bucket – the ‘meh’ bucket. This would be used when you’re just not very happy but its not work related. Some people say they already choose not to put a ball in a bucket at all in this instance. The question that kept coming out of this though is why should we separate our work selves from our non-work selves?

    This lead into discussions about the language – perhaps ‘happy’ is too undefined a term – perhaps we should instead ask people to state whether they’ve had a good day or a bad day.

    We haven’t really resolved these questions though, so we still have happy or unhappy – perhaps you all could help us out a bit and let us know what you think?

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