Designing for happiness

What I didn't know when until I got to Dubai last week, to facilitate an organization design programme, was that 'The UAE Cabinet, chaired over by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, endorsed the launch of corporate happiness and positivity initiatives in the UAE Federal Government.'

It came up in the discussion we were having, at one point, on designing for employee engagement and one of the participants mentioned the fact that there is a UAE Minister of State for Happiness. The same participant mentioned the book, Reflections on Happiness & Positivity that Sheikh Mohammed has written. I bought a copy to learn more about his thinking behind the happiness initiatives.

One of the stories he tells in it is the story of standing in the desert and asking the people with him what they saw. One replied 'a barren desert', when asked what he saw, Sheikh Mohammed said 'a great national treasure .. a fundamental pillar of our national economy.' He tells of how over the two decades since that point they have built a thriving economy attracting 14 million tourists each year. He suggests, in the book, that having the ability to realize a vision takes happiness and positivity.

Later in the programme we started to talk about how culture is expressed in organizations and this led us to talking about what we literally see in organizations as we walk around them e.g. the choice of photos and pictures, the furnishings, the work station layouts, the way people are moving around the space and so on.

We wondered if we, organization designers, pay enough attention to this aspect in our design work. If we recognize that people see the same thing differently (as in the desert story) and perhaps even see different things (or not see them) then should we be noticing and gaining insights about the organization from what we literally see. Does what we see shape how we act?

If we consciously looked, would what we see give us any surprises, any new perspectives, any instance where we could see coherence or jolting disconnects. For example, in an organization where the phrase 'everyone a leader' is heard a lot, does that synchronize with having only executive leadership team member photos in the reception area. Would a clearer, and more motivational consistency be a collage of the photos of all employees?

I remembered that years ago, I worked through the 12-week programme in the book The Artist's Way at Work. One of the exercises in it is 'Watch the picture without the sound'. The task is to 'photograph your workday. Document the people and places of your work world, quietly … This tool is intended to give you objectivity. What about this world would you like to change? What about it can you change?' I still have the pictures I took in that workplace.

Hearing about this exercise, the person who mentioned the UAE happiness initiative wondered if we could see happiness in the workplace, how would it be visually expressed? We pursued the discussion – several people worked in the hotel industry and talked about designing customer experiences that made guests happy and several of these had obvious visual elements.

Indeed, in the hotel I was staying in, under each staff member's name on their name badge was a small point about them 'I like jazz' or 'I enjoy playing my guitar'. When I started chatting to them about what they had on their badges they did seem happy in their talking about it. Their happiness tagline did seem to spark a happy conversation.

Our organization design group moved on to a discussion on whether happy employees made for happy customers and how you would see this in the workplace. I am not sceptical about the value of designing 'good work' (see my book on Organizational Health) but I am sceptical on the simplicity of the employee happiness = customer happiness (or productivity) correlation. I think happiness is a complex construct related to an individual's world view and various other factors.

We agreed to pass on whether happy employees = happy customers, instead focusing on how we might see happiness reflected in the workplace. We knew that it is through much more than just taglines on badges it's a whole raft of design inputs some of which are outlined in the article Creating the Best Workplace on Earth: 'In a nutshell, it's a company [designed to be one] where individual differences are nurtured; information is not suppressed or spun; the company adds value to employees, rather than merely extracting it from them; the organization stands for something meaningful; the work itself is intrinsically rewarding; and there are no stupid rules.'

But how these aspects would be visually obvious we were less sure of – we retreated to happiness indicators like those presented in the annual World Happiness Report. Yet, going back to the looking at the desert story, I'm intrigued to know if several people could look at the same organizational landscape and see different things in it. Would someone see happiness and another see something else?

Look around your organization. See if you can see happiness – what does it look like? How do you design to achieve it, or can you? Let me know.