People experience

What does a great people operating system look and feel like?

So you get what company culture is and why it matters. And you’re starting to buy into this notion of a people operating system and the role that plays in influencing your culture.

Well we’re really on a roll now aren’t we?!

So it’s time to ponder how you actually design and build a people operating system. Let's start by reflecting on what a great people operating system looks and feels like.

This blog explains why at The Pioneers we think a great people operating system is all about flow

Have you ever had an experience where you got so absorbed in something you completely lost track of time? Hours passed like seconds. Or maybe it was a moment that seemed to unfold in slow motion.

Maybe you were rock climbing, playing tennis or on the piano. Maybe you were making a piece of furniture, painting something or trying to solve a puzzle. Maybe (just maybe!) you were at work.

The activity doesn’t really matter, it’s your state of mind we’re interested in… that feeling of being completely in the moment. The feeling of being totally absorbed and focused on what you’re doing.

If you’ve had this feeling, you were probably engaged in doing something challenging, not easy. But it’s a challenge that you’ve trained for. And it was a challenge you were rising to. You weren’t stressed about failing. You were winning. In control. The master of the situation. Able to feel that everything was coming together perfectly.

You were in the zone.

Yep - that’s the the subjective experience we’re talking about. It’s what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls a state of flow.

For Csikszentmihalyi, flow is the optimum human experience. It’s what it feels like when we’re at our best.

And to cut a long story short… designing and building a great people operating system is about creating the conditions where your people can experience that sense of flow as often as possible.

Wouldn’t that be a great place to work? And doesn’t it sound like the sort of workplace that would get the best from its people?

Well before we talk about how to create that in your company, let’s get a better understanding of what Csikzentmihalyi means by flow…

What are the conditions that people need to experience flow?

In his book “Flow”, Csikszentmihalyi sets out eight conditions that people need to experience flow.

  1. You’re engaged in a challenging activity that requires skill.
  2. You experience a merging of action and awareness so you feel completely focused and absorbed by the activity.
  3. You have clear goals and immediate feedback on whether you’re achieving those goals (e.g. you see your free kick curl into the top corner of the net; or you can hear whether the note you’re playing on your guitar is in tune; or you feel yourself moving higher up the mountain).
  4. You’re fully concentrated on the present — you’re not worried or aware of unpleasant distractions or concerns.
  5. You feel like you’re in control (objectively, you might not actually be in control, but subjectively you feel like you’re the master of your own destiny - it’s the difference between the skier who feels he might be about to crash and the one who feels completely at ease).
  6. You lose your sense of self-consciousness or neuroticism — it’s not that your sense of self disappears, rather that your sense of self becomes attached to the task (or integrated into the team you’re working with) so you’re not anxious about how you’re perceived by others.
  7. Your experience of time changes, it seems to pass either much quicker or much slower than usual.
  8. It’s an ‘autotelic experience’, that is to say, you feel it’s something worth doing well for the sake of doing it well. You’re not doing it simply as a means to something else.

If you can remember a time when you experienced all 8 of these factors, it was probably one of the peak moments of your life.

So why don’t we experience more flow at work?

1. We have an attitude problem - most of us don’t expect work to make us happy

Be honest. Do you think your peak moments of happiness ought to come at work?

I reckon most of us don’t. After all, if work made you happy, why would they have to pay you to do it?

Most of us think that work’s work. We’re quite content to spend most of our time in the office in the “yeah it’s ok” range. We’re all reconciled to the fact that “everyone has parts of their job they don’t enjoy”. We take the paycheque at the end of the month and we buy more stuff to make ourselves happy.

Until we’re prepared to fundamentally reassess what we want from work, what we should expect from our work and then do something about it, we’re going to have companies that are mediocre places to work.

2. Companies that want to make their people happy end up shooting for the wrong type of happiness

Then there’s the problem of supposedly enlightened companies trailblazing in the wrong direction. Companies with great perks, market leading benefits, office beers, artisan coffee, branded stash, well-being programmes, unlimited holiday, flexible working…. all the mod cons.

All good stuff, but it’s ‘hedonic’ pleasure not eudaemonic happiness or flourishing.

When you look under the bonnet of these types of company, you find that all the bells and whistles are there to distract you from the mediocrity of the actual work. They’re companies that make their people feel comfortable rather than challenging them to flourish.

As Patty McCord puts it in Powerful:

"People’s happiness in their work is not about gourmet salads or sleeping pods or foosball tables. True and abiding happiness in work comes from being deeply engaged in solving a problem with talented people you know are also deeply engaged in solving it, and from knowing that the customer loves the product or service you all have worked so hard to make.”Patty McCord

Or as Csikszentmihalyi says:

“the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen.”Mihayl Csikszentmihalyi

We live in a society that makes it easy to be comfortable. I mean, no generation before us has had access to this much great stuff or such an amazing range of entertainment. We should be happy right?!

And yet most of us feel this nagging dissatisfaction with life. We don’t want an easy life. We don’t want more hedonic pleasure. What most us seem to be craving is eudaemonia - that sense of being engaged in something purposeful, feeling in tune with the moment. Stretching and striving to be the best version of ourselves. That satisfaction of sitting down at the end of the day knowing that we’ve grown as a person.

We’re looking for flow.

So instead of trying to make employees happy with the peripheral stuff, we should be focused on the fundamentals. The essence of the work itself. Is it engaging? Does it give the person doing it a sense of flow? Do our people end the day feeling like they’ve contributed to something meaningful and grown as an individual?

The other stuff is nice. I mean who doesn’t want to be able to bring their dog into the office? But you can give your people all this stuff and still have a culture that leaves them with that nagging voice in their head that’s asking them ‘what am I doing with my life?’.

3. It’s too much of a mess!

Ok this is the biggie. If you want to help your people find more flow, you need to Marie Kondo the shit out of the way your company works!

In most companies…

  • Roles aren’t designed for flow
  • Teams aren’t designed for flow
  • The tech stack isn’t set up to promote flow
  • The workplace doesn’t enable flow
  • And there are loads of bad leadership habits and management practices that destroy people’s sense of flow

Ask yourself: how hard is it in my company for people to concentrate deeply on something for an hour? One hour where they’re completely focused and absorbed. When they don’t get interrupted by a slack message or an email. When they’re able to work on something that really stretches their skills?

And if you manage this on an individual level, how often do your teams get into this state of flow? How often are they in that high performance zone, where everyone’s feeding off each other and lifting their game?

How much better would your business perform if your people and teams found more flow?

What’s the difference between being in flow and being productive?

It’s probably worth taking a quick aside to register that being in flow isn’t the same thing as being productive. Being productive is an objective thing - are you producing what the company needs from you? Being in flow is a subjective thing - do you feel in the zone?

Now if you’re in flow at work, it’s likely you’re also being (intensely) productive, but the two don’t necessarily go hand in hand. For example, you might have a software engineer who’s completely absorbed in building truly elegant code for a functionality that isn’t needed. The engineer is in a state of flow, but they’re not being productive because what they’re building isn’t going to create value for the company.

Similarly, it’s possible to be productive without experiencing flow — you can grind stuff out, work hard and get stuff done without enjoying it.

The key to designing a great peopleOS is to make it easy for people to be productive in a way that feels good.

How you can create a people operating system that promotes flow

1. Start talking about it and make sure your people know they have the power to create flow in their work

The simplest first step is to start a conversation. Make people aware of the concept of flow, what it means and how they can find more of it.

If you want, there are lots of great profiling tools you can use to give people an insight into their personal strengths and the activities that are likely to give them a sense of flow. These can be a great conversation starter and may give your people the confidence that there’s some science behind the idea, but to be honest you can get the conversation going just as well by asking people: what are you good at, that you enjoy doing and which leaves you feeling energised?

The most important piece is that you have to make sure everyone has the power to change their working life to find more flow. Flow is a subjective experience, so it’s the person doing the job that has the best insight into how they find flow (not their manager or the People team). And people are different. Too many people management systems are built on the premise that HR knows best and that one size fits all. The truth is we’re all so inconsistent in how we work at our best that one size fits none.

If you buy into the concept of the people operating system and the idea of flow, then as a general rule you want to build less people management ‘stuff’ not more. And you want to build it in a way that promotes flexibility, accommodates different ways of working and above all gives people the autonomy and tools to be able to take responsibility for their own productivity and satisfaction.

2. Get serious about paying down your people debt

Frankly, the reason we like to work with scale-ups is because its so much easier to get this stuff right first time round, than to try and undo a big mess. But even a scale-up has people debt - stuff that was put in as a shortcut or quick fix which is no longer fit for purpose.

These tools, policies, processes and management practices are the barnacles on the hull of your boat and if you want to continue to grow quickly you need to clean them off.

Paying Down Your People Debt

This type of people debt is also a flow killer. I was in one of our clients’ offices recently, clearing some emails between meetings. I was sat next to the founder (for context, it’s a company that’s grown to nearly 1,000 people) and he spent 25 minutes getting his expenses onto their finance system. The impact on his time was bad enough, but the impact on his mood was even worse!

Almost every People team I know focuses on building new stuff. They keep layering on new initiatives, new projects, policies and systems. No one does the drudge work of paying down the people debt. No one takes stuff out or goes back to simplify processes that have become clunky. And so unfortunately, the cumulative effect of all those good ideas from your People team is a peopleOS that’s too complex, that’s not user friendly and which stops your people finding flow.

3. Design your ways of working, your workplace and tech stack for flow…

We’ve all worked in offices where we needed to get our head down and concentrate but we kept getting distracted by the noise of the coffee machine, someone’s phone going off or bloody Janet from Marketing talking about Love Island again.

You need to be in the right space for flow. And you need to have the right tools for the job. While we’ve all felt the pain of bad office design limiting our capacity for individual work, in my opinion, office design is an even bigger killer of flow in teams — just try facilitating an ideation session in a badly designed meeting room and you’ll appreciate what I’m saying! Most offices do an appalling job of enabling great group work.

Arguably, as remote working becomes the default, the only point in having an office is to give you space to collaborate in person. So design it in a way that helps your teams to flow like a high performing sports team or a philharmonic orchestra.

The flip side of the sudden shift to remote working is that companies are going to have to get serious about supporting people to work effectively at home and that means making sure they have the right space, equipment and technology.

Being mindful of the impact of your ways of working and cultural habits is also really important. Is it taboo to stick your Slack onto “do not disturb”? Is it ok to turn your email off for a day? Do you encourage teams to have ‘no meetings’ days? All these small cultural signals are important in opening up the space for flow.

Perhaps the most common failing is managers who kill the flow of their ‘makers’ by dropping in urgent requests all the time (often with stuff that isn’t really urgent). Allowing your teams to own their schedule and to push back on ad hoc leadership requests, just means that leaders have to get better at planning ahead and this leadership discipline helps the organisation to move quicker.

4. Hire the right people

Don’t let importance of ‘cultural fit’ and hiring for attitude, blind you to the importance of technical skill. If you want people to find flow at work, you need to hire people who are great at what they do and who want to be challenged to get even better.

They also have to love what they do. You can produce good work, but if it doesn’t pull you into ‘the zone’, you’re not in flow. Hire people for the job they want to do, not people who see it solely as a stepping stone to something else. And try to avoid people who’ve simply got onto the wrong career paths. Unfortunately too many smart, capable people work in a space for which they have no sense of vocation or passion. Your selection process needs a way of distinguishing between the candidate with a great track record, and the candidate with a great track record who’s still energised by the work.

5. Help your people stay in the zone

People find flow when their strengths are being stretched by the challenge. If the challenge exceeds our strengths, we get stressed. If our skills outstretch the challenge we get bored..

So once you’ve hired great people, you need to keep ratcheting up the challenge as they learn and develop.  You need to keep raising the stakes so they keep being stretched.

You also need to provide people with the information to judge their own performance. You can’t find flow if you don’t know whether you’re winning or losing. Again, one of the common failings in organisations is that they don’t provide their front line teams with accurate data on their performance. Instead someone at the centre judges their performance for them. The more usable, real time data you can provide to your teams the more chance you give them to find their flow.

6. Look after the whole person

If you’re tired and hungry or stressed out about paying your rent or struggling with your mental health, finding flow becomes that much more difficult. Where the “gourmet salads, sleeping pods and foosball tables” really do make sense, is when they allow people to show up as the best version of themselves. Paying your people a living wage and giving them access to services that help them to live healthy lives helps people to flourish.

For over a century we’ve tried to manage people as if they were predictable units of ‘human resource’. But we aren’t predictable. Stuff happens. Our appetite for work ebbs and flows. And I think we’re getting to a stage where companies are realising that it’s easier and more effective to redesign the way they work to fit with how people really work, than to try and force fit people into an artificial mould.

Your peopleOS should work for your people, not the other way round. A great people operating system is one that helps your people to flourish so they can do great work for customers and create value for your company.

Some concluding thoughts…

If you want your people to find flow at work, then your people operating system also has to flow. You need a way of managing your people that feels coherent and aligned. You want all the components of your people operating system to be pulling in the same direction. That’s when you create a people operating system that elevates people, draws on their strengths and makes it easy for them to do great work. A well designed people operating system should create an employee experience that feels joined-up and seamless. You can only do that if you build with one eye on the system. Unfortunately, most People and HR teams ship their structure and because of that, they build workplaces where people are asked to do one thing, rewarded for another, trained for a third and given the data for a fourth!

If you want to take a first step in building a great people operating system, have a chat with my co-founder Bee - she can help you understand whether your people operating system is fit for purpose; and if nothing else comes of it, you'll get some helpful (and free ;) advice over a friendly cup of tea and a biscuit.

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