20 March marks the UN's International Day of Happiness. It's a day, as the UN puts it, to recognise "that the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal". And that goal applies equally in the workplace as anywhere else. We do, after all spend a staggering 100,000 hours at work over our lifetime.
Together with organisations like Action for Happiness, this year we're tackling the fundamental issue of connecting with other people. It's a strange world of work that we now live in. The ability to work from home, lightly communicate through email and instant message, set our own hours and wade through seemingly huge swathes of work with the aid of smart technologies undoubtedly unlocks potential, flexibility and productivity at a scale never seen before. But what do all those lonely hours without genuine interaction do for our innate need as humans to connect with other people? Despite advances in technology, the term "No man is an island" applies just as firmly now as when it first penned in the 1600s.
And it's not just remote workers. Without a culture of connectedness at work, it's incredibly easy for people to feel the effects of social isolation even if they're sat in a packed office or plant.
There is a huge body of research that says that not only do good relationships contribute significantly towards people's happiness at work, but also helps people become more resilient in the face of every day stresses and frustrations. In contrast, lonely workers tend to withdraw from work. They are less motivated and don't perform as well as their connected peers. And at a wider level, lonely workers are less likely to help others, be considerate or speak well of the business.
So over and above the sheer humanity of helping workers to become more connected, it really is in a business's best interests to take an active role in strengthening the relationships of its people. Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer believe a supportive, collaborative environment is the "nourishment factor" for a great workplace. They recommend four building blocks to facilitate connections: respect, encouragement, emotional support, and affiliation.
A respectful environment provides a secure platform for employees to emotionally connect with the business and one another. A lack of respect can create a climate of fear, raise emotional barriers and result in people distancing themselves. Gianpiero Petriglieri warns about "violent politeness", where employees are afraid to voice their opinions, and instead defer to their superiors. Mutual respect reduces this acquiescence and allows connections based on honesty and trust.
Encouraging and celebrating success not only feels good, but also confirms that staff are working towards the same goals; that they are all part of the same team. A good example of this is Kimley-Horn and Associates, a civil engineering firm, which allows any employee to award a colleague a $50 bonus at any time as a reward for good work. Recognising and celebrating successes encourages good work and fosters supportive relationships.
This feeling of being part of a team is bolstered by emotional support. During the economic crisis in 2008, when several of its competitors were making mass redundancies, SAS supported its staff. Jim Goodnight, CEO, made a personal promise that none of the 13,000 worldwide employees would lose their job. He rightly felt that by stopping them from worrying, they could then concentrate on work. Supportive companies not only celebrate success, but also work together to avoid failure, or at least minimise its effects.
Affiliation is the level to which employees feel "part of" the company, and to which the company feels "part of" employees' lives. When people feel estranged from the workplace, loneliness ensues. But when employees feel that their values align with the organisation, they emotionally invest and form real connections. Great organisations make people feel part of something bigger.
On 2015's International Day of Happiness, let's take the chance to realise the importance of our connections with each other. Organisations can encourage relationships to flourish by providing supportive, nourishing environments. Doing meaningful, inspiring work that aligns people towards a common cause helps to create those rich connections that are essential for happy lives.