Are you happy ? Your boss asks you.

Garry Ridge, who runs the chemical company WD-40, has a leadership style guided by two models – Aristotle and Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock.

Posted at 11 am.

Emma Goldberg
The New York Times newspaper

“Pleasure in work puts perfection in work,” Ridge said for the first time, quoting the Greek philosopher.

Then he took a recent internal memo from BlackRock. “Companies that built strong bonds with their employees experienced lower levels of turnover and higher returns during the pandemic,” Ridge read aloud.

He punctuated this reading with his own comment: “Well, duh! »

WD-40, which comes in the form of a bright blue and yellow container familiar to many homes with squeaky doors, is a cleaner with a secret formula for loosening a rusty screw, erasing a pencil mark on the wall, removing insect stains, etc. from a car or rust from a bicycle chain. Mr. Ridge likes to remind the more than 600 employees in his 17 offices of the usefulness of their work.


PHOTO ARIANA DREHSLER, THE NEW YORK TIMES

Garry Ridge (right), WD-40 executive, and Jeff Lindeman, who works in corporate human resources

But he also thinks some are carried away by the company’s unorthodox culture. WD-40 has no superiors, only coaches. Workers can receive “Mother Teresa” awards for sharing their “time, talents and treasures” with the community. They can remind co-workers at meetings to create “positive, lasting memories” together.

Long before the pandemic, many were skeptical of companies that presented themselves as having a mission to make workers happy. There were the tech companies whose campus-style offices had ball pits and slides. There were offices with lunch buffets and frozen rosé. There was a growing number of employers who measured the happiness of their employees through surveys and who often hired consultants to create a place of entertainment.

To some, the pursuit of happiness in the workplace — and its price tag, like an $18,000 program for seniors on how to lead happy teams — may seem like corporate alchemy that tries to turn feelings into productivity. It might seem like an incentive to smile and let go of less-than-suitable demands for bosses, like remote work or higher pay.

Those criticisms have taken on a new dimension as workers and employers clash over return-to-work plans in a labor market that economists continue to describe as tight. Some workers say they prefer flexibility or inflation-adjusted increases to corporate incentives, like a Lizzo concert for Google employees and beer tastings at Microsoft.

It’s “I’m not going to help you solidify your schedule in advance in a way that will help you, but here’s a discount code,” said Jessica Martinez, 46, a program manager at a foundation. Wine Wednesdays” and is now handing out back-to-work goodies like bottled water.

“People try to bring everything back to ‘normal’, but the truth is, normal was terrible for some people,” he added. “Why not give people what they really want? »

In some workplaces, “happiness” can mean letting employees choose their own supervisors. That might mean getting rid of performance reviews. It also generally means measuring happiness levels, although not everyone agrees on what happiness means. See the Dalai Lama, Dale Carnegie and Barbara Ehrenreich for starters.

Justified

In recent years, economists and behavioral psychologists have shown employers that their fixation on positivity is economically justified. A study published in Journal of Labor Economics found that people who were given chocolate to eat and comedies to watch – common generators of happiness – were 12% more productive than a group left to their own devices. Another study published in Journal of Financial Economics showed that companies on the 100 Best Companies to Work For list have higher shareholder returns than their peers.

“There’s evidence that we’re wrong on the causal arrow of happiness,” said Laurie Santos, a cognitive scientist who teaches the popular Yale course on happiness. “You think, ‘I feel productive at work, things are going well at work, so I’m happy.’ But the evidence seems to suggest that the other arrow exists as well, that happiness can actually impact your job performance. »

The notion that companies should care about happiness has emerged with the rise of non-manual jobs, said Alex Edmans, a finance professor at the London Business School. As job performance has become more difficult to measure – it’s now the quality and quantity of ideas, not the number of pins made or screw caps on toothpaste tubes – superiors decided they needed to make sure their employees feel motivated. Compensation is important, but so is how people feel at work.

But many see a risk for workers who believe their employers are cultivating an emotional relationship with them, when in reality the relationship is about money.

“Your boss isn’t there to make you happy,” said Sarah Jaffe, author of Work won’t love you back. “No matter how much they say they focus on happiness, they focus on profits. »

“Someone gets paid to bring this exciting new culture of happiness to work,” added Sarah Jaffe. I would like to know how much my boss spends. »

The flexibility of working from home has made some workers more comfortable telling employers what really makes them happy — the freedom to spend time with their family, not free dinners at the office.

“Having cereal in the break room doesn’t make up for not being able to pick up your kids,” said Anna King, 60, who works for an energy company in Portland, Oregon. “The real concerns are, do your employees feel part of the team, not because they’re playing ping pong together, but because they’re achieving real goals and working decently? »

While millions of workers make bold demands of their employers, including for permanent flexibility, some say the focus on happiness is a distraction. After all, the “Mother Teresa” awards do not improve working conditions – and may, in fact, encourage workers to dedicate more hours to their corporate community at the expense of their personal lives.

“I don’t think things like meditation or anything employers can do to improve well-being are bad initiatives,” says Heidi Shierholz, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think tank. “But they are no substitute for decent wages, decent benefits, healthy hours. »

This article was originally published on The New York Times newspaper.

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