How to be (truly) happy at work

How to be (truly) happy at work

The Spanish company Visual MS was selected in 2017 as one of the best workplaces in Europe.

(Visual MS)

In April 2017, several CVs from Silicon Valley reached the small Galician town of O Porriño. They were sent by developers and engineers from Apple and other tech giants in Palo Alto, who wanted to work for a small company in the A Granxa industrial estate, dedicated to designing software for transport firms. They were ready to move from a part of the world with one of the highest levels of wealth per square metre, the dream workplace for most technophiles, to this rural town of 20,000 inhabitants.

Why did some of the best paid minds in the world want to trade a multinational with revenues of $200 billion (around €160 billion) for a modest business earning between €1.5 and €3 million a year (around US$1.2 to US$2.43 million)?

The reason is simple: they are treated better.

In April 2017, the Spanish company Visual MS ranked as one of the best workplaces in Europe, according to the consulting agency Great Place to Work. It is not the first time. It already came first in 2009, above Google Spain, thanks to its particular way of “caring” for its employees.

To help us to understand, its HR manager, Santiago Cabaleiro, compares it with a romantic relationship. “We are a great place to work because of the quality of the people. We not only look for good professionals, but people who fit in with our culture. We have to like the person, because we are committing to a long-term relationship with them.”

The average length of service at the company is 11 years and there are very few dismissals or voluntary resignations. Whilst one in four employment contracts in Spain last less than a week, at this company, all the employees are hired through permanent contracts as of day one. “When you sign a contract, it’s like getting married, it’s forever,” insists Cabaleiro.

But love has to be nurtured, that is why they set themselves the task of achieving a utopia: making their employees happy. It is not just a matter of putting a ping pong or a billiard table in the office (although they also have them). It’s about good communication, making decisions as a team, recognising talent and seeing employees as more than a position filled and a wage at the end of the month.

“If you want the best professionals, you have to try to keep them happy. You don’t have to invest much money, it’s more a matter of will.”

Now that even the United Nations considers the pursuit of happiness to be “a fundamental human goal,” working to live is no longer enough. A new philosophy is required: happy work – a textbook oxymoron. Curiously enough, in Romance languages, the word for work comes from the Latin tripalium, which means ‘three sticks’ and refers to an instrument of torture.

But what does being happy at work mean?

Workers at Netflix can take as many days’ holidays as they like; at Facebook, they can recharge their electric cars and go to the dentist for free; at Google they have gourmet meals, discounts for massages and can take their dogs to the office.

These are some of the benefits offered by the world’s top-ranking companies, although none of them have entirely grasped the secret of happiness at work. For Paul E. Spector, professor at the University of South Florida and an expert in job satisfaction, the key is a blend of good working conditions, good work relationships, personal growth and security.

At the Great Place to Work consulting agency, what is valued most is “a high-trust workplace culture. Much more than table football or massage chairs, it’s about the trust in the immediate managers. Workers don’t leave their jobs, they leave their managers,” says the director of communications, Sonia de Mier.

According to the Global Workforce Happiness Index, the happiest employees are in Denmark, Norway and Costa Rica. In Spain, which ranked 18th, 76.6 per cent of employees said they were happy at work. What they value most is having a good working atmosphere, flexible hours and a good boss. Interestingly, pay only comes fifth on the list of priorities.

“If you don’t feel well paid that’s always a negative but, ultimately, it’s not the pay that really motivates you,” explains Cabaleiro. That is why Visual places greater emphasis on another aspect: work-life balance. Employees have flexible hours and often work from home a couple of times a week. Such measures tend to take the strain off women in particular, being the hardest hit by the difficult to achieve work-life balance.

“The key is to trust your team, to give them the power to organise themselves. Happiness at work can be measured, but how to define it varies from one worker to the next. It all depends on what one understands by happiness,” says organisational psychology professor José María Peiró. “There are two main perspectives, derived from Greek philosophy: the Epicureans, who take a hedonistic approach to happiness, and the Aristotelian school, which understands it as the search for meaning in life.”

Some try to seek pleasure and avoid pain, others are happy when they see that their work has meaning. “Each company needs to be clear about what its employees understand by happiness, and that is very complicated,” warns the psychologist.

Decent work, happy work

The idea that happy people work better is not a recent invention but dates back, in fact, to the Roman Empire. Jerry Toner, director of classical studies at the University of Cambridge recounts in his book How to Manage Your Slaves that the Romans were already using techniques to motivate their slaves, such as days off, good food and the promise of freedom to boost morale and build a team spirit.

A happy slave is a productive slave. In the view of those most critical of Google-style happiness, we are, fundamentally, as alienated as we have always been, but we do not realise it. We have simply been anaesthetised by motivational speeches and holidays celebrated at work.

Several Google employees, or ‘Googlers’, recently spoke out, on the social media site Quora, about the downsides of working for a “too-good-to-be-true” company like Google. One of its former software engineers explained that there is not “much to do other than working or hanging out with your co-workers. You do have free food available all the time, and many cafes, gyms…but you spend more and more of your time at the office."

“Maybe this world is another planet’s hell,” warned Aldous Huxley in Brave New World.

“It is true that there are companies that pursue happiness, but most of the time it is often no more than a marketing strategy,” says Rosario Goñi of Economists Without Borders.

The statistics speak for themselves. Today, 2.3 per cent of contracts in Europe are precarious, (in Spain and France the percentage rises to over 4.7) and one in six employees in the EU is poor. In addition, women still earn an average of 16 per cent less than men.

Is it not hypocritical to talk about happy employees when many do not even earn enough to live on?

“Working conditions have deteriorated a great deal since the onset of the crisis,” confirms Pedro J. Linares, occupational health secretary with the Spanish trade union confederation CC.OO. “At the moment, employees are not exercising their rights for fear of losing their jobs.” According to the trade union, at least 25 per cent of workers went to work whilst ill on more than two occasions last year. In other words, they spent eight hours – at least – working with a fever or with the flu, out of fear.

That is why, as Goñi points out, if you aspire to be a happy workplace, you have to start with common sense, and respect the workers’ rights. “The conditions for happiness are already set out by the International Labour Organization. We are not inventing anything new. The Declaration on Decent Work specifies that all persons have the right to work in conditions that respect their safety, health and dignity,” insists the economist.

It seems obvious, but in many cases these conditions are still not being met. This should be the starting point, before thinking about massages or debating whether or not to take the dog to work. “When all these conditions have been met, when those rights are respected, then we can start talking about happiness.”

This article has been translated from Spanish.