Are You Happy? Your Boss Is Asking.

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

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

Then he picked up a recent BlackRock memo. “Companies who forged strong bonds with their employees have seen lower levels of turnover and higher returns throughout the pandemic,” Mr. Ridge read aloud.

This he punctuated with his own commentary: “Well, duh!”

The WD-40, which comes in a bright blue-and-yellow canister familiar to many homes with squeaky doors, is a cleaning product with a secret formula that can loosen a rusty bolt, scrub crayon off the wall, get bug splats off a car. and remove rust from a bike chain. Mr. Ridge likes to remind about 600 employees across 17 of his offices about the usefulness of their work.

But he also believes that some are buoyed by the company’s unorthodox culture. WD-40 has no managers, only coaches. Workers can receive “Mother Teresa” awards for their “time, talents and treasures” to the community. They may also remember to create “positive lasting examples” together during their meetings.

Long before the pandemic, there were many skeptical companies that advertised themselves as being in the business of keeping workers feeling happy. There were tech companies whose college campus-style offices had ball pits and slides. There were offices with lunch buffets and frozen rosé. There was a growing number of employers evaluating staff with happiness, often contracting consultants to cook up workplace fun.

To some people, the pursuit of workplace happiness – and its associated price tag, like an $ 18,000 program for managers on how to lead happy teams – may seem like a corporate alchemy that tries to turn feelings into productivity. It can feel like a push to smile and put aside demands that are less convenient for bosses, like remote work or higher pay.

Those critiques have taken on new urgency as workers and employers clash over return-to-office plans, in what economists continue to characterize as a tight labor market. Some workers say they prefer flexibility, or raises adjusted to inflation, to corporate carrots like a Lizzo concert for Google employees and beer tastings at Microsoft.

“It ‘s not going to help you solidify your schedule in advance that will help you, but here’s a discount code,” said Jessica Martinez, 46, a program officer at a global foundation that has long held Wine. Wednesdays and is now distributing return-to-office gifts, like water bottles.

“People are trying to get everything back to ‘normal,’ but the truth is normal is terrible for some people,” she continued. “Why not just give people what they really want?”

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

Behavioral economists and psychologists have, in recent years, shown employers that there is a business case for positivity on their fixation. One study in the Journal of Labor Economics found that people who were given chocolates to eat and watch comedies – common happiness generators – were 12 percent more productive than a group left alone. Another study in the Journal of Financial Economics showed that companies appearing in the list of the 100 best workplaces have higher shareholder returns than their peers.

“There’s evidence that we get the causal arrow of happiness wrong,” said Laurie Santos, a cognitive scientist who teaches happiness on Yale’s popular course. “You think, ‘I’m feeling productive at work and things are going well at work and therefore I’m happy.’ But the evidence seems to suggest that the other arrow exists as well, that happiness can really affect your work performance. “

The notion that businesses should care about happiness increases with nonmanual jobs, said Alex Edmans, a finance professor at London Business School. As some work output becomes harder to measure – shifting to the quality and quantity of ideas, not the number of pins manufactured or tops screwed onto toothpaste tubes – managers should determine that their employees are motivated. Compensation mattered, but so did the way people felt at the job.

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

“Your boss is not there to provide you with happiness,” said Sarah Jaffe, author of “Work Won’t Love You Back.” “No matter how much they say they’re focusing on happiness, they’re focusing on profits.”

“Somebody is getting paid to bring this new exciting culture of workplace happiness,” Ms. Jaffe added. “I would like to know how much my boss is spending.”

Happy Ltd., a British consultancy, calls for a program to run its senior MBA. The Happy MBA is roughly $ 18,000, and participants receive a certificate, not an actual degree, through the Institute of Leadership and Management. At a recent session, nonprofit and company managers traded tips that included letting employees choose their own supervisors.

Woohoo, a Danish firm that helps create happiness staff surveys, and its software partner, Heartcount, typically charge companies roughly $ 4 per employee per month, on top of the consulting fees that Woohoo’s founder, Alexander Kjerulf, declined to share because they vary widely.

Woohoo and Heartcount consult with psychologists and statisticians to ensure that their assessments focus on people’s emotional, rather than logical, responses to their work. The weekly surveys, emailed out on Fridays, include questions like: Are you proud of your job? Have you been praised lately for the excellent work you have done? Woohoo then helps employers interpret the data.

This data, though, raises its own set of questions more slippery than those typically covered by an online survey. What does it even mean to be happy?

Mr. Kjerulf defines it as an extension of what people experience positive emotions at work, or while thinking about their personal time during work. Leaders at WD-40 understand it to include a combination of meaningful work and a sense of belonging.

Another workplace assessment firm, Culture Amp, which works with about 4,500 companies, doesn’t believe in measuring happiness at all, favoring metrics like engagement and well-being. Its leaders view happiness as something unstable that differs from person to person and is largely beyond employer control.

“I admire the sentiment behind it, but the measurement is where it gets tricky,” said Myra Cannon, Culture Amp’s director of people science. “Happiness is fleeting.”

One of the companies that Woohoo has supported is Vega, a software developer in Serbia. Vega publishes a monthly newsletter called Happiness Central, part of its introduction to “over-communicate our achievements.” In the twice-a-year “meme wars,” employees are rewarded for creating memes that “make fun of people at C-level positions” in the company. The chief executive sometimes surprises everyone walking through the door with fruit salad.

“If people have better relationships with each other, especially within teams, we can expect better performance,” said Sasa Popovic, a Vega co-founder. “We can expect people to be more engaged, and then at the end our clients get a better service and are happier with our work.”

But those office relationships don’t pay workers’ bills, a critique that heightens as happiness becomes a fixture inside boardrooms.

“In the early aughts, a lot of start-ups gave people terrible benefits and overworked their employees, and they tried to gloss over the snacks in the kitchen,” said Ms. Martinez, the foundation officer. But, she noted, the labor shortage is giving more workers leverage to say they won’t tolerate what they once did.

“Vacancies are going unfilled because you treat people badly,” she said.

The flexibility of working from home made some workers more comfortable telling employers what actually makes them happy – spending freedom with family, not free dinners at the office.

“Having a cereal in the break room does not make you pick up your kids,” said Anna King, 60, a parent who works at an energy utilities company in Portland, Ore. “The real concerns are your employees feel like they are part of the team – not because they are playing Ping-Pong together but because they are accomplishing real goals and working decent hours?”

As millions of workers make bold demands of their employers, especially around permanent flexibility, some say the focus on happiness is a distraction. The “Mother Teresa” awards, after all, do not improve worker conditions – and in fact encourage workers to pour more hours into the expense of their personal lives in the corporate community.

“I don’t think these things like meditation or whatever employers are doing are increasing well-being,” said Heidi Shierholz, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think tank. “But they don’t substitute for decent wages, decent benefits, sane scheduling.”

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