Why We Need Joy at Work (Transcript)

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This episode features: Author Ingrid Fetell Lee who wrote Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Bring Us Extraordinary Happiness

Ingrid Fetell Lee: It’s such a misconception that joy and work are separate because the reality is that little moments of joy can radically improve our performance at work.

Host Katie Pace: Welcome to What Workers Want, the new 360 real time, a Steelcase 360 podcast about how the places we work, learn, and heal are changing to help people thrive and ideas flourish at work. I’m your host Katie Pace. Today we’re talking about Joy and how the things all around us, every day can bring us joy – or not. And, our guest says joy has everything to do with our work.

Before we learn more about what we can do to bring ourselves more joy – we want to remind you to subscribe to What Workers Want and share this podcast with a friend who could use a little more joy in their life. Plus, if you didn’t catch our recent five-part series on the Open Office Truth – make sure you visit our archives for that series at steelcase.com/openofficetruth.

Today, we’re talking to Ingrid Fetell Lee who wrote Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness. Ingrid is a former design director for IDEO – she founded the website The Aesthetics of Joy. And, her TED Talk on Joy has been viewed 17 million times. We caught up with her at home to find out more about how to find our Joy.

Katie: Well Ingrid, thank you so much for joining us today.

Ingrid: Thank you so much for having me.

Katie: I love how you describe joy as different than happiness. You write – Happiness is something we evaluate over time, where joy is an intense experience in the moment – we might smile or laugh or jump up and down. So what do you think are the biggest misconceptions about joy?

Ingrid: I think the biggest misconception about joy is that it is an extraneous thing, that it’s not essential. Right? So joy is one of our six primary emotions. It’s something that psychologists know that people all around the world feel it and express it in the same way. So we have anger, surprise, disgust, fear, sadness, and the only one that’s inherently positive is joy. So I think that often leads us to believe that joy is just this extra in life and we’re just striving for good enough, but joy is the emotion that’s connected to thriving. Joy is the emotion that tells us when we’re moving towards the things that can help us thrive in life.

Katie: I love thinking about that. So as a designer – you were interested in joy from the perspective of the physical world. And you started to collect memories and experiences and found things that brought joy to lots of people like balloons and bubbles and rainbows and confetti. What is it that makes those things so joyful?

Ingrid: That was the question when I got that back and I thought, okay. And then one day something just clicked and I saw all these patterns, and what I realized is that there were certain physical attributes that were consistent across these different objects. Many of the objects that I had up there had multiple, had several of these attributes. They were things like bright color. Everywhere you go around the world if you see a celebration, you’ll see bright color. Imagine a celebration in tones of black and gray and it doesn’t quite have the resonance, right? So everywhere we go we see bright color.

Round shapes was another one. We see round shapes throughout childhood. I mentioned bubbles, balloons, and hula hoops. We have merry-go-rounds and Ferris wheels. I mentioned big, round eyes that kids have. Puppies are often round. So there’s something about roundness that stuck out to me.

Things that float and fly are often joyful. Things that give us a sense of elevation. Butterflies, and birds, and hot air balloons, and things like that.

Symmetrical shapes is another one. Symmetrical shapes and repeating patterns. So I started to notice these patterns and I realized that it was not necessarily the things themselves, it was these attributes, which I call aesthetics of joy.

Katie: So, as I think about all those things – I’m thinking a lot of joy could feel a little crazy. Can you have too much? Is there a sweet spot?

Ingrid: Yeah. I mean if you think about the definition of joy as being the things that bring us to life, then on some level no, because the more joy we have the more alive we feel.

But I also feel that what’s important about thinking about joy in moments as opposed to thinking about this idea of a persistent happiness, or always in this constant state of happiness, is that what this is really about is having a robust emotional engagement with the world, and so that means that you’re going to have sad moments, and you’re going to have angry moments, and you’re going to have anxious moments. And so it’s a thing that the aesthetics of joy in our environment, we don’t want all aesthetics of joy layered all at once because that might be a circus.

But generally, the environments that we’re starting from are so joyless that adding, that we could probably go 10 to 25% more joy. In the average nursing home, we could probably go 50% more joy and we still probably would have room to add more.

Katie: Well, speaking of places that could probably use more joy, let’s talk about work. I don’t mean to say that all workplaces don’t have joy, but talk to our listeners a little bit about why joy matters at work. Why should workplaces think about joy?

Ingrid: It’s such a misconception that joy and work are separate because the reality is that little moments of joy can radically improve our performance at work.

When salespeople exhibit genuine joy we are more likely to return to a store, we spend more time browsing in the store, and we’re more likely to give a higher customer satisfaction rating. So that’s in a front line context.

In an office context, research shows that managers who exhibit more joy had teams complete their work with less effort and do so in a more coordinated way. There’s research that shows that joy influences our working memory in a positive way. Working memory being the function that enables us to complete work and tasks, which is why some studies show that we are 12% more productive in a state of joy. So if you can get 12% more productivity without having to invest in a lot of the sorts of initiatives that you would have to to think about another way to get that amount of productivity, I mean I think that’s pretty radical just by making some changes to the environment.

Katie: Yeah. That’s really incredible when we hear the statistics in those studies. I’m curious. So how do we do that? How do you think we can bring more joy to the physical environment?

Ingrid: I think it starts with thinking about the people who are working in that space and recognizing that they want to both complete their work, but they want to experience joy while they’re doing it.
One of the questions I always start by asking is, “What’s the energy like in the space?” That intangible feeling when you walk into a space and you’re like, “What’s the vibe here?”

Another really good one is, do you hear laughter in the halls? When you walk through the halls of your office, do you ever hear laughter?

I think energy is a really big one because energy is the currency of work, and when we’re energetic we feel engaged and ready to work. When we don’t feel energetic, it’s hard. We’re dragging ourselves through our work. So energy is the first of the 10 aesthetics of joy that I talk about, but I also think it’s really foundational at work. I think a lot of companies think of energy as the employee’s domain. Right? What you feed yourself, how hydrated you are, whether you exercise. All those things are the ways that we modulate our energy.

But there are a lot of spacial factors that influence energy and one of the biggest ones, I mean color is definitely one of them and there are studies that show that people working in brighter, more colorful environments are more alert so that is one way to do it, but I think lighting is another big piece of it. So there’s research that shows that when workers have sunnier desks, when they’re near a window, they sleep 46 minutes more per night, and they’re more active during the day.

So having more natural light and even having more beneficial artificial light. Philips is testing lighting systems that can give the energy boost in the afternoon that’s equivalent to a cup of coffee. Just doing that, using the surroundings, I think there are ways that we can start to imagine that an office can cultivate a better level of energy for its employees.

Katie: Some of stats are really amazing, right? If we know that sitting next to natural light helps, and maybe painting a wall or adding some colorful furniture or colorful settings, if that makes people more joyful, more productive, helps them sleep better, gives them energy, why are so many offices drab – looking the same? How did we get here?

Ingrid: So I think we’ve lived in a world for a very long time that has been very separate between mind and body, and so the workplace was designed for the mind. It was designed to be a rational place with no distractions where you came and you got your work done and that was the space.

Now we understand that actually a lot of our thinking is embodied, and that a lot of our productivity has to do with how we feel physically and our emotions. All of those things are connected. Right?

I mean I think there’s also, there’s one specific thing that we can point to which is really, I’ve been researching this a lot lately, which is the Hawthorne Studies. The Hawthorne Studies were conducted in the ’20s and ’30s and the intent was actually, they were funded in part by GE, and their intent was to prove that lighting and that physical environment influenced productivity, because the idea was if you could prove that, then you could sell more light bulbs.

The Hawthorne Studies ended up coming to the conclusion that that didn’t matter. Well, the Hawthorne Studies, and so what happened as a result is that all of the research in social psychology and organization psychology around the workplace focused on social interaction, focused on interaction between managers and employees, focused on what are the dynamics, the human dynamics, in the organization that makes people succeed. It effectively cut off all interest in how the physical workplace influences productivity and the worker. Those studies have started to be reexamined. The data that was originally thought lost has been uncovered, and people are analyzing them and finding that not only do they not show what they originally concluded, but they actually, in some of the studies, seemed to show weak effect in the opposite direction. Now we have so much more research that does show that the environment matters, but it’s taken a really long time to catch up because of that.

Katie: And that was in the ’20s and ’30s. That’s really interesting. I’m curious how you look at culture, organizational culture, and the impact that physical things in the workplace can have on the organizational culture, or maybe you would describe it like the energy of a space?

Ingrid: I mean culture is vital and I think that the two things interact. I think one thing that I often look for is whether a space reflects the brand or whether it reflects a company’s values, because I think that sometimes those are different. Ideally they’ll be aligned, but if they’re not aligned, you can see when a company has branded their interior office environment and used a lot of the brand colors, and put a lot of logos in places, and things like that, but the space doesn’t actually reflect their values, and a space that doesn’t reflect the values is not a great prop for culture.

So the way that I think about setting, it’s really like the setting of a book. My undergraduate degree was in creative writing, and I remember way back when I was learning how to write fiction and my professor said, “Whenever you’re stuck, write the setting first, because the setting gives the characters something to do.”

I think it’s the same way with culture. Right? What we do, the way we interact in a space, will often be dictated by what you put into that space, so yeah, so I think shaping a space that makes the values tangible.

I think a lot about this with the Kickstarter space, for example. Just to describe it for people who may not be familiar with it, I mean Kickstarter is a business that’s all about empowering people to create and crowdfund their dreams, so it’s very much about independence and freedom. And when you go into that space, they converted an old factory in Greenpoint which could have been quite dense and heavy, but they filled it with nature. There’s a central courtyard that is all glassed in that you can actually walk out to. Many companies have glass courtyards with plants but you can’t actually touch them or go out and be with them. But actually there are doors that open and windows that open that let the nature in. There are gardens on every level. There’s a roof garden where employees can actually put their hands in the dirt and actually grow things, and the spaces are very flexible, so you’ll find all sorts of little spaces tucked in.

So first of all, everyone gets access to that nature. It’s not a perk. Everyone has views of the outside, so it’s not just something that the people in the corner office get. It’s egalitarian. Everyone gets it, and there’s a sense of freedom because you have the outside brought in in this way. So the values of company are reflected in that space and it’s a space that I think feels really good for that reason.

Katie: That’s awesome. So you talk at some point about some of these organizations that put in slides, or we’ve seen ball pits, or we’ve seen sort of just silly stuff, and it almost feels really forced. At the end of the day, you still have to work. Right? You still have to get stuff done and be productive and be innovative or creative. You have to work.

Ingrid: Totally. Exactly. Some organizations, that is the right space for them to be in, right, is that silly space, and that works really well. But understanding that … My hope with the idea that having 10 aesthetics of joy is that it’s a palette and you don’t have to paint with every color at once. Right? So understanding that you can tune into the type of joy that feels right for you and bring that into your space, it broadens out the ways we’re able to think about joy, that it doesn’t have to be entirely silly or playful.

And I’ve actually seen that aesthetic of play, the roundness and these softer forms and curves, I’ve seen that done in actually really adult ways. It doesn’t have to mean just putting a slide in. The Wing, which is a co-working space for women which was started in New York and has been popping up in many cities around the country, is a space where I work and it’s a very lighthearted space, actually. There’s a lot of curvy furniture, and colors, and it doesn’t feel like your typical office, and there is a sense of warmth, and play, and joy, but it’s not a ball pit or a slide.

Katie: One of our colleagues who read your book said, “Okay, well, Katie, I want you to ask her about square things.” You just mentioned round things and you talk in your book about the importance of round things, but we’re curious about if we think about the boardroom that’s a rectangle, we design these buildings in big squares and the floor plans are squares. That seems so harsh and so cold. So I guess the question was really just about your opinion on why there’s so many rectangles.

Ingrid: I think I had to cut some of this from the book actually because this chapter on play and roundness got so long that my editor just said, “Enough is enough.” But I think it’s interesting to understand how we got to a place where rectangles are the default method of building and not circles, because if you look at a lot of ancient architecture, one room dwellings are often round. But as you start to … As houses moved from small one room dwellings, they became less round and more rectilinear because it’s easier to append rooms and build on to a structure when it is rectilinear. The same with levels, right? If a building has a domed top, it’s very hard to put a second story on it.

So over time we ended up in this world that’s rectilinear. And then as mass production came into play, it’s much easier to create rectilinear beams and things like that than it is to create round dwellings.

So I think that for better or worse, this is the world we live in, and when architects have tried to create rounded buildings in the modern world, they’ve been met with the fact that all of the rest of the systems are set up for squares. Right? So when I think about how we live in that kind of world, yes, of course it would be nice to add a few more curves, a curved wall here or there that can sort of soften the edges. Curves in surface treatments just painted on walls can also bring that in. There are a lot of ways that we can add that softness. Curves on furniture. There’s a lot of ways we can add that softness to a rectilinear building, but I think that is the frame that we’re working within, and sometimes, for symmetry, rectangles work better. They give us a sense of harmony. Right? That sense of balance.

Katie: Yeah. So rectangles aren’t all evil or bad.

Ingrid: They’re not all bad. They’re not all bad.

Katie: If you were to just give some quick advice to those of us who are thinking about how we design our homes or how we design our workplace, how do you, on a very simple level, just add more joy to your home or your workplace?

Ingrid: We talked about color. I think that’s a big one, and sometimes that’s an easier one to do at home than it is to do at work. At work, I think you can always start small. I love a brightly colored mug. It’s something that you can put on your desk, you can have your coffee in every day, or your tea, and it just gives you this little burst of joy.

I talked about light, also very important for the home.

And then again, this is something for both home and work. Nature. Bringing the outside in. So there’s tons of research that shows that nature helps restore our concentration and attention, and while that sounds primarily like something you’d want at work, that faculty of attention and concentration is the same faculty that allows us to make decisions, and it’s the same faculty that prevents us from being overloaded during social interactions. So when we get irritable, when we get short with the people who are around us, often it’s because that ability to focus, that sort of reserve of attention is being depleted, so having a plant in your space. If you have green views out your window, making sure that those are visible. Don’t cover them up with heavy window treatments.

Katie: So, some people are just always going to struggle to find joy at work. Maybe they have a bad boss or hate what they do or dislike a coworker. Can what you discovered still help? Or do a number of positive things have to be in play to feel joy?

Ingrid: I think of course there’s an interplay between the social dynamics in an office and the spaces in an office. The way that I would think about it, let’s say you have a negative dynamic there, you’re going to have to address that as well. Right? I mean there’s not going to be joy in a workplace, true joy in a workplace, if you have those negative dynamics at play.

But I think what the environment can do is it can take some of the pressure off because a lot of the ways that these interventions work is they work on our unconscious minds, so they set us at ease. It’s hard to have good social interactions with people if we don’t feel safe, for example. A lot of the environments that we create in offices have subtle unconscious things that make us feel less safe.

A big one is the sense of prospect and refuge. So very open plan offices where people feel very exposed can trigger a sense of a lack of safety. We like to have views. So there’s things about an open plan office that are really joyful because we get that freedom. Our eyes can focus on the distance, which if you’re stuck in one small view, you don’t actually have that. You have no distance view. So we love that feeling of being able to see and get a sense of everything that’s going on, but we also need refuge. We need to feel protected. We need to feel that we have a sense of safety. If we don’t feel that and we just feel like we’re an animal on an open field, then that’s going to affect our interactions with other people.
So making sure that you have the fundamental sense of safety, of comfort, and a sense of vibrancy, energy, positive energy in a space, those things can take some of the edges off those dynamics, or give you a context to begin solving some of those deeper problems.

Katie: My last question is – what’s next? Is there going to be a Joyful part 2? Where is your research taking you now?

Ingrid: Yeah, that’s a good question. It’s taking me to a couple of different spaces at once. One thing that I’m working on, it’s going to launch soon, is a free interview series that looks at joy in different aspects of our life. So I am looking a little bit at joy at work. This is really for individuals. For people who want to learn more about how to take this deeper into their lives.

But I also am doing a piece of work, and I don’t know what form it will take yet, around this idea of extending at root what our spaces should do in our home or in our work, anywhere, is reflect what we value, and starting to understand the aesthetics of joy as values, values around how we design our lives so that we feel most alive, and how do we create spaces that do that for ourselves and for others?

Katie: Well, Ingrid, this was so interesting. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Ingrid: It was a joy. Thank you so much for having me.

Katie: You’ve been listening to Ingrid Fetell Lee, author of Joyful: the surprising power of ordinary things to create extraordinary happiness. To hear more What Workers Want podcasts with authors like Simon Sinek and Adam Grant visit our archives are steelcase.com/podcasts. Plus, to revisit our 5 part series on the open office, go to steelcase.com/openofficetruth.

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