Make IT Delightful, and Other Ways to Enchant Your Employees
In his new HBR post, Tim argues that happiness at work is not enough.
by Tim Leberecht
The word “enchantment” originally meant to surround with song or incantation, to cast a spell with sounds. The modern-day definition is a bit broader: to engage the senses, elevate the spirit, and leave a person “transfixed in a simultaneously pleasurable and uncanny state of wonder,” as Jane Bennett writes in her book Enchantment. We often find it when we experience nature, art, or entertainment, and, of course, when we fall in love.
In the business world, marketers use enchantment all the time. Revered brands such as Apple or Disney understand that enchantment leads to attachment, not just loyalty, with their customers. But even the most customer-savvy organizations often fail to understand that they should also be working to enchant their employees.
Satisfaction means our basic needs are met. Happiness means our emotional needs are met. Enchantment gives us meaningful experiences we didn’t even know we needed. And what better way than that to keep employees fully engaged?
Yes, smart companies still must invest in fair compensation, diversity, family-friendly HR policies, work-life integration, playful environments and activities, perks, and a more holistic notion of well-being, as well as nurturing a values-based, purpose-driven culture that motivates people to work together for a greater cause. But the next step is to enchant employees in the same way you do customers. Here’s how:
Make IT delightful. As consumers, we’ve grown accustomed to pleasing, well-designed devices like the iPhone, game consoles, and wearables. But as employees, most of us still have to put up with quaint, joyless systems for enterprise resource planning, customer relationship management, or expense reports. Only recently have platforms such asWorkday, Slack, and Facebook At Work raised the bar. But enterprise software providers and IT departments must work harder to engage an increasingly tech-savvy workforce, especially the millennials who will make up the majority of it by 2020.
Design your EX. Encourage both your IT and HR groups to think of the employee experience as user experience (UX). From ethnographic research to journey mapping to cocreation, employ the same tools as UX designers to create your organization’s own signature employee experience (EX). If you have a Chief Experience Officer, make it part of their mandate. And, if needed, hire a UX or design firm.
Create drama. Remember that enchantment comes from experiencing what evolutionary psychologists call “critical incidents.” So forget constant efficiency and convenience; instead, insert some dramatic twists into the workday. Use small “hacks,” such as games,PowerPoint karaoke, desk and role swaps, or Live Action Role Playing (LARPs), to deliberately create discomfort zones. Virtual reality technology presents new opportunities too: employees might virtually commute between different offices, immerse themselves in their customers’ worlds, or play with multiple identities.
Use rituals. The Haka, the Maori posture dance performed by the New Zealand rugby team before its matches, has brought rituals back into popular culture. Rituals combine the power of consistency and habits with the weight of emotional significance. They are, as neuroscientist Andrew Newberg’s research shows, anxiety-reducing and awe-inspiring at the same time. Daily stand-up meetings, Frog Design’s practice of “speed-meeting” new employees, and Starbucks’ coffee-tastings all are rituals that “create community by breaking down the barriers that ordinarily prevent people from engaging with each other, providing a shared experience that is steeped in powerful symbolic meaning,” according to Jonathan Cook, a researcher focused on rituals in business. The formula is simple: do something (preferably something unusual) together, and do it again and again. Repetition, as we know from the psychology of music, is what enchants the brain.
Lean on the arts. Artists are the original masters of enchantment, the custodians of the inexplicable and wondrous. The benefits of reading literature and poetry for business leaders have been well documented. Research from John Bohannon has shown that dance performances can enhance the acquisition and development of knowledge. And creativity in general is the key to unlocking “big magic,” as the writer Elizabeth Gilbert calls it. So the next time you want to sell an idea, activate a new program, or launch a product, take advantage of the arts. That doesn’t mean you write every memo in verse or dance in every meeting; rather, create a culture where employees can indulge their artistic sides — listening to music, decorating their cubes and meeting spaces — and think of their jobs as creative endeavors.
Be cosmopolitan. Overcome potential “filter bubbles” and constantly expose your employees to as many new ideas and as many foreign worlds as possible. Being a tourist is more conducive to enchantment than being a resident. Create opportunities for your employees to be flâneurs. Software developer platform GitHub, for example, takes teams to Airbnb “destination work places.” One Month, an education startup in New York, feeds its wanderlust by working out of various international creative capitals. Digital agency Huge hosted a number of pop-up studios in European cities to connect with the local business communities and create compelling thought leadership content along the way — marketing as one big road trip that kept everyone on the go and in high spirits.
Have a challenging mission. Corporate mission statements often are watered down into lowest-common-denominator compromises. If yours is “To improve the lives of people,” your employees might nod their heads. But if it’s as specific and controversial as Amazon’s — “Our vision is to be earth’s most customer-centric company” — it will elicit real commitment. If your vision makes everyone happy, it will create and foment detachment from the get-go. If it’s disagreeable, it will polarize but also engage those employees who want to achieve it with you. So take the time to get your mission right.
Keep some secrets. Transparency is widely hailed as integral to a positive company culture. But too much information can be the enemy of enchantment. If we know everything, we shrink the possibility of wonder. Case in point: The CEO of a major tech company is rumored to keep a letter with his personal long-term vision for the company in a safe vault to which only he has the key. Although no one is sure whether it’s true, the rumor is persistent and employees are intrigued. What is your secret letter?
We can’t be enchanted every day, of course; enchantment remains by its very nature an occasional, peak experience. It cannot be measured or perfectly engineered. But without it we become emotional zombies, even if we’re generally “happy at work.” Companies must recognize this and work harder to enchant employees. When it comes to engagement, a stirred-up soul eats a sound argument for breakfast.
This article first appeared on Harvard Business Review.