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!”
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 the nearly 600 employees across his 17 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 giving their “time, talents and treasures” to the community. They might remind their colleagues during meetings to create “positive lasting memories” together.
Long before the pandemic, many were skeptical of companies that advertised themselves as being in the business of keeping workers feeling happy. There were the tech companies whose college campus-style offices had ball pits and slides. There were the offices with lunch buffets and frozen rosé. There was the growing number of employers assessing staff happiness with surveys, 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 — can 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 ‘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 officer at a global foundation that has long held Wine Wednesdays and is now distributing return-to-office gifts, like water bottles.
The Return of Return-to-Office Plans
After the Omicron variant crushed companies’ hopes for a return to in-person work late last year, a new R.T.O. chapter now appears to be opening.
“People are trying to get everything back to ‘normal,’ but the truth is normal was terrible for some people,” she continued. “Why not just give people what they actually want?”
At some workplaces, “happiness” can mean letting employees pick their own supervisors. It can mean getting rid of performance reviews. It also typically 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’s a business case for their fixation on positivity. One study in the Journal of Labor Economics found that people who were given chocolates to eat and comedies to watch — 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 Yale’s popular course on happiness. “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 arose with the increase of nonmanual jobs, said Alex Edmans, a finance professor at London Business School. As some work output became harder to measure — shifting to the quality and quantity of ideas, not the number of pins manufactured or tops screwed onto toothpaste tubes — managers determined they should ensure that their employees felt motivated. Compensation mattered, but so did the way people felt on 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 in this new exciting culture of workplace happiness,” Ms. Jaffe added. “I would want to know how much my boss is spending.”
Happy Ltd., a British consultancy, calls a program it runs for senior leaders its Happy M.B.A. The cost 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 pick 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 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 the job you do? 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 the extent to which people experience positive emotions at work, or while thinking about work during their personal time. 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 instead 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 intent to “over-communicate our achievements.” In 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 the chief executive, 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 has heightened 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 that by having 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 treated people badly,” she said.
The flexibility of working from home has made some workers more comfortable telling employers what actually makes them happy — the freedom to spend time with 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, a parent who works at an energy utilities company in Portland, Ore. “The real concerns are do your employees feel like they’re part of the team — not because they’re playing Ping-Pong together but because they’re 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. “Mother Teresa” awards, after all, don’t improve worker conditions — and in fact can encourage workers to pour more hours into their corporate community at the expense of their personal lives.
“I don’t think these things like meditation or whatever employers may be doing to increase well-being are bad initiatives,” said Heidi Shierholz, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think tank. “But they do not substitute for decent wages, decent benefits, sane scheduling.”
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