A happy office is a productive office: 5 proven techniques to boost employee engagement

Remember how much you loved school field trips? Group outings changed your usual routine, gave you a chance to connect with friends, and put you in new and interesting environments. You probably even learned a thing or two along the way.

With more and more companies focusing on supporting employee happiness and fulfillment as a business strategy, there is a growing body of research that points to the most effective techniques to bring smiles to employees’ faces—and in doing so, boost their creativity and productivity along the way.

We’ve assembled 5 proven techniques for encouraging workplace happiness, covering work culture, the use of technology like email, and even good old-fashioned team field trips.

1. Reasonable work hours

Employees work long hours for a number of reasons. They may feel they need to burn the midnight oil to impress their supervisors, their colleagues may respond to emails in under 60 seconds no matter the time of day, and they may fear that any lag in responsiveness will reflect poorly on their dedication. But long hours can also backfire for workers and employers.

The workers who pull 80-hour weeks don’t necessarily perform better than the ones who knock out their assignments in 40 and still make it home in time for dinner and a workout. In fact, employees who forego a good night’s sleep in favor of finishing up one more assignment or sending one more email will likely underperform. Research shows that only 1 to 3% of people can sleep five or six hours a night and not suffer a measurable performance drop-off.

Sleep deprivation increases stress levels and decreases a person’s attentiveness and ability to concentrate. Not only does a chronic lack of adequate sleep increase the likelihood of getting into an accident or suffering a serious disease, it also correlates with depression. Yet millions of people go without quality sleep every day. “[M]illions of us are living a less than optimal life and performing at a less than optimal level, impaired by an amount of sleep debt that we're not even aware we carry,” said Dr. William Dement, a sleep researcher.

When employees routinely work through dinner on non-urgent tasks, insist that they head home for the night. If you find that people often stay late to meet project deadlines, have your management team work with them to create better project timelines. Perhaps more frequent check-ins and milestones will force them to work ahead and therefore avoid punishing work schedules.

While you don’t want to coddle employees, wellness prioritization is a new trend among businesses. Workers may assume that you’re merely paying lip service to work-life balance until you demonstrate that it’s a core value for your company. But make sure you’re walking the walk and keeping sane hours yourself.

2. Encouraging downtime

The French government made headlines in early 2017 thanks to a new ‘right to disconnect’ law that guarantees workers the right to log off when they’re not at work. The move stemmed from arguments by French labor unions against the “explosion of undeclared labor” in the form of employees constantly checking emails and working even when they’re technically off the clock.

Whether you choose to codify email-checking hours is up to you, but encouraging workers to spend time outside of their inboxes – and, ideally, off their smartphones – is a strong move toward enhanced happiness and well-being. When we’re constantly wired into work, our brains never get a chance to rest. Before long, we’re slower to react and struggle to come up with new ideas. We’re simply not built for the always-on lifestyle, and even though people who constantly reach for their phones may look productive, their output often tells a different story.

Stressed employees also cause substantial financial losses. A million employees call out due to stress every day, and 60% of all absences relate to stress in some way. So, keeping employees mentally refreshed is vital to your bottom line.

To avoid mental burnout, establish times when employees know they don’t have to be online and aren’t expected to respond to emails instantly. A typical 9-to-5 worker might benefit from email-free nights and weekends, while shift workers will need a more creative solution. You can support regular digital detoxes by instructing managers not to call or message workers during their off hours. Unless there’s an emergency, allow people downtime and encourage them to take advantage of it.

3. Healthy in-office environments

Not every company can afford to supply healthy catered meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But if you do provide meals or snacks, avoid food coma-inducing meals such as heavy pastas or sugary treats. Protein-rich salads, fruits, berries, nuts, and dark chocolate are not only healthier for your team, these nutrient-rich items will also spur their productivity instead of making them wish for a nap pod and a blanket.

Offering healthy food and drink options, including plenty of water and green tea, has far-reaching positive effects. In addition to driving immediate productivity boosts, it helps employees develop healthier habits long-term. If you provide nutritious alternatives to grabbing a candy bar from the vending machine or satisfying, healthy lunches that replace their fast food habits, they may make better food choices when they’re not in the office. And that benefits your business because healthy, happy employees are less likely to call out or take extended leaves of absence due to physical or mental ailments.

You can extend your culture to include physical wellness, too. A fitness challenge is a great way to create friendly competition or to get different departments working together to hit a particular goal. For instance, if lots of your employees wear fitness trackers, you can hold a contest to see which department hits the most steps in a month. A fun incentive like this will motivate people to hold walking meetings or go for a stroll during lunch, ideally creating a more active lifestyle in the process. 

If you want to encourage people to adopt wellness practices in other areas of their lives, you might partner with local fitness organizations to provide discounted gym memberships or classes. Depending on your office set-up, you could hire a yoga instructor to offer classes once a week or a few times a month to get people in the habit. Introducing meditation is also a powerful way to help people integrate calm and mindfulness into their days to decrease stress and boost happiness.

4. Standing up for health and productivity

This one is all about taking a stand: literally. Evidence of the potential risks of prolonged sitting suggests ways that companies can promote employee health with a few simple accommodations.

Prolonged sitting has been show to negatively impact metabolism, affect the onset of Type 2 Diabetes, and is correlated to various cancers. But it’s easy enough to counter. Researchers from UC Riverside suggest that standing “burns up to 50% more calories” than sitting, and “avoids the decrease of enzyme activity that can contribute to cardiovascular disease.”

To counter these effects, start with standing meetings. Just like the term suggests, this refers to holding meetings with participants standing rather than seated at a table. Not just a novelty, standing meetings have been proven to enhance creativity, productivity, and teamwork: standing meetings “reduced territoriality, led to more information sharing and to higher-quality [work].”

Next, look at your workplace environment. Offices and workstations can be made more standing friendly by offering employees the option for standing desks, which covert from seated to standing positons.

5. Get out of the office together

“Does team building work?” Spoiler alert: the answer is yes. Researchers reviewed data from more than 100 different team-building studies and determined that team building does indeed have measurable and positive effects on employee performance. But there are some guidelines to be aware of.

First, a big don’t. Don’t plan team building exercises that have the potential to make people feel awkward or that are personally invasive. As in, don’t ask people to share their greatest fears or worst mistakes. While the desire to get team members to connect on a personal level is laudable, these sorts of exercises tend to be ultimately counterproductive.

Instead, the most effective team-building activities are those in which the participants work together to achieve a goal, while remaining relaxed and informal. One psychologist recommended, "Take care to avoid putting employees in embarrassing or uncomfortable situations. Recognize that people have different preferences and respect employee boundaries regarding physical contact and the disclosure of personal information."

The following activities have both mental and physical benefits without putting anyone in an uncomfortable position: volunteering, games and sports, field trips, professional development, and meals outside the office. When in doubt, simply ask team members whether a proposed outing sounds enjoyable.

People are continually yearning for increased happiness from their work, and it’s clear that optimism and satisfaction aren’t merely individual pursuits. They’re integral factors to a company’s success, creating an environment that supports wellness and productivity.