Turn that frown upside down. The Chief Happiness Officer is coming to town!
Some organizations are taking the mental well-being of their employees so seriously that they are appointing a “chief happiness officer” (CHO). The job description is pretty much what you would imagine:
“The CHO is responsible for the contentment of individual employees, sort of like an h.r. manager, but on steroids,” writes Josh Kovensky in the New Republic. “The theory goes that happy workers are productive workers, so happiness turns out to be in the company’s best interest.”
“A CHO is doing what any CEO does in an organization—putting the people/resources/financing in place to create a sustainable company,” writes Jenn Lim, originally in charge of happiness at Zappos. “The difference between a CEO and a CHO is that a CHO is doing it through the lens of happiness as a business model.”
There is some science to behind this theory, Kovensky points out. “There are studies to back this up: One measured the productivity of workers who had just seen a clip of a comedy routine and found that productivity increased after watching the video,” he reports. Similarly, unhappy events such as bereavement and family illness cut into employee productivity.
“Companies bring CHOs on not so much out of some bizarro competition to become the happiest company on Earth, but to become as productive as possible,” Kovensky says.
This is particularly true now, when businesses worldwide are facing declining productivity. “Several surveys have revealed that productivity is a major concern in companies all over the world,” writes Soren Schonnemann in HC Online, who predicted last year that all major companies would have someone in the CHO role (if not that title) by 2016. “According to McKinsey, 58 percent of the world’s companies are proactively addressing productivity issues. And according to INSEAD, nine out of 10 companies have declared that boosting productivity will be their top priority in the next three to five years.”
“Happy employees stay at their jobs,” agrees Ilan Mochari of Inc. “They are also better performers, meaning they prevent their employers from the costly headaches of recruiting, hiring, training, and onboarding.”
Companies ranging from Google, which is credited with starting the phenomenon, to Zappos, whose CEO co-wrote a book on the subject, have appointed these corporate officials. There’s even a chief happiness officer blog.
So what does a day in the life of a chief happiness officer look like?
“CHOs busy themselves with diagnosing the emotional wellbeing of their workers, as well as adjusting workplace policy and culture in order to create the conditions for happiness,” explains Kovensky. “This can involve distributing surveys that measure contentment, leading workshops on everything from communication skills to mindfulness meditation, and generally diagnosing the office atmosphere. The job can also mean out-of-office activities.”
Some of these CHO efforts are mom-and-apple-pie stuff, such as respecting employees, giving them feedback, and appreciating them. Given the complexity of the org chart within large companies, appointing a person to keep track of employee contentment may be quite practical.
However, it’s important to ensure that a CHO has support from leadership. “Happiness starts at the top and is reflected not in what the CEO says but in how those words are reflected in policy, processes and management behaviors,” writes Aubrey Daniels in the Talent Management blog. “If the CHO can bring about those changes, there is a viable and important job. If not, there will be little happiness and lots of wasted time and money.”
Of course, some curmudgeons bristle at all this unbridled happiness. There are those who call in sick whenever there is a team building exercise on the calendar. And there are those, to quote George Carlin, who have had 63 nice days in a row and, by God, are ready for a crappy day. (The New Republic, in fact, has already grumbled about too much focus on happiness in general.)
“If your firm appoints a Chief Happiness Officer, you should definitely run away,” advises Adrienne Gonzalez in Going Concern, a blog for accounting professionals, who expresses her relief that accounting is typically one of the last departments to jump on trendy organizational bandwagons. Even if you’re an unhappy employee, “you could still come into the office and work your unhappy little tail off,” she notes.
And Kovensky is concerned about the Big Brother aspect of having a CHO, no matter how benevolent the Big Brother may be. “It represents an intrusion into our emotional lives that should not be permitted to any kind of authority figure—be it corporate or governmental—regardless of intention,” he writes, noting that Google’s CHO has access to every email account in the company—all the better to monitor employee and customer satisfaction, of course.
“That brand of surveillance has a level of detail that might do more to increase panic attacks than worker contentment and output,” he warns. “At what level of behavioral analysis do research and monitoring of productivity begin to constitute a violation of privacy?”
While Mochari agrees with Kovensky that surveillance goes too far, he doesn’t see anything wrong with happiness efforts as long as they maintain employee privacy. “Yes, CHO may sound like a cheesy title. And yes, it’s creepy to think of any executive, even in the ostensible pursuit of employee happiness, having access to worker emails or mood-monitoring technology,” he writes. “But the notion of a leader whose primary purview is employee happiness is one whose time has come.”
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