Happiness at Work (with Tracy Brower, best-selling author, Steelcase VP, Forbes writer)

On this episode of Future Work, I discuss Happiness at Work with Tracy Brower, a best-selling author, Steelcase VP, Forbes, and FastCompany writer.
Daan van Rossum
Daan van Rossum
Founder & CEO, FlexOS
I founded FlexOS because I believe in a happier future of work. I write and host "Future Work," I'm a 2024 LinkedIn Top Voice, and was featured in the NYT, HBR, Economist, CNBC, Insider, and FastCo.
April 12, 2023
min read

In the premiere episode of our Future Work Podcast, I interviewed Steelcase VP of Insights, best-selling author, and Forbes writer Tracy Brower about Happiness at Work.

Tracy, who wrote the (highly recommended) book The Secrets to Happiness at Work, shared several key insights that everyone can benefit from:

  • Happiness is an overall sense of joy and contentment, that ebbs and flows – we're not all bonbons and butterflies daily.
  • To create happiness at work, focus on these four key elements: Dedication (feeling committed), Immersion (work when time flies), Energy (how can I get energized from my work and how am I motivated to put energy into my work), and Mattering (the work I do matters and has meaning.)
  • Work and life are becoming more and more entangled, and we should feel free to ensure that we feel like work is meaningful and dedicate ourselves to it, while at the same time not feeling guilty about picking up a personal phone call during work hours.
  • We are living in a "hybrid paradox." While many aspects of our lives have improved (for example, no commute), work has become worse for many people. To improve happiness at work, it is necessary to be intentional about collaboration and remind ourselves of our values, even in a virtual environment. Intentionality is key to shifting the dynamic.
  • Leaders and managers are dealing with a lot more these days, with employees looking to them for information and support. It's a lot of emotional labor! But if leaders remind employees of their purpose, make themselves available, connect them through task-related events, and reinforce relationships, it can help boost everyone's well-being.
  • Measuring happiness directly in organizations can actually reduce happiness levels. It's better to focus on measuring sources of happiness, such as connection to the organization's purpose, strong relationships with colleagues, performance, and growth opportunities.
  • Happiness and well-being are closely linked. Investing in physical well-being, work-life balance, and supportive leaders can be effective leverage points for improving well-being in the workplace.
  • When people are engaged and satisfied with their roles, it leads to greater productivity and performance. Tracy encourages organizations to value the bigger picture of performance and look beyond productivity.
  • Tracy's big message: Love your work, and learn your work. We are empowered to appreciate and love our work, even if our work isn't perfect.

I hope you'll enjoy this episode and pick up valuable ways to improve your and your team's happiness at work. With so many hours spent working, this is so incredibly important.

You can find it on YouTube, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and more.


Daan van Rossum: What drove you to write the book “The Secrets to Happiness at Work?” Was it a good experience or a bad one?

Tracy Brower: I think it was a little bit of both. I looked around and thought there are so many people who are loving their work, and I believe that work could be a positive experience. That was what led me to do more research.

What really causes us to be happy? And what are the ways that we can create the conditions for happiness? I just got really curious about that. Based on seeing the good, the bad, and the ugly, as they say. 

Daan van Rossum: Can you share a bit about the research process? Because obviously there is so much out there, and then you have to somehow put it into book format. What was the process leading to the book?

Tracy Brower: I would say there were a few different elements of the process. First of all, there is so much research on happiness. We can think of happiness as a fluffy concept, but there is so much research. So that took a lot of time just looking at academic sources, journal sources, and things like that.

Then, I did a fair amount of writing about happiness, and I got comments from people and feedback from people who said, “Oh, gosh, I think about it differently.” And so that was part of the process as well. And then I did a fair amount of interviews and just some looks at qualitative research as well.

And then I looked at how those were grouped and bundled and what some of those key themes were. So that was part of the process in terms of looking at, “All right, what are the things that are rising to the surface in terms of the biggest drivers of happiness and the biggest outcomes of happiness also?"

Daan van Rossum: Amazing! I love that you were able to include some of the comments in your original writing. Because sometimes the theory is one thing, but then getting people to actually read that and share how they are applying it and what works and what doesn't, and then being able to write towards the reality of happiness at work, is really interesting.

We talk about happiness. You said it could be a fluffy concept. What will be your definition of happiness? And then, maybe more specifically, happiness at work. 

Tracy Brower: For me, happiness is about an overall sense of joy and contentment that ebbs and flows. We're not all bonbons and butterflies every day. It's really natural that it ebbs and flows, and we can have an overall sense of joy or contentment even if every single day isn't nirvana for us. So that's part of it.

Happiness at work tends to be about four key elements. It's often about dedication, like feeling committed to the outcome and dedicated to that. It's often a feeling of immersion, like you get so immersed in your work and you get going on it all of a sudden, and you look at your watch and you're like, “Oh, my goodness, where's the time gone?”

There's an energy element to it, which I think of as vigor. So what's the way that I get energized from my work? And how am I motivated to put energy into my work? And then, it's usually an experience of mattering, like feeling like the work that I'm doing matters and has meaning. Again, it's not just like I'd love every single task, every single day, and every single minute, but it's those overall senses that the work that I'm doing has meaning, and it has those other elements as well.

Work is such an important way for us to gain that sense of happiness. Of course, we gain happiness on vacation, with our families, and doing things that are non-work-related, but work really can be a source of happiness, even if it's not a perfect or ideal work environment.

Daan van Rossum: I love that. It sounds like it goes a lot deeper than just a fleeting sense of happiness while you're doing something you enjoy. It really goes towards more kinds of primal motivations and what really drives us as human beings.

There's happiness at work, but happiness at work is so much more than just the work itself. Where does work stop and life end, or is it all kind of a big mess nowadays?

Tracy Brower: Another great question. I love that. To use your words, which I really appreciate, I think it's just all one big mess these days in a really good way. I think one of the things that we can tend to do is think about compartmentalizing work and life, and we tend to follow this narrative that the popular press has handed to us about how “work is bad," “work is a grind," “work is negative," “do as little as you can," and “true happiness comes from not working.”

Actually, work is part of a full life, so they really can and do intersect. Of course, we need time away from work, and, of course, that is rewarding and fulfilling, but we can think of work as a way that we express our skills and talents, a way that we connect with our communities. That's true no matter what kind of work we're doing. We don't have to solve world peace or world hunger for work to really have meaning in our lives.

And so I think that's part of that: “Gosh, it all goes together.” And we may do it differently, like you may prefer to have hard lines between when you're working and when you're not, or I might have a little bit more porosity in the boundary where I take a personal call during the work day or I do some work at night after the kids go to bed, so you can have different right answers to how you manage that boundary, but they really are bound up together in work, life, and a full life.

Daan van Rossum: One of the most fascinating articles I came across as work obviously is evolving quite a bit, especially in the last couple of years, was this New York Times piece that talks about “work is now from 9 to 3 and then after dinner again,” and it sounds like you've had some of those experiences too.

On the topic of work shifting and work evolving, a lot of changes have obviously taken place over the last couple of years. You're based in the US. I see a lot of very scary stats about office occupancy. 

Is happiness at work going to change now that work is more distributed, now that work happens in more places and at different times, as we just talked about?

Tracy Brower: Absolutely. There's a really interesting set of data that I think about as the hybrid paradox, and this is global data, where a lot of things about our lives have gotten better. We're spending less time on our commute, we're socializing more, we're having fewer sick days, and we might have more time eating out—literally,  that's some of the statistics.

But life at work has actually gotten worse for a lot of people, who feel like they have less purpose, don't have as clear expectations, and don't feel like their voice matters as much. Those are some of the elements.

So the paradox is that much of our lives have gotten better, but our lives at work haven't necessarily gotten better. As we think about happiness at work, I do think it changes with the changing landscape of work. 

I think it has to do with really being intentional about how we lead when we're present with our colleagues, either virtually or in person. If we're leaders or influencers, if we're individual contributors, we should be really intentional about when, where, and how we collaborate with others.

Being really intentional about reminding ourselves of our values, sometimes with distance, you don't get as many of those cues about your value, like that colleague isn't nodding and smiling at you across the table in the conference room or at the coffee machine with a colleague who says, “Oh, I love that idea that you shared.”

So I think there's a real need to remind ourselves of our values, and those drive esteem so significantly because work is part of our identity in a really positive way. So I do think it shifts, and I think partly it's about new levels of intentionality.

Daan van Rossum: It sounded like intentionality is definitely a keyword here as we talk about the way that work is evolving, and we need to really think about how we can replicate some of the things or maybe even improve some of the things that came very organically.

When we're sitting side by side five days a week, 9 to 5, how do we do that now when we may not be in on the same day but we may still have overlapping schedules? 

That leads, I think, to a really big question: sometimes I feel like the best organizations now mimic, as closely as possible, a remote organization, a fully remote organization, where again, the company had to be designed from the ground up as a system in which you think very intentionally about how you get people to connect when they're all sitting in different places.

What is the role now of leaders and managers in creating a positive culture where employees can find happiness?

Tracy Brower: I actually think the role of leaders and managers has gotten so much harder. I've always thought, in particular, that the middle management role is so tough, but I just think it's gotten really hard.

I think there's a new level of emotional labor that leaders are doing because they have more pressure in terms of people looking to them for information. We're deluged with information. So people are often looking to leaders and organizations for help. How does this matter? What does it mean to me and my job?

We are elevating expectations of employees, particularly around wellbeing, and so a lot of leaders are saying, “Oh my gosh, I want to be empathetic and ask the right questions, but I want to find the right balance. So I'm not being intrusive, and how do I connect people with the resources because I'm not necessarily feeling like I have all the resources to help with some of these bigger things?" So there's a lot of emotional labor.

But I think if leaders can remind people of purpose and about how their work matters in the scheme of things, in the value chain, and in the way that they deliver to colleagues, they can be very present and accessible. There's beautiful research on the extent to which being present and accessible contributes to people's sense of well-being.

That doesn't mean you have to be on 24/7, but when you really are responsive and people can DM you or IM you or you have a wormhole open or you respond thoroughly to an email, that kind of thing. I think the other thing that leaders can do is really help to connect people with each other, sometimes through social events, but even more through task-related events.

So when we share tasks together, when we roll up sleeves together, when we share common goals, that's a really important way that we bond with teammates, and so when leaders connect people with each other, when they reinforce relationships between and among team members, that's another really good way to be influential toward that engagement and happiness.

So those are just three.

Daan van Rossum: Beautiful! 

Is there a way for companies to measure employee happiness? Because obviously, if we say that companies should focus on this more, they should invest in it more than the question is going to come up. Even if we truly believe that this is something important for us to do, how do we know whether it's working or not? And if we see that maybe the measurements are going in the wrong direction, can we intervene? Is there something to be measured here?

Tracy Brower: Yes. I am working on an article about this topic because it's so important and so nuanced. Interestingly, the research suggests that if you measure happiness, you will see an outcome of reduced happiness.

Focusing on happiness for its own sake is actually counterproductive, and a lot of organizations measure happiness by saying, “How happy are you? How joyful do you feel? That kind of thing actually works to their disadvantage. 

Because what it tends to do is focus you on what you don't have, because if you're pursuing happiness, it's because you don't necessarily have enough today. And people define happiness so differently. So a better way to measure, because measurement is critical so that we know if we're getting better and so that we can pull all the right levers to create great work experiences.

A better way is to think about what the sources of happiness are and measure some of them. So, to what extent are people feeling connected to the purpose and mission of the organization? To what extent do people feel like they have strong relationships with colleagues? To what extent do they feel trusted or trusting with colleagues?

Another good one is performance. To what extent are people feeling like they have the tools and support they need to perform at their best? Or, to what extent do people have learning and growth opportunities? All of those are connected, correlated, and linked with happiness, based on the research.

So, what we're measuring, though, is that it is a really good way to, in turn, have a sense of the happiness and engagement of the organization without undermining ourselves by asking just about happiness itself. It's nuanced, but I think it's important.

Daan van Rossum: I think you just saved everyone from making a couple of really big mistakes. I was basically listening to this interview saying, “Hey, this should be a priority for us. Let's ask everyone how happy they are currently,” and then, “What can we do to do better?” 

It totally makes sense. If you ask people, “How are you doing? How happy are you?” Then obviously the wheels start turning, and we start thinking, “Well, actually, that's a good question. How happy am I?”

Maybe it is not something we want to ask about directly.

Tracy Brower: The other thing about happiness is that it can really go up and down, and there's a lot outside of an organization's control.

I may have woke up feeling like all the butterflies were blooming and then I got stuck in traffic or my technology didn't work this morning or the dog was misbehaving or whatever. So there's a lot that's out of our control, and a lot of happiness can be up and down.

But if we look at those fundamental issues, that's more helpful in looking at how we can improve over time.

Daan van Rossum: It's actually guiding people to think about it in the right way, because you can be very happy with your life, but maybe in that moment, you're not happy in your life because you woke up the wrong way or as we see it here frequently, your commute was way too long or something like that.

Daan van Rossum: That makes a lot of sense, asking the right questions. I know you recently wrote about wellbeing. You just mentioned this earlier. This is something that, for the first time in Asia, has started to be discussed. I wouldn't say that it's fully mainstream yet and that the taboos have fully been removed. But I do see a lot more now in terms of companies focusing on wellbeing, making it a priority, and putting programs in place.

What's the link between happiness and wellbeing? And also, why should companies care about it?

Tracy Brower: I've been doing a series on mental health and wellbeing right now, and the business benefits of wellbeing are incredible.

People perform better. They take fewer sick days. They are retained longer with the organization. They tend to learn and grow more significantly over time. Organizations see huge payoffs in terms of stockholder value, shareholder value, customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction, retention, and all kinds of other things.

So there's really good reasons to pay attention to well-being from a human perspective, but also from a business perspective if you're looking to make the case. I think the other thing to know is that well-being, from all the research that I've been doing, does not appear to be a blip on the radar screen.

It appears to be something that we will absolutely take forward based on all that we've been through globally, and the way we think about being and its connection to happiness is that there's a reciprocal relationship. When people are happier, they tend to have greater levels of well-being physically, cognitively, and emotionally, and the opposite is also true.

So, there are really good reasons to focus on well-being, and the other thing that I wrote about in that article was the business benefits of well-being. With all of the data, the business benefits are, “What are the key leverage points?” According to that set of data, which was super interesting, there were about eight different sources of data in that one. Focusing on physical well-being, monitoring, training, and coaching was a big deal.

Help people with work-life navigation, so hours of work, flexibility, choice, control, and then, thirdly, leaders who are perceived as being really supportive and who are able to more fully match skills and jobs? So when people feel more like their skills are being fully utilized or they feel like they will be fully utilized in a potential scenario, those are really good for their well-being.

So those three things tended to be standouts in terms of making a difference.

Daan van Rossum: It seems that taking good care of your employees is also good for the business, which I think a lot of people know, may know, or should know at least. But again, putting it into practice is another thing altogether.

It leads me to another question, and this is something that I've been thinking about a lot. Can we live in a world where what is good for the employee is also good for the company, and vice versa? 

I've been thinking a lot about productivity, which seems to be a big topic nowadays here in Asia, especially as, again, companies are moving more towards hybrid and remote models where you cannot look someone over the shoulder.

You cannot provide direct feedback. There seems to be at least a sense, although I think Satya Nadella at Microsoft calls that productivity paranoia, but at least there seems to be a sense that we are less productive. Is there a way that we can be meaningfully productive so that the work that we do also adds to what we want to achieve as human beings? 

So, is there a way to balance what companies want and what employees want intrinsically?

Tracy Brower: For sure. I deeply believe and the research supports that when we do the right thing for people, we do the right thing for the business, and the payoffs are significant. The other thing that we're seeing is that a lot of these metrics absolutely move together. Correlation is not causation, but they move together.

When people are more engaged, we tend to see greater productivity. When people are happier, we tend to see greater levels of performance. When people are more satisfied with their roles, we tend to see greater retention. So, all of those things are really important.

I think the other thing that's happened to us right now is that we've got this overemphasis on productivity, and we need to think about performance. As humans, we tend to overvalue a lot of the quantitative, and we don't always value as much the things that are less tangible. Productivity is about turning the crank, and it's about the number of widgets, how much, and how fast.

But we also need to think about how engaged people are, how much they are retained, and in what ways our investments in people pay off over time because they're able to be more innovative or more creative. So for us to think about productivity is great and important, but it's one metric among many, and the better metric is performance.

And so I think that's one of the things we can consider: how do we make sure that we're valuing the bigger picture of performance and not just focusing too much on the microcosm of productivity?

Daan van Rossum: The counterargument is usually that, but this is something we care about right now, and the other things are more: there's a huge hidden cost in not retaining people, in talent attrition, but somehow it's less painful because it's not something that you feel in the moments, but I think it's a really good note. 

Looking beyond just productivity, looking into performance and what the person can bring to the organization, and vice versa.

I think we're getting to the end of time here today. Maybe just one piece of advice. If you had a billboard somewhere, you could post one piece of advice for companies. Who wants to look into creating happier employees? What would it be?

Tracy Brower: I think there are so many.

“Love your work and learn your work.” That might be my billboard.

I'm just making that up on the spot. I might need to wordsmith it later, but I think we should remind ourselves that we are empowered to appreciate and love our work. Even if our work isn't perfect, that's a big deal. We don't have to wait for all the conditions to be perfect to feel a sense of happiness. We can improve our connections, remind ourselves of our purpose, and seek learning and growth.

The other part of that is “love your work and learn your work.” The more we're learning, the more we're stretching, and the more likely we are to feel a sense of joy. And so when we raise our hand for the new initiative, when we find the problem and work to solve it, when we figure out the new way, when we really push ourselves for something that we don't already know how to do, that's a really good idea in terms of driving our happiness.

So, we can do those things for ourselves, and organizations can create the conditions for them as well. I guess that would be my takeaway for today.

Daan van Rossum: I love it.

If people, and undoubtedly they are, are interested in learning more about you, where can they find you online?

Tracy Brower:  Thanks for asking. steelcase.com is a wonderful resource. Tracybrower.com has all of my information on LinkedIn. I'm Tracy Brower, PhD, and you can find the secrets to happiness at work wherever books are sold, as they say, on Amazon or wherever you'd like to buy books.

Daan van Rossum: Wonderful. Tracy, so much for being here today.

Tracy Brower: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

You Might Also Like …

All articles about

Future Work

A weekly column and podcast on the remote, hybrid, and AI-driven future of work. By FlexOS founder Daan van Rossum.