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Flow State in the Workplace: Improving Employee Productivity

In today’s fast-paced world, productivity is a key factor that determines the success of a workplace. In fact, it’s so important that we’ve seen workplace practices evolve to be more focused on prioritizing, observing, and improving employee productivity. Take the rise in employee productivity surveillance technology (EPST), for example.

To be productive, employees need to feel motivated and engaged in their work. But as our recent research shows, the current methods leaders are employing are having the opposite effect. Since implementing EPST, 29% of IT managers have seen employees burn out faster, 29% note an increase in worker anxiety, and 27% highlight a decline in morale. I think we’d all agree these factors don’t equate to a positive and productive workplace!

We’ve spoken before about employee productivity and more ethical alternatives to EPST regarding improving this. One way to achieve that all-important engaging and motivating workplace is by creating an environment that encourages flow.

What is flow?

Have you ever had one of those days when you become so engrossed in a task that you get “in the zone” and before you know it, hours have passed? Well, that’s flow.

Let’s start at the beginning and introduce Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi was a psychologist and is widely considered one of the co-founders of positive psychology (aka the scientific study of what makes life most worth living). He was the first to identify and research flow.

“[Flow is] a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990)

Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow is a mental state in which a person is completely immersed in an activity, to the point where they lose track of time and their surroundings. Flow occurs when a person is doing something challenging, but also enjoyable and rewarding. It is a state of optimal experience, where one’s skills are matched with the challenge at hand.

Is flow relevant to the workplace?

Short answer, yes. In the workplace, flow can be a powerful tool. When employees are in a state of flow, they’re fully engaged in—and enjoying—their work, which can lead to greater focus, creativity, and satisfaction. With increased productivity and engagement comes improved business outcomes—all while avoiding ethically questionable use of EPST. For example, in a 2016 interview, Csikszentmihalyi highlighted the impact of flow in the workplace with two corporate examples whereby the introduction of flow-based management saw both companies improve profit.

When we translate this concept into the workplace, the benefits of encouraging flow seem like a no-brainer. So, where do we start?

How can I encourage flow in the workplace?

By providing employees with the necessary resources, tools, and support, employers can create an environment that fosters flow. Here are three ways to start encouraging flow in the workplace:

1. Resources and tools—With the rising popularity of hybrid work models, it’s vital to provide the right resources and tools to help your employees remain productive both in the office and working remotely. A distraction-free workspace is essential. Flow state is easier to achieve in a quiet and uninterrupted setting. Minimize distractions by offering quiet areas where employees can work without interruptions, for example.

But don’t forget about digital employee experience (DEX). By creating a seamless and friction-free digital workspace for employees, you are setting them up for flow-state success. It’s much easier to focus and be productive when you aren’t constantly disturbed by disruptions to the tech you’re using. This includes fast internet connections, up-to-date software, and hardware that can handle the demands of modern work. Make sure employees have access to the necessary software applications, communication tools, and project management platforms to streamline their work processes.

2. Positivity-led productivity—Creating a positive work environment can also be a key factor in fostering flow. When employees feel valued, respected, and supported by their colleagues and supervisors, they’re more likely to be motivated and engaged in their work. This can lead to a more productive and satisfying work experience for everyone.

Providing feedback is a key part of this, but don’t just rely on performance reviews to check this box. Recognition and coaching are also effective in motivating and supporting employee engagement and can be done via peer-to-peer programs, for example. Csikszentmihalyi proposed that more work activities should be designed to support flow and provide immediate feedback just as video games do.

3. Balance—Reaching flow state rests on the right balance between an individual’s ability and their perception of challenge. Make things too easy and they’ll soon become bored. Too difficult, and fear of failure will lead to worry and anxiety. Both extremes lead to a negative experience and a decrease in productivity. Challenge employees, but not to the point where they struggle.

The same applies to balancing workloads, too. You can’t focus if you’re juggling multiple tasks. According to psychologist Gerald Weinberg, each extra task or ‘context’ you switch between can cost 20–80% of your overall productivity. Flow requires single-minded effort. Providing employees with interesting, challenging workloads they can easily manage and setting proper timelines will better enable flow state.

In conclusion, workplace experience and productivity are closely linked, and flow can be a powerful tool for increasing productivity. By designing work tasks that challenge employees, providing the necessary support and resources, and creating a positive work environment, employers can foster a culture of flow that benefits both employees and the organization as a whole. 

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The FORRESTER WAVE™: End-User Experience Management, Q3 2022

The FORRESTER WAVE™: End-User Experience Management, Q3 2022