Hacking happiness (Executive Series)

Plasticity Labs uses social tools to provide real-time view of engagement
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/20/2014

Editor's note: Once a month, the Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork) hosts a special seminar on a topic of interest to HR professionals and business leaders. Canadian HR Reporter covers these events for a special feature titled "Executive Series." The feature includes news coverage from one of our editors, plus commentary from SCNetwork's panel of thought leaders on strategic capability, leadership in action and organization effectiveness.

This web post contains all of these elements:

Canadian HR Reporter's news coverage

Going social? by Karen Gorsline
Maximizing business value, by Barbara Kofman
Sharing knowledge is power, by Trish Maguire

Hacking happiness
Plasticity Labs uses social tools to provide real-time view of employee engagement
By Liz Bernier

Some of the debate in HR, whether your company is large, small or somewhere in between, centres around employee engagement. How important is it, really? Where does it fall on your priority list? Where should it fall?

But Jim Moss thinks that debate is over. For the founder and chief happiness officer at Plasticity Labs in Waterloo, Ont., employee engagement and happiness matters more than anything else — it’s a critical driver of business success because happy employees make for happy customers.

"I call myself the chief happiness officer (and) I believe all CEOs should be chief happiness officers because you’re either making your employees happy, your customers happy or your shareholders happy. Or, you’re not doing a very good job," said Moss at a Strategic Capability Event in Toronto.

That’s why Moss’ startup, Plasticity Labs, is all about using social technologies to track, measure and boost employee happiness and engagement levels at work.

"Neuroplasticity is the ability for our brains to change based on our behaviours, and the ability for our behaviours to change the way our brain is actually wired. And that’s what we’re trying to do with individuals — we call it hacking happiness," said Moss.

"We think that technology is actually quite well-suited (to that)because of the amount of time we spend with it, and the number of interactions that we make with it. Whether we like it or not, it’s changing our behaviours. So, let’s try to channel that towards building positive behaviours instead of building bad ones."

Plasticity Labs has created a mobile and web app that teaches employees the psychological skills of top performers, and measures their engagement.

"One of the premises that we operate on is that times have changed significantly, specifically since the Industrial Revolution. We went through a period of time where we used to believe that we should work really, really hard and when we do that, we would accomplish some level of success. And when we have that level of success, then we would be happy," he said.

"We’ve actually proven that there’s a much better, more enjoyable way to accomplish all of those things… it is the learning and understanding of what it is that makes up happy. When we’re in a state of happiness and flourishing, we’re more likely to work harder and smarter — and the best part is it doesn’t feel like work."

The approach is based on positive psychology, said Moss.

"Instead of focusing — like classical psychology does — on getting people who are mentally unhealthy back to a state of average mental health, we are focused on getting people who are of average mental health and getting them to a state of optimum mental health," he said.

It’s not a magic cure-all and it won’t get rid of all the little frustrations of daily life, said Moss.

"We don’t make those go away. What we try to focus on at Plasticity, when we talk about workplace happiness and individual happiness in the workplace, is that by having these skills that we refer to as ‘workplace hero traits’ — things like hope and efficacy and resilience and optimism, gratitude and empathy and mindfulness — we can handle (frustration)."

Lessons in gratitude

Moss wasn’t always so mindful of "hero traits" like gratitude and positivity — in fact, that realization was hard-won.

In 2009, he was living in California with his wife and son, working as a professional lacrosse player.

"All of a sudden, one day… I got up off the couch in the morning and I fell flat on my face. I couldn’t feel my hands, couldn’t feel my feet. So I kind of pulled myself up — I couldn’t really stand — and I crawled."

He managed to call 911 and was taken to the hospital.

"By midnight that night, they told me I had this autoimmune disease… and, essentially, what was happening was my immune system was attacking my peripheral nervous system."

Moss — whose wife was more than seven months’ pregnant at the time — was told it would be six to 12 months before he could expect to walk again.

"Literally, the day before, I was running up the Santa Cruz mountains, training for my lacrosse season. And, now, I’m being told that it’s going to take me six or 12 months just to re-learn how to walk," he said.

During his recovery, Moss needed a nurse to help him walk to the bathroom. And on his third day in the hospital, a nurse said something that has always stuck with him.

"She said to me, ‘You know, you’d better get used to this because you’re going to be like this for a long time.’ And she was right to say that and, in fact, a lot of doctors and nurses like to prepare you for the worst. But it was not motivating," he said.

Later that day, a different nurse came.

"She entered the room and she had a whole different energy about her… she put her hand on my shoulder and she said, ‘Don’t you worry about it sweetheart, we’re going to get you back on your feet in no time.’ And I still get goosebumps (telling this story) because my whole life changed right then. I knew that whatever was going to happen in the next six months or year, I needed to feel like this. And I couldn’t let the morning nurse de-motivate me for the whole day.

"I decided I was going to learn everything I could to put myself in the best mood that I could be in, every single day."

Moss found that really simple tricks, including gratitude journaling, helped him manage his mood and maintain his positivity. And because he took such a proactive approach, the nurses were more solicitous and his occupational therapist and physical therapist took time out on the weekends to work with him longer.

"I literally doubled the output that I got from the people around me because I had a positive attitude and I was motivated. And, in their own words, I inspired them to do their job. Who would you rather work with? The person who’s in no rush to get out of the hospital or the person who’s going to give everything that they have?

"I walked out of the hospital six weeks later, two days before the baby was born."

Why does positivity work?

The doctors were shocked by Moss’ quick recovery. They hadn’t treated him any differently, they said — the only thing that was different was the way he impacted his mood and outlook.

"So, why does gratitude work?" he asked. "Well, gratitude is a psychological trait or skill because it is something that can be improved… you can impact as much as 40 to 60 per cent of it. If you think about optimism and pessimism, pessimism is ‘What can’t I do because of what I’m lacking or missing?’

"Optimism is ‘What can we do with what we have?’ Well, when you take record of what you’re grateful for, you’re literally building a laundry list of what you do have."

Moss and his family moved back to Kitchener-Waterloo and started the Smile Epidemic — a social, digital gratitude journal that eventually evolved into Plasticity Labs.

"(There is) this incredible desire to be happier in the workplace — and so we set off to try and do that," he said.

"Eighty per cent of people desire to be happier in their jobs. And, in fact, millennials — not only do they desire to be happy, they will leave their job (if they aren’t). And they do put that responsibility on their employers."

Social tools can help us create a happier workplace because they enable us to measure happiness.

"Social tools create a ton of data. They allow us to be predictive, they allow us to understand what’s going on, we can ask things in very upfront and open ways, we can make inferences based on patterns that we find," said Moss.

And the key is to measure often.

"We measure mission-critical data every single day — how often do we measure employee satisfaction?" he asked. "On average, organizations ask employees how they’re feeling once every two to three years."

But even annual surveys are not enough, he said.

"Annual surveys are kind of like knowing the first and last note of a song… are you going to get a very good idea of what that song is like?"

Social tools such as Plasticity’s app allow organizations to measure employee satisfaction every day.

"We need to be measuring all the time so we can find models of success and we can replicate those models," he said.

"Then, we can start to model and tune and slowly iterate and improve how we manage periods of change.

"What we’re trying to do is tune people’s experiences of work, so we can smooth out the rough edges… Your culture is a product, and it’s one of the most important products you’re ever going to build. 

Going social?
By Karen Gorsline (Strategic Capability)

We know many employees are not engaged in their work and we also know social technology has the potential to increase productivity. Research from McKinsey & Company found it could increase worker productivity upwards of 25 per cent.

This has prompted organizations to consider using social technologies to release new value. A recent Strategic Capability Network session presented different perspectives on how this might be done; there are five areas to understand:

Reach: Social technology enables connections across lines of business, geography, organizational level and function. It goes beyond one-way information-sharing to facilitating information-seeking and broad collaboration, enabling business to interact directly with existing or potential customers.

Real time: Social tools can reduce routine lags and delays, cut through organizational layers to access information and indicate how employees and customers are feeling right now. But the snapshot of how employees or customers feel is just that — a snapshot. Downsides can be mitigated by education, feedback and looking at trends and what is in real time.

Engagement: Many attempts at using social technology fail because they forget the social aspect.
Users must pull. They must see utility and interests met and pull others to engage with them or become advocates. Users decide the best uses.

New employee skills: Older employees may need to learn some new skills but even younger employees who may be more savvy also need to learn how to use social tech in a business context. Older employees may need to develop new habits: connecting through new media, engaging in interchange using social technology. All employees need to understand the collaboration tools. Curiosity needs to be nurtured. They need to be able to use courtesy, provide thoughtful and constructive responses, use critical thinking and judgment around information that may not be relevant or accurate, and know how to sort through a mass of information or set parameters on desired information.

Operating infrastructure: Using social technology to do work is still evolving. As a result, significant communication, education and management are needed. Because its value is most readily realized on a broad scale, the temptation is to "roll it out" across the entire organization. However, learning and successes through pilots should be considered as part of a pull strategy from one part of the organization to others. There are also design and operating decisions that will need to be made, as in any operating infrastructure.  

Karen Gorsline is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on strategic capability and leads HR Initiatives, a consulting practice focused on facilitation and tailored HR initiatives. Toronto-based, she has taught HR planning, held senior roles in strategy and policy, managed a large decentralized HR function and directed a small business. She can be reached at gorslin@pathcom.com.

Maximizing business value
By Barbara Kofman (Organizational Effectiveness)

Frequently, I notice ideas that originated decades ago are being recycled with slight tweaks and updated research. Take, for example, the late 20th-century correlation between employee satisfaction, customer loyalty and financial results, which has been referred to by several speakers at SCNetwork as if a revelation.

So it was refreshing to hear this concept spoken about with new terminology reflective of the generational shift taking place in the workforce. The term "employee satisfaction" seems a relic when positioned against the new moniker of "employee happiness." This is how Jim Moss, CEO of Plasticity Labs, restated the value chain and seamlessly linked it to the entirely different mindset gen Y brings to the employment bargain.

Taken as a whole, this group of presenters provided clear evidence a seismic shift has taken place in the employment contract, one that savvy organizations have already adapted to. No organization signals this change more than IBM. The titles alone — of spokespersons Anna Dreyzin, education program manager, social engagements and insights, and Colleen Burns, manager influencer engagement, social business — reflect how far IBM has come from the days of conformity, secrecy and grey suits parodied in films like the Matrix. But when coupled with out-of-the-box value statements such as "dare to be the wild duck" and a culture that touts the sharing of knowledge as power, it is clear this is an organization to be admired and emulated, one that has inculcated a 21st century culture into its fabric.

Rather than monitoring employees for unwanted online activity, it is expected. It is the means through which design innovations and services become potent collaborations, from the sharing and tweaking of PowerPoint presentations to product development.

For those who choose to work at home, there is recognition of the need to be heard — or "to work out loud," as they labelled it — something they emphasized can’t be done by living in an inbox. Email is reserved for communicating what’s private while internal and external forums and social access tools maximize value.

A corollary to this fresh way of getting things done is if someone is on vacation, sick or on leave, productivity is not affected as others in the online community answer questions as they arise.

The implications for organizational effectiveness are far-reaching. Gone are the days when bosses and co-workers get away with hoarding information based on the false belief knowledge is power. Now, all levels of the organization are expected to actively participate in online forums and evaluated based on their contributions in these realms. Except where legitimate, the measure of individual success is no longer secrecy, signalling a welcome change to culture where contributions can be provided and valued at all levels — a kind of balanced scorecard in real time.

The work done at Plasticity Labs further erodes the conventional way of getting things done. Decades-old tools like annual employee and customer surveys are obsolete now that technology enables organizations to continuously collect data and pinpoint trends over time, rather than one moment in time. The implications are far-reaching, challenging the validity of how organizations currently measure everything from engagement to performance appraisals and the use of leadership tools such as 360 surveys.

The unmistakable message for organizations that want to maximize productivity through enhanced employee "happiness" is to constantly evolve the processes and systems for getting things done through effectively updating and leveraging an array of social technologies. Failure to adapt will, in due course, result in extinction.

Barbara Kofman is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on organizational effectiveness and founding principal of CareerTrails, a strategic career coaching and HR solutions organization committed to providing clients with the personalized processes and information they need, to achieve the individual and organizational outcomes they are seeking. She has held senior roles in resourcing, strategy and outplacement, and taught at the university and college level. Based in Toronto, she can be reached at (416) 708-2880 or bkofman@careertrails.com.

Sharing knowledge is power
By Trish Maguire (Leadership in Action)

We may finally be at the point where leaders are realizing social technology will change the way people work in many jobs and lead to a redefinition of "best fit" competencies. Hearing the social technology experiences of corporations such as IBM and RBC establishes the position that creating an enterprise platform strategy, rather than a business line platform, promotes the internal network becoming fundamental to everyone’s way of working.

As more leaders embrace social technology and begin to give social tools a purpose in people’s jobs, how does this change the complexity and ambiguity between people management, daily challenges and technology know-how? How does this impact the knowledge management strategies some business leaders have been steadfastly focused on? What do we want tomorrow’s leader to be mindful of when taking into account the transformational possibilities social technology tools present? Anna Dreyzin and Colleen Burns, representatives from IBM, pointed out that the adage "Knowledge is power" is being replaced with a new axiom — "Sharing knowledge is power."

If the intention is to build a workplace that embraces and fosters a sharing-knowledge-is-power culture, it would seem you will readily introduce fresh and practical meaning to competencies such as transparency, collaboration, influence and productivity. This not-so-subtle change will shift — if not make obsolete — any traditional hierarchical structures, business operating processes and people practices that were originally designed to rigidly manage daily activities.

Current evidence confirms that when employees find a social technology platform useful or interesting, they are more likely to share their knowledge, invite feedback and seek help with ideas more quickly and easily within the larger community.

Both IBM and RBC show how they have raised the game through improved interactions among employees, greater engagement, higher productivity outcomes and an increase in innovative ideas and solutions.

Learning to leverage the tools will be a game-changer for organizations choosing to flatten the hierarchy, encouraging better-quality and speedier knowledge flow among teams and business units, and enabling employees to feel explicitly connected. Social technology tools are becoming an indispensable business tool for leaders and will continue to grow in capacity, importance and value. Not only are they enhancing the way people communicate within business, they are enhancing the way business is being conducted.

With social technology coming of age in business, there will be an opportunity for leaders to encourage the development of an organic "communities of practice" culture and accelerate an active process of social learning.

It’s not a new idea or model; however, research persistently validates when people have a common interest on an issue or with a problem, and have the option to collaborate over an extended period of time, ideas are shared, solutions are found and innovation is a positive outcome.

The challenge and opportunity for leaders will not necessarily be about the tools — it will depend on the willingness and ability to let go of a control-command mindset and learn to master the art of trust.  

Trish Maguire is a commentator for SCNetwork on leadership in action and founding principal of Synergyx Solutions in Nobleton, Ont., focused on high-potential leadership development coaching. She has held senior leadership roles in HR and OD in education, manufacturing and entrepreneurial firms. She can be reached at synergyx@sympatico.ca.

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