The power of a happy workforce

Summary

Local business leaders are spreading the word: A shift in management style is essential as the workplace adapts to 21st-century realities

Employees facing increased stress

This is the fifth year of the eurozone crisis, and that warrants a moment of reflection. Five years of doom-laden headlines, televised economic meltdowns and mass lay-offs have charted a course of destruction across European societies. And Flanders is no exception: The crisis has left our labour market battered.

The figures are grim: In September, Flanders had 229,127 out of work – an increase of 8.8% on the region’s figures for the same period last year.

For those who are working, the crisis has meant an increase in “invisible” job stress. “Doing more with less” has become the new business mantra, and most employees know that while they have a job today, it could be gone tomorrow. In times of evaporating security, most of us also face the reality of having to work until we are close to 70.

Not surprisingly, many employees feel over-stretched and worn out. In Belgium, one in four employees run the risk of burnout, according to research by IDEWE, which is responsible for workplace protection. In addition, they say, most businesses do not provide an appropriate level of attention to and investment in employees’ mental health.

And yet, amid all this doom and gloom, there is cause for optimism. A group of business leaders is beginning to talk about the importance of being happy at work.

Respecting boundaries

It’s a trend that has been visible across Flemish media since the beginning of the year. In September, after one of her younger employees died of a heart attack, Saskia Van Uffelen, CEO of IT company Bull Belgium wrote an opinion piece in Flemish daily De Tijd pleading for the respecting of boundaries, taking time out and recognising that we are fragile. “Being expected to work longer also demands a change in the way we work,” she says, “and at this pace, working until we are 70 is unrealistic.”

Being ready for the war for talent is a process of strategic change

- Saskia Van Uffelen

Colruyt Group COO Frans Colruyt, meanwhile, said in a recent interview with De Morgen that, since his 15-month sabbatical, he has been practising mindfulness and believes we should pay closer attention to our bodies.

But why are these people standing up for a more humane approach to work in times of crisis, when, at first glance, business can least afford it? Enter the Happy Organizations community, founded last March as a Belgian network of more than 750 business leaders who believe in the importance of happiness at work and want to bring the topic into the open.                                                                            

The BEhappyday event, organised by the Happy Organizations community, was founded by Jean-Paul Erhard, managing partner of HR network Peoplesphere, and Laurence Vanhee, former head of HR at the Federal Public Service Social Security (though she prefers to call herself Chief Happiness Officer) and Peoplesphere’s HR Manager of the Year for 2012. It brings together companies that invest in the well-being of their employees and takes place on 20 March – designated International Happiness Day by the UN.

We are not resources

“I do not manage resources, because we are not resources. We are people,” Vanhee says. “I need fun and passion in my job, and I want to be happy at work. I want to be treated like an adult, have responsibility and freedom and be able to make my own decisions. Surely I’m no exception?”

At this pace, working until we are 70 is unrealistic

- Saskia Van Uffelen

It is exactly this message that BEhappyday is trying to take to the business community: If you want a happy, productive workforce, as a leader you need to facilitate the productivity and happiness of your employees. Or as Vanhee’s professional theory states: Freedom + Responsibility = Happiness + Performance.

In her new book, Happy HR, she argues that the old way of doing business – in which companies measured the effectiveness of employees according to their physical presence during a required time – has become counter-productive both in the changing realities of the 21st century, which will bring together four generations on the work floor and see significant talent shortages, and during times of crisis, when companies are expected to do more with less. 

In the book, she explores new approaches in HR, arguing for policies based on freedom, responsibility, performance and happiness. “If we want our organisations to thrive in the coming decades, we need to start treating our employees like capable adults, who, given the opportunity, can contribute to our organisations in ways we never explored or encouraged with our old business models. We also need to find ways of working that appeal to the entrepreneurial, ‘always-connected’ mindset of the younger generations.”

Henri Van de Kraats, managing director of contact centre provider IMABenelux and part of the Happy Organizations community, agrees. “We’ve reached the end of a certain logic,” he says. “It’s time to realise that something fundamental needs to change in the way we work.”

For too long, leaders have set sky-high targets, he says, turned up the pressure and managed people in a top-down “command and control” manner. Seldom did managers stop to ask workers how they were feeling. But times are changing. Eventually, organisations that think they can become successful by squeezing everything out of their people will become unattractive to prospective employees and will lose the race for talent. 

Talent shortage

Bull Belgium’s Van Uffelen is leading the charge for a change in workplace attitudes. “The old way of doing business doesn’t work for younger generations,” she says. “In 2020, seven people will leave the Belgian labour market for every three who enter. This means that 40% of today’s workforce will disappear. It will create a huge shortage of talent. It also raises a very important question: What do leaders and companies need to change to ensure people want to work for them?”

We are not needed at the front to command, but in the middle, cheering on

- Miel Horsten

Research strongly supports the need for companies to change to a new way of working, which is more independent of place and time and focused on output rather than physical presence. It also stresses the need for employers to make workplace mental health a priority issue. It is not simply the right thing to do; it also makes a company more competitive and profitable.

For Van Uffelen, making sure Bull Belgium embraced the changes in the labour market led her to add five key performance parameters to her long-term business strategy: communication, collaboration, efficiency, innovation and leadership. “Being ready for the war for talent is a process of strategic change, not a matter of a trendy new coat of paint and a funky open-plan layout,” she says.

Happy employees, happy clients

At ALD Automotive Belgium, a leader in the financing and management of vehicle fleets, they also got the message. “Our entire brand is built around employee and customer happiness, embodied in our slogan ‘One, Ready, Smile’,” explains general manager Miel Horsten. “A company’s most important stakeholders are its employees. If you have happy employees, you create happy clients, which in turn lead to happy shareholders. It’s that simple.”

We must learn to trust people and let them solve problems without constantly looking over their shoulder

- Henri Van de Kraats

For Horsten, making sure employees are happy goes much further than installing a new canteen or allowing people to work from home a few days a week.

“Changing the way you do business starts at the top and should permeate every aspect of the way in which the organisation functions,” he says. “For us, it meant taking the hierarchy out of our organisation, changing the way in which we manage to reflect the culture we want to create, decreasing the time we spend in meetings by 80%, setting an example as leaders, giving our people freedom and accountability to take on projects beyond their roles if they so wished. Ultimately, my aim is to inspire trust and create a culture that accepts risk-taking (and therefore also failure) and rewards engagement, creativity and innovation.”

But all these leaders admit that adapting their organisations to this new world of work isn’t easy. “It’s a learning curve, also for us as leaders,” admits Horsten. “We still have a long way to go and a lot to learn.”

Van de Kraats agrees: “As leaders, we must stop wanting to fill up the room and learn to exhibit less ego. We must learn to trust people and allow them to solve problems without constantly looking over their shoulder. Leaders who continue to cling to a domineering leadership style will create a paralysed, tense culture. And that’s anything but beneficial to innovation or growth.”

Protection for people

Taking that message of freedom to others in the business community isn’t always easy, especially in difficult economic times, they all admit. But when it comes to how they ensure their business stays at the top of its game, they all agree: No factor is more critical right now than their people. 

“One of our biggest responsibilities as CEO is making sure we protect our people, and thus our organisation, from becoming over-stretched,” says Van Uffelen. “We need to develop business models that facilitate the new world of work; we must remove obstacles, and we must inspire people to be the best they can be. It will only benefit our organisations.”

It’s a huge task, and one that demands a different kind of leadership, notes Horsten. “As leaders, we need to be able to be introspective, to realise that we don’t have all the answers – and that we’re not expected to, either. We are not needed at the front to command, but in the middle, cheering on, making sure we get there, as a team.”

“Just as importantly,” adds Van Uffelen, “we need to learn to switch off our laptops, put away our PDAs and go home on time.” 

Changing business realities call for a change in managerial attitude

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