Flow in the workplace

During my final interview at WillowTree, our COO, Gregg Carrier, mentioned flow. So what? It’s a commonly used word in idioms like “go with the flow” or “ebb and flow.” But the more we discussed, we realized that we were both referring specifically to the psychological concept of flow. Prior to recruiting, I was immersed in the world of positive psychology and human development. At that point, I assumed that this particular context of flow was an esoteric concept to people beyond the world of psychological academia.

I left the interview excited as ever about the prospect of working at WillowTree. It was refreshing to discover a company whose leadership not only knew about flow, but emphasized it along with a culture of happiness and well-being. In fact, flow is one of WillowTree’s core values (right up there with craftsmanship and open communication). It is a book on the desk of every new team member and is commonly seen blocked off on someone’s calendar.

So, What is Flow?

It’s a concept first studied by Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, a Hungarian psychologist and one of the first pioneers of the scientific study of happiness. He describes it as “the mental state where a person is fully immersed in an activity, performing at their best, and feeling energized throughout the process.”

I’m certain that you’ve experienced flow at some point. Perhaps there were times that you were “in the zone,” chipping away at something to the extent that you lost your sense of time, or maybe you forgot about your hunger pangs while your lunch had gone cold in the microwave four hours later. Why? Because during flow, your whole being is involved. Flow experiences occur in different ways for different people, but they are more likely to occur when engaging in creative activities that utilize strengths. Some experience it while playing sports, such as soccer or skiing; while others experience it during activities like programming, drawing, or even in conversation.

What Does Flow Feel Like?

According to Csíkszentmihályi, there are a number of factors that accompany the experience of flow. While many of these may be present, it’s not necessary to experience all of them for flow to occur:

  1. Strong concentration and complete focus on the activity itself and task at hand
  2. Clear goals that, while challenging, are attainable
  3. The activity is intrinsically rewarding
  4. Loss of self-consciousness; forgetting about others and the world around you
  5. A distorted sense of time; feeling so focused on the present that you lose track of passing time
  6. Immediate feedback; there is a clear set of goals and progress benchmarks to provide direction and structure
  7. Perfect balance between skill level and the challenge presented
  8. Feelings of personal control over the situation and outcome (as opposed to anxiety)
  9. Lack of awareness of physical needs

Benefits of Flow

In addition to being a huge contributor to individual happiness and employee satisfaction, flow has a number of other advantages for companies as a whole. It leads to improved performance and increased productivity, while promoting learning and skill development, which drives innovation and complex thinking. On an organizational scale, it creates a culture of high performance, empowerment, creativity, and morale. In business, some of the best examples of flow are small start-up groups or smaller groups within a larger organization that have autonomy and limited hierarchy within the group.

Flow in the Workplace

In order to achieve and maintain the flow state, one has to continually seek new challenges and information. Otherwise, apathy sets in and the task becomes monotonous. Further, it’s when in flow that you achieve true productivity. I’m not talking about the kind of productivity where you cross out 10 minor (but probably still necessary) tasks, all while watching Netflix and scrolling through your newsfeed. Instead, I’m talking about the productivity and progress that makes large impacts in key projects, such as diving in and tackling a bug or building a complex UI component. In flow there is a focus on quality instead of quantity in output.

Once you learn to focus on these kinds of important projects and tasks, flow is how you get them done. You are able to dive into things that perhaps you have been stuck on, and you are able to lose yourself without interruption. It’s like locking yourself away in a room with all of your thoughts whiteboarded in front of you. The information is closely available and more easily accessed when all of your concentration is dedicated to an overarching goal.

Fun Fact: Multitasking is a myth. The brain can really only concentrate on one thing at a time. People who think they are good at multitasking are really only good at quickly switching their attention from one task to another.

The Key is to Get the Entire Organization On Board

To achieve flow as a company, it requires clear communication and a great deal of trust between a company and its team members. Imagine a company in which some people prioritize flow more than others. People may feel busy and overworked, yet get home and feel unaccomplished. This is often a result of constant meetings to discuss things that no one then has the time to actually do or too much process implemented due to lack of trust of team members. Finally, if the entire company is not on board it could also create misaligned expectations around time to respond (while trying to flow) and ultimately what success looks like.

Further, encouraging flow for individuals is a key to fostering career satisfaction and growth. A goal of leadership is to get things done while creating an environment that is engaging and encourages long-term growth. For leaders, it is important to step back and assess their team members ability to achieve flow. If people are bored, they probably aren’t in flow. There is no challenge, nothing new, and nothing to keep them motivated. On the other hand, if people are under too much stress or given tasks far beyond their current skill level, then it will result in anxiety. Thus, ensure that your team members’ skills are being fully utilized to overcome a challenge that is both manageable but still a stretch to encourage learning new skills to fill the gap. Further, it is important that goals are clear, team members receive regular feedback, and distractions are removed to get into flow. Finally, team members are more likely to get into flow if given the autonomy and responsibility to cultivate intrinsic motivation and contribute to something larger than themselves.

Ways to Achieve Flow as an Organization

  1. Physical Space - settings that support flow vary from person to person. Provide people with a variety of spaces to accommodate those who work best in an enclosed, quiet space as well as those who prefer open spaces with the constant buzz of chatter and background noise. WillowTree’s space includes open space for collaboration, open lounge areas, but also individual booths to go heads down, and private conference rooms.
  2. Create a Culture of Respecting Flow - Set guidelines around expectations around communication including Slack, email, and popping by a team member’s desk. Be okay with not receiving a response to an email, and if it’s a “911” - determine a way to indicate this.
  3. A Compelling Vision and Shared Mission - Everyone wants to feel that their work is meaningful and contributing to a larger goal. Not only does this build camaraderie, but it also provides a framework in which to continually grow and contribute
  4. Trust and Autonomy - Too much process or micromanagement can hinder opportunities for flow. It’s important to sometimes “stay in your lane” or “get out of the way” to allow designers to design or developers to develop. While relinquishing control over a task or delegating, it gives someone else opportunity and freedom to own something
  5. Provide Continuous Learning Opportunities - Providing learning opportunities increases a sense of mastery and therefore the complexity of the work people will be able to take on without putting them in the “anxious” stage
  6. Provide Challenging and Stimulating Work - Great leaders will challenge their team members to accomplish things that may at first seem inconceivable. Rather than setting mundane, incremental goals, set goals that will push people just beyond their comfort zones.
  7. The Potential for Failure and Risk-Taking - Strong team members want to improve just about everything they touch and to be able to take pride in what they create. These risks are when creativity and skill are stretched to innovate new products. Create a culture where it is okay to take a risk and fail, but quickly recover and learn.
  8. Be Clear About Communication of Ownership - Nothing is more frustrating than feeling blocked because of uncertainty. WillowTree has adopted the DRI (Directly Responsible Individual) concept pioneered by Apple. It’s a way to make ownership clear and reduce “swirl” (the opposite of flow) by clarifying responsibility and accountability. This should reduce the number of unproductive meetings needed and provides clear, concrete goals.
  9. Meeting Culture - When setting a meeting, ensure that there is a set agenda; always start and end on time; and be mindful of whether or not every invited attendee truly needs to be there.
  10. Time Management and Allocation - Don’t inundate your team members with constantly shifting priorities without allowing them the time to dive-in. At WillowTree, we try to limit designers and engineers to 1-2 projects at any given time, in order for them to focus and not have to constantly switch mindsets.

Ways to Achieve Flow in Your Individual Work

  1. Choose Work You Love - Think of tasks that get you up in the morning because you are excited to jump in. If you dread a task, you’ll have a hard time losing yourself in it. Whatever you choose, make it something you’re passionate about. By losing yourself in these tasks, you’ll enjoy yourself more.
  2. Meaning - Get important stuff done, instead of just getting stuff done. Engage in work that will make a long-term impact on your career. Yes, sometimes it’s satisfying to achieve inbox 0, but often flow occurs when you are building upon something. You achieve things rather than just keep busy.
  3. Make Sure Tasks Are Challenging, But Not Too Hard - Flow requires full concentration. If the task is too difficult, you will spend most of your concentration figuring out how to do something, frustrated, self-conscious, and discouraged. You reduce stress while increasing quality output.
  4. Find Your Peak Time - Block off time on your calendar dedicated to flow, and during this time tackle tasks that are complex and larger. If you are a morning person and at this time feel most energized, make this your flow time, and leave tasks that require less focus for other parts of your day.
  5. Clear Away Mental and Physical Distractions - Commit to checking email only at certain points throughout the day. Consider the DnD (Do Not Disturb) mode in Slack. If a side thought pops up, keep a notepad nearby to jot it down for later. A clear, minimalistic desk also helps deter mental distractions.
  6. Focus on Individual Tasks as Long as Possible - This can be difficult if you are constantly switching between tasks or your day is broken up with several meetings.

WillowTree has been named as one of the top companies to work for by Glassdoor multiple times, and after working here, flow is definitely one of the secrets to our success. Although, a lot of perks are provided, research shows that happiness and work satisfaction are not only achieved through kegerators and unlimited PTO. It comes from loving what you do and being given the opportunity to actually do what you love. At the end of the day, WillowTree is essentially a culture of happy people who get sh*t done.

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