Employee engagement: why flow is the key to boosting productivity and performance

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According to psychology experts, the best way to motivate employees and inspire them to do their best work is to encourage them to reach a state of ‘flow’.

In the relatively new field of positive psychology, the concept of ‘flow’ stands out as a practical way for organisations to boost productivity, performance, creativity and satisfaction amongst employees - all crucial elements of any employee engagement strategy.

What is flow?

Have you ever been so absorbed in a task that you’ve lost track of time and anything else going on around you? You might have described it as being ‘in the zone’, but it’s what positive psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, calls being in a state of flow.

According to Csikszentmihalyi, the state of flow is defined by eight characteristics:

  1. Total focus and concentration on the task at hand
  2. Clarity of goals and outcome, reinforced by immediate feedback
  3. Losing a sense of time, feeling that it’s slowing down or speeding up
  4. Finding reward in the task itself, not just the outcome
  5. A sense of effortlessness
  6. A balance between the level of challenge involved and personal skill
  7. Clarity of thought, a lack of awareness of any worries, concerns, thoughts or feelings
  8. A sense of control over the task

It is in a state of flow, Csikszentmihalyi says, that people are at their most creative, productive and perhaps most importantly, happy.

How is flow relevant to employee engagement?

To answer this question, let’s consider the common characteristics of an engaged employee and how they correlate to the characteristics of flow.

Connected: an engaged employee is likely to be aware of how their role contributes to the overall mission and goals of the organisation. Making this connection between your personal actions and a bigger outcome is a defining characteristic of flow.

Confident: engaged employees usually feel that their role is interesting, varied and stretches them, without being too stressful or taxing. They’re able to use their particular skills and strengths effectively whilst also being encouraged to learn and grow. This balance between challenge and skill is a key element of flow.

With a few simple changes, this state of optimal performance or flow can be encouraged amongst employees, resulting in a higher level of satisfaction, wellbeing and engagement.

Empowered: engaged employees are empowered and trusted to carry out their work. They feel that their ideas and input are valued. This sense of independent control over a task is a third defining feature of flow.

Content: when engagement is high, generally so is job satisfaction and happiness in the workplace, which has a positive knock-on effect on absenteeism and staff retention. Similarly, when a person is in a state of flow, they’re getting a strong sense of enjoyment, satisfaction and reward from the work they’re doing.

How can flow be created in the workplace?

There are practical things you can do to create the right conditions for flow in the workplace. Keep in mind that even if an employee can achieve a state of flow for just one hour a week, it will make a big difference to their overall job satisfaction and engagement.

Manage distractions

Take steps to minimise interruptions to the workflow of your employees. Emails, telephone calls, meetings or ad hoc requests from colleagues distract from the task at hand and disrupt the focus and concentration required for flow to occur. Some simple measures could help with this:

  • Keep one afternoon per week free of meetings for all employees
  • Encourage staff to turn off their desktop email notifications and instead check their inbox every hour or so
  • Share the task of answering incoming phone calls between all employees with a shift or rota system

Support performance

It’s important to ensure that employees have the resources, tools and support they need to carry out their work safely, effectively and to a high standard. Without this, there won’t be the balance needed for flow to occur, between the challenge of a task and the confidence or skill level required to complete it.

This also requires an open and honest atmosphere in which employees feel comfortable raising issues or asking for support. A mentoring system can be a useful way of establishing these open lines of communication.

Give feedback

Sharing the details of your organisation’s success, growth and even potential challenges helps employees to feel connected to the overall aims of the business and more aware of their individual contribution and impact on these goals.

Simple ways to do this could be regular staff meetings, company newsletters or the use of an intranet to communicate news and events.

Celebrating individual success is also a big part of this. Recognising an individual's work and effort in staff meetings or even in an informal email, can help employees find reward in their work and make the connection between their day-to-day tasks and something bigger.

Final thoughts

The term 'flow' was coined after participants in Csikszentmihalyi’s study described their state of optimal performance as being when their work and creativity flowed effortlessly through and from them.

With a few simple changes, this state of optimal performance or flow can be encouraged amongst employees, resulting in a higher level of satisfaction, wellbeing and engagement.

Interested in learning more? Read Mindfulness at work: how 10 minutes can make employees more creative.

About Lucy Whitehall

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By donr1
20th Aug 2018 00:14

Interesting article. I note however under the heading "Manage distractions" the suggestions seem to apply more to office situations. Have I got this completely wrong? If not, then are there some suggestions from the author as to how that can be achieved in a more factory or other environment ie construction; agriculture; transport?

Cheers. DonR.

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20th Aug 2018 09:51

Hello Don,
Thanks for taking the time to comment. You make a valuable point. Distraction comes in many forms, both external; from the noises around us, and other demands on our attention, to the internal commentary of our self-talk.
As a first step I recommend identifying the distractor.
If external; what is within your power to influence or perhaps control? If internal, is it possible to make a choice to place attention away from the chattering self-talk onto your flow activity, safe in the knowledge the thoughts or concerns can be returned to at a later point?

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By donr1
23rd Aug 2018 01:17

Thanks Lucy..………...I'll keep that in mind. Cheers. DonR.

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