How do you improve happiness at work? Start by measuring it

In which the Canadian Business staff learns we're about as happy as an auto manufacturing plant

Header for The Happy Office Project
Business people talking in meeting

“How happy are we?” “THIS happy” (Jose Luiz Pelaez/Getty)

Jim Moss is a guy whose glass is definitely half full. He’s the sort of person who starts emails with “Happy Monday!” and manages to sound as if he means it. But even he sounds a titch troubled by the data his team at Plasticity Labs has collected from our workplace. Moss is looking at how my colleagues and I at Canadian Business rated our current levels of job satisfaction in a questionnaire we answered on Day 1 of our Happy Office Project. On a scale of 1-7, we averaged 4.8—a score he says is typical of employees in the troubled manufacturing industry, but that’s rare among knowledge-based workers. “Your averages are definitely lower than we usually see,” Moss says, assuming the sort of casually neutral tone that doctors use to deliver unpleasant biopsy results.

Moss’s Waterloo startup has worked with more than 20 Canadian companies interested in tracking and boosting employee happiness: Knowledge-based workforces typically start with a baseline score of low to mid-fives, he says. And they rarely have employees assigning scores as low as, well, 2—while also predicting that, in six months time, they expect to be even less satisfied at work. “You’ve got people forecasting that things are looking even worse in the future,” he points out.

Then he summons his inner cheerleader: “The good news is that people are typically terrible at guessing what their future will be like. And the bad news is that people often wear their expectations—if they feel that things ahead look bad, they’re going to seem grumpy at the office. But there’s an opportunity there to get people thinking, ‘If I think things are going to get worse, what can I do now to change that?’”

So maybe our tumour’s not malignant after all. And maybe, over the course of the next month or so, we’ll be able to shrink it just a little by using Plasticity’s digital platform to focus on and develop what Moss calls the HERO traits: hope, efficacy, resilience and optimism—key ingredients of happiness. Using the app takes about five minutes each day: participants in our experiment log in to Plasticity’s online platform, pick a number out of 100 to rate their happiness level that day and post a brief note about something they’re grateful for at work. It’s not a very big ask considering that doing this on a daily basis could make us all feel happier, more motivated, and ultimately more productive. But by 2 p.m. on most days of Week 1 of our experiment no one had bothered to even log in.

“What made your work great today?” I found myself staring at that question a little resentfully on Day One. My colleagues and I share a lot of things—business intel, stories about our pets and kids, leftover Easter candy—but this query felt infinitely more personal. And also a little forced. I wasn’t sure I was ready for it.

After thinking about it for a minute, I turned the task into a note on my to-do list: “Write gratitude post.” Happiness had now officially become another workplace chore, sandwiched between “Get jobs data to Chris!” and “Book dentist appointment.”

Still, Moss paints a compelling picture of what can happen when you make time to focus on happiness at work. Instead of obsessing about the broken printer in the kitchen, you start focusing on the great job your admin assistant just did in that all-staff meeting. And by assigning a score to your happiness, you can begin to see what matters to your day and what doesn’t. “There’s a lot of volatility at the beginning—people’s happiness scores go way up and down,” Moss says. “But what happens over time is that your brain starts looking for reasons for your scores and comparing things that add to or detract from your happiness. If you sat in traffic on that first day, you might say your day was terrible and assign a low score. But maybe a few weeks later, you sit in traffic again and you realize that compared to that other day, it wasn’t such a big deal.”

Plasticity’s app isn’t a cure-all—it’s designed to encourage employees to focus on wellbeing but also to help managers and executives identify troubling issues and challenges in the workplace. Ours may need some tweaking, but for now at least, my colleagues and I have found plenty of positive things to comment on: work we’re proud of, jokes about office nicknames and even a little cheerfulness about the weather (“Not wearing a sweater for the first time in…I can’t even remember,” one colleague posted).

And I’ve noticed at least one thing about the Plasticity platform that made me think it could lead to positive changes in our workplace. The app features pop-up surveys that ask questions like, Do you find time to do things that make you happy? Or How often do you take risks? I filled out one that asked how supportive my work team is and found myself consciously thinking for the first time about something that I’ve always taken for granted: I work with an incredibly supportive group of people. If I can’t get something done, or don’t know how to approach a challenge, someone will always step in to help.

I said as much in my survey response, and was then asked how supportive I believe I am to my colleagues. The question made me stop and think. And now that I’ve consciously considered it, I think I can do more to help out with some of the group projects I’m involved in. If that makes for a better workplace, my boss may eventually decide to post a note of gratitude for a certain app.

Canadian Business’s report card from Plasticity:



The Happy Office Project is a special series initiated by Canadian Business. Plasticity Labs is neither providing or receiving payment for our participation, and has no involvement in its editorial content.