Even happy offices still have professional boundaries...right?

You can’t force a skeptical colleague to join in the cheer. But the effort alone is worth it, experts argue

Header for The Happy Office Project
Sad looking office worker wearing a party hat

Not everyone responds the same way to attempts to boost workplace cheer. (Fuse/Getty)

So maybe a happy workplace isn’t for everyone. Or at least, not the sort of relentlessly cheerful environment we seem to be trying to conjure with our Happy Office Project. We’re experimenting with an online tool designed to develop our workplace positivity muscles, but after a week of valiantly mustering responses to the question, “What made your work great today,” some members of our group wondered whether all this artificially induced chirpiness was more like a steroid injection: good intentions taken to a ridiculously pumped-up extreme.

“Have you read Dave Eggers’ The Circle?” one colleague asked with a meaningful look that suggested high-fiving, back-slapping workplaces are great fodder for literary satire but less-than-ideal environments to actually work in.

The digital platform we’re experimenting with, designed by Waterloo-based Plasticity Labs, asks us to make daily estimates of our happiness on a scale of 1-100 and to occasionally answer questions like, How often do you make time for things that make you happy? Most of my co-workers don’t object to those quiet workday intrusions (and the baseline results from a happiness survey we took on Day 1 suggest we could definitely use a little perking up). But Plasticity also encourages us to dial up our positivity to what, for some, feels like 11 by posting positive messages on a Facebook-like social feed, and “smile-bombing” colleagues with public displays of office affection.

Journalists proudly tout the importance of healthy skepticism. So it was no surprise when, eight days into our experiment, one of our editors, Graham F. Scott, proposed a story idea at a staff meeting: exploring the case for not being pals at work. “The best, happiest, healthiest work situations are built on boundaries,” he argued. “Work is work, you do it during business hours, and everyone has a life of their own outside of that.” The gradual “smooshing together” of social and work lives—the forced coziness of Friday drink carts and boardroom birthday cakes—is regarded with growing skepticism from some quarters, he said. In other words, a positive, productive workplace doesn’t have to necessarily look like Google.

He’s right, says Gretchen Rubin, author of several books on the human quest for blissfulness, including the 2009 hit The Happiness Project. “You can’t put party hats on everyone,” Rubin says, pointing out that some personality types will never hit 100—or even close to it—in their self-assessments of contentment. And they don’t even want to—a disinclination that’s at least partly hardwired. Rubin calls these sober-minded types “Eeyores” and says their determined commitment to avoid anything that feels phoney often makes them great workplace contributors—they’re often better at realistically assessing workplace realities and challenges. Just don’t make them sing Happy Birthday in public. “Your attempts to bring cheer may feel intrusive and suffocating,” Rubin cautions.

So are our efforts to stamp smiley faces on our workplace misguided? Is the happiness advantage out of reach for people who’d rather eat printer toner than smile-bomb a co-worker?

Not according to Plasticity co-founder and chief marketing officer Jennifer Moss, who says that while it’s true that some employees don’t like the company’s platform, many benefit from it in ways that aren’t as attention-grabbing as the smile-bomb surprise that Plasticity suggests trying: covering a co-worker’s desk in sticky note messages about how great they are.

The goal of the platform isn’t to force friendships, Moss says; it’s to build up a sense that if an employee needs help or advice, they can rely on their colleagues and managers. “Do you need to be able to call them at 2 a.m. when your car breaks down? No. Do you need to be able to walk over and feel safe in asking their opinion about a challenge with an assignment or project you are working on? I believe the answer is yes. And, to get to that point, you need to develop skills like trust, empathy, optimism, hopefulness or you will never feel safe in the asking.”
Moss cites a Gallup statistic as evidence of what trust can accomplish: Employees who say they have at least one friend at work are 50% less likely to leave their job.

In the end, we embraced the smile-bomb and organized a show of appreciation that we could all get behind: a quick surprise fete for our tirelessly hardworking editorial co-ordinator, Rebecca Torres. Did it feel a little cloying asking co-workers to write Post-it note messages? Yes. Was it tricky to arrange during the middle of a hectic deadline week? Absolutely. Was it worth it? Here’s what she had to say: “Thank you all for the amazing surprise this afternoon! (I’m still in shock ☺) Thank you for your post-its/kind words… I’m so grateful to be a part of such an awesome team ☺”


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.