Ask people what makes them happy at work, and many will tell you it’s the relationships they have with their colleagues. In fact, according to recent research from the Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM), ‘Getting on well with colleagues gives workers greater job satisfaction than having a good salary’. Work-life balance, and feeling valued by their manager, also ranked highly, as you would expect.

The Institute’s report ‘New Decade, New Direction’ also delved into career aspirations for the year ahead among the 2,000 plus employees they surveyed. Expanding professional knowledge and getting better at leading and managing came out top, with employees particularly valuing the opportunity to take part in training and coaching, not necessarily with the aim of achieving a professional qualification.

The findings provide interesting food for thought for HR professionals who, despite a massive body of research (over 300 studies at the last count) and numerous initiatives are still battling against a tide of disengagement. Figures from Gallup’s State of the Workplace report show that only 15 per cent of employees are engaged at work – a finding borne out by the ILM survey, where only 24 per cent reported being ‘very satisfied’ in their current role.

happy employees at work

Could it be that more focus on facilitating good relationships at work, more emphasis on supporting employees with their career development and a determination to get flexible working right – could be the key to unleashing enthusiasm and making people happier at work? And if so, what practical actions might help?

1. Encouraging social relationships

Helping employees build relationships is probably not top of the agenda for managers who are under pressure and struggling to meet tough deadlines. But taking time to help workers bond can do much to support productivity and encourage the collaboration all businesses need if they are to thrive.

This isn’t about laying on big, expensive social occasions (or organising ‘enforced fun’ as one of my friends calls it). In one team I work in, we have a jigsaw puzzle on the go on a table next door to our office, so that when people are taking a break they can pop in and put a few pieces in place. In the same organisation, there is also a variety of lunchtime and after work clubs, ranging from yoga and ukulele to 5-a-side football and ‘knit and natter’. Even just a simple weekly team lunch or coffee can help to create ties, making it more likely colleagues will support each other when the going gets tough at work and everyone needs to pitch in.

2. Nailing flexible working

Flexible working is still a bone of contention in many organisations. Despite legislation, widespread discussion about the benefits and proudly promulgated corporate policies, there are still many companies where only lip service is being paid. Employees in the same organisation, but in different teams, are treated differently when it comes to job-shares, work-from-home arrangements or even the ability to slightly shift their working hours.

There are of course some organisations where a solid presence 9-5 is a business requirement, but there are plenty of others where resistance to the idea of flexibility persists because of outdated perceptions, and a lack of confidence among managers about how to make it work.

HR has a role to play in helping managers understand the range of flexible working options, and supporting them in redesigning job roles and implementing a more fluid approach to work in their teams. We need to shift to a ‘flexibility first’ mindset, rather than hanging on to unhelpful and often divisive practices of the past.

3. Recognising changes in the career dynamic

Career paths as we know them no longer exist. In today’s flatter structures and fast-moving environments, the concept of the career ladder just doesn’t work anymore. Instead, we are seeing more of a ‘squiggly’ career, where people may change direction several times during their working lives, and are as likely to move sideways and downwards as they are upwards, as new jobs emerge and new skills come to the fore.

Managers and employees need help in getting to grips with this new reality, and advice and support in how best they can design and manage professional progression. HR can assist by initiating open discussions about the skills the business is likely to need going forward, and by encouraging managers to make conversations about career aspirations and development opportunities an integral part of performance reviews. Ensuring managers have the confidence to give feedback and manage expectations during sometimes difficult career conversations, is key.

4. Getting performance management right

Cezanne HR’s recent survey on performance management yielded some surprising results. Despite all the debate about continuous performance management, and the value of having regular, just-in-time feedback, the majority of employees said they felt once a year was the right frequency for appraisals. This could of course be because for the majority of employees, they are indifferent to performance reviews, and for those that dread them, they find them uncomfortable and a waste of time.

HR, it seems, still has work to do in changing perceptions around performance management – assisting both line managers and their employees to see how they are a great opportunity to help people fulfill their potential, while also meeting business goals. Employees who are clear about expectations, priorities and boundaries – and who feel valued and supported by their manager – are more likely to be happy and fulfilled at work and performing to the best of their ability.

5. Focusing on informal learning opportunities

The ILM’s survey, referenced above, suggests that employees’ views about learning and development are shifting in line with the evolving, fast-moving workforce of the future. Training is valued highly, but people don’t necessarily feel the need to follow formal courses that lead to a professional qualification (although these are of course still mandatory in some fields).

HR can respond to this by exploiting the myriad of informal learning opportunities that exist within every business. Developing a coaching and mentoring culture can be enormously beneficial when it comes to fostering the soft, intangible skills that are becoming increasingly important in the workplace. Secondments, work shadowing and project assignments are also a great way of helping employees build new skills, while signposting to widely available (and often free) online resources can help staff take responsibility for making themselves future-fit.

Happiness at work is, of course, not entirely down to HR. There are many other complex, and sometimes personal issues at play which affect how content people are with their working lives. But, a few often quite simple tweaks to the way people are supported and managed can make a big difference.

Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.