I remember there was a time in my life when I began every day at the office by turning to youtube.com and watching funny videos for a few minutes. I used to love it. As someone who likes to start early, I really enjoyed this quick, happy ritual before diving into work and getting on with my day.
We all like to be happy, to laugh occasionally—and yet, most people don’t think about how we become happy at all. I will not venture into the science of it, but I do know that sometimes when you are in a good mood, things start to fall into place, the right words start flowing and before you know it, you’re having a good day.
When we work with teams, we always ensure they like working with each other. We want people to feel connected as a team, and so we like to give them some time to bond with each other by playing some fun games. In the team I currently work with we have a designated game time: whenever we reach it, everyone turns their work mode off for a while and we immerse ourselves in play. This short break not only helps to de-stress but also facilitates bonding between colleagues.
Unsurprisingly, the gamification is my favourite part when organising workshops and events. Sure, you may drive meaningful conversations through formal tools and procedure, but if people don’t enjoy being there, such an exercise is not worth it. On some level, this depends on the concept of psychological safety and how people participating in a meeting or discussion like to be themselves. If you employ a tool or process during these discussions that makes them walk the way you want them to, they will still follow, but eventually they might stop bringing out their true self. This is the reason I advise people designing such workshops to ensure they include icebreakers and other activities which let people enjoy along the way.
For a long time, I used to begin release retros by having 2-3 people stand together and draw an emotional seismograph on the whiteboard. Although I told them this graph is merely a tool for self-reflection—which it is—I feel there’s something compelling about the activity that made them stand up with their teams and draw their lines across the board, bumping into each other and having fun. At times we had 20-30 people making their seismographs—we always joked how much it looked like modern art at the end, and everyone admired this artistic streak.
Turning to look back a few years to when I was living in the UK, I remember my project manager Wayne who had a unique way of holding daily standup. He used to invite everyone to talk about one funny thing that happened to them or which they witnessed in their daily lives—the results, trust me, were often hilarious, and we would all be laughing out loud within minutes. Occasionally people would pass if they had nothing to say, but even getting one or two real time stories made for a very jolly morning. We all used to return from these standups with the widest of smiles on our faces.
I’ve had similar experiences when using Rory’s Story Cubes to run retros: people are incredibly enthusiastic; the whole experience of rolling dices and making up stories energises them and makes them feel like kids all over again. This technique involves participants rolling 9 dices and using the symbols on the faces of the dice—4 or more symbols—to construct a story related to their life in the sprint. Thanks to the symbols, the storytelling depersonalises the story and gives it the shape of fiction, which makes this technique a real winner. Running such a session, it is impossible not to see smiles all around—it is true that storytelling is an art, but what we often don’t realise is that most of us can be really good at it if we try.
These examples are only a drop in the ocean of ways in which we can connect with people. As everyone becomes comfortable, they will bring out their real selves. We can ensure this by making them talk about their thoughts, by engaging them (confession: up to this point, I was avoiding this word!), and making them feel human and in the company of friends.
The simplest human action is laughter—after all, at the end of the day, who doesn’t like to smile; who doesn’t like to laugh while working? Some of the most successful teams I’ve seen are also the ones which are the happiest and most comfortable around each other. In one team I remember working with, we used to set Friday evenings aside for team dinners. I know this is not uncommon, but the reason why I remember these dinners so fondly is the quality of time it allowed us to spend together. Team dinners for us were always a fun occasion, full of jokes and chatter, with us often shouting to make conversation in noisy places and just generally enjoying ourselves. Friday evening always ended happily and full of merriment, and it was smiling faces again when we all met on Monday morning.
We all use metrics to drive behaviours, and even look at the organisational culture using behaviours at play, but in my opinion, ensuring people are happy while working is as important as anything else—if people are happy, they will remember that work is not a one-person job, it’s about the team, about the organisation, and also about the little joys in life.
Right now, happiness takes on an added importance of a kind we could never have imagined. After all, humans haven’t seen a pandemic in a century, and everything has changed dramatically over these last months. For most of this year, we were caged inside our homes for months in either a government-mandated lockdown or in a mental lockdown that made us avoid stepping out. Even as we begin to venture out in the world again, being happy is taking on an immensity we simply cannot ignore.
Since March, I have attended many sessions emphasising the effect of the pandemic on our mental health and how critical it is, and trust me—the touch, the care, the sense of still being connected to the world; all of it seems to be in a good place if you’re happy doing what you’re doing. Sometimes, you may even feel happy doing the worst of things—long as you have a reason to smile, it’s all worth it.
Yesterday, I was scrolling through LinkedIn when I saw a post that drew lines across my heart. It said that Work from Home is good because of two reasons: a, you have work; b, you have a home. In the course of this pandemic, many have lost jobs, many may no longer have homes, and yet some of us crib about working remotely. Don’t get me wrong—I too would like nothing more than going back to working from the office—but I certainly think we can learn to appreciate and be content with what we currently have, to seek the best we can do, and to then move along that.
I have thought about this often while growing up, but only during the pandemic have I realised the true weight of the fact that contentment with what we have and what we do is was ultimately makes us grow and learn beyond the obvious. This is somewhat like taking money off the table while hiring someone—we sometimes need to get the obvious things out of the picture so that we can focus on the more important ones. In the end, I believe, it is all about being happy, and if this year has taught us anything, it is that we only need little to feel that way.
For instance, I often conduct Lego sessions with people at the office. During these sessions, I have witnessed adults become cheerful and carefree like kids as they play with the Lego and use storytelling to weave together deep and meaningful tales. This, again, is a very powerful form of facilitation that takes very little and makes people very happy.
Personally, I see a lot of happiness in food, too—as a foodie, I consider relishing various cuisines and enjoying food as integral to my joy. I have also noticed how well people connect over food—be it post-work drinks in the evening or team lunches; people eating together and chatting away always lends a lot of positivity. The more we interact with being ourselves, the happier we get.
It is only after this pandemic that I’ve realised how much of the things and people in our lives we used to take for granted—especially the people. For instance, I have always loved to meet my maternal uncle and aunt because of how much laughter they bring into my life. Even if I sit with them for 15 minutes, I would hear at least 3 different jokes out of which 2 would make me roll over because of how good they are. I admit, it runs in my family to keep laughing once we start—but isn’t that human? I believe that the most human of all things is the happiness that comes from a single smile or a laugh. No wonder everyone wants that—whether we get it or not is a different thing.
So, the next time you see your team, your colleagues, your friends, and your family, try to make it a fount for your happiness and that of everyone around you—maybe with a smile, an icebreaking session with the team, a fun game on Mural or Miro, a joke you heard the other day or even a YouTube video of a standup comic you love, and see how these simple acts and activities takes everyone to the next level of happiness, and from happiness to more productivity and success. After all, we only live once, and we need to make sure there are enough things to smile and be happy about.