The new work rules that are proven to create a happier and more harmonious office

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Anna Brech
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Dong, dong, dong. That's the sound of the death knoll clanging on fusty corporate protocol.

With a growing body of evidence that shows we perform better when we're happier, enterprises the world over are having a major rethink on how to foster well-being and satisfaction in the workplace.

Following the lead of start-ups, big business is binning ridged and outdated policies in favour of a more flexible and holistic set of principles that chime better with our modern, hectic lives.

These "rules" - if you can call them that - recognise that we need versatility, trust and communication to thrive. They turn the generic formality of corporate law and order on its head to ask, what is it that makes people happy? And how can we facilitate that?

Behold the radical new rules promising revolution in the workplace, and how realistically to make use of them:  

Consider everyone an equal partner

If everyone, from the part-time freelancer to the intern, is asked for their opinion and input, they feel valued and trusted. And this in turn helps foster empowerment and happiness.

Time and again, Danes are ranked the happiest nation in the world, a status they link to trust and self-determination.

"Research show what makes the Danes so happy is that they are very trusting of other people they don’t know," says Professor of Economics Christian Bjørnskov from Aarhus Business School. "Trust helps make people happy. Also just as importantly, Danes feel empowered to be able to change something in their life if they don’t like it."

If you wanted to follow this philosophy through to its full extent, you could consider scrapping work hierarchy altogether. Jenny Biggam, founder of London-based media agency the7stars, has done exactly that.

"We have a completely flat company structure so everybody’s voice has equal merit," she says. "We find that people work much more flexibly when they are not tied down by a title describing what they do, or worried about where they are in the pecking order."

If that's too extreme, just consider treating everyone with equal respect as a starting point. It sounds obvious, but it can easily be overlooked in favour of secretive cliques and self-important chains of command. 

Take account of different opinions and listen to your fellow team members. If you are at the top of an organisation, make an effort know peoples' names and ask about their families. You need to make everyone feel as though their views count, and that they are an important part of a wider goal. 

Take ownership of your office design

Be gone, drab and generic office layouts!

Psychologist Dr. Craig Knight, director of the Identity Realization workplace consultancy, has used a series of studies to demonstrate the importance of office design on team morale. 

In a 2010 experiment, staff given the opportunity to arrange a small office with as many plants and pictures as they wanted were up to 32 percent more productive than those who were not given that control.

A later survey of 350 participants with Indoor Garden Design garnered even more dramatic results. Researchers concluded that allowing staff to make design decisions in a work space - even with little things like choice of pot plants -  increased well-being and creativity by nearly 50 percent, as well as boasting productivity.



Don't underestimate the importance of design. Think about how best to use colour, furniture and light in the workplace and let everyone have a say in how this is done.

Encourage people to decorate their own areas and try and allocate a small budget for plants, lamps and other things that will help spruce up your office and give it a sense of personality. 

Relish disagreement and debate

We're naturally wary of the idea of arguments but no organisation ever prospered to the sound of a thousand nodding heads.

Innovation requires differing opinions, disagreements and debates to flourish. You need people to feel comfortable in sticking their heads above the parapet and voicing what they really think.

Ricardo Semler, CEO of  Brazilian company Semco Partners, explains how he re-wrote the rules on arguments in his book Maverick: The Success Behind the World’s Most Unusual Workplace.

"At Semco, we gave people an opportunity to test, question, and disagree," he says. "We let them change their minds and ours, prove us wrong when we are wrong, make us humbler. Such a system relishes change, which is the only antidote to the corporate brainwashing that has consigned giant businesses with brilliant pasts to uncertain futures."

Human Resources expert  says it's important to distinguish and nurture "positive conflict" at work. 

"When people can disagree with each other and lobby for different ideas, your organization is healthier. Disagreements often result in a more thorough study of options and better decisions and direction," she says. "Reward, recognize, and thank people who are willing to take a stand and support their position. You can publicly thank people who are willing to disagree with the direction of a group.

"You need to make differences the expectation and healthy debate about issues and ideas the norm."

Make well-being a priority

A 2014 report by the New Economics Foundation rammed home the importance of well-being in creating a positive work culture, by highlighting its impact on reducing stress and increasing job satisfaction. And the key factors affecting well-being include management style, quality of relationships at work and good use of skill-sets; people need to feel like they are challenged enough, but also that their given jobs are achievable. 

Another big influence on well-being is work-life balance. In a piece last year, Arianna Huffington laid out how companies are increasingly looking to nurture well-being at work. For example, enterprise software company SAS deliberately staffs its business so that people don't have to regularly work long hours. At Intel, a nine-week mindfulness course is now available to a workforce of over 100,000 employees. At San Francisco-based task management company Asana, employees are offered two organic meals a day, yoga, massages, and life coaching. Team members at Etsy can make use of a custom-made  "breathing room," which Vice President Matt Stinchcomb describes as "a digital device-free room with meditation cushions." 

These schemes may mean the companies take a hit on results and profitability in the short-term, especially when it comes to limiting working hours. But they are able to recognise the bigger picture; that the benefits derived from employee happiness will only help enhance performance over time. 

As health and wellness expert Jan Bruce explains, big business is beginning to preempt emotional wellness - with ingrained strategies focusing around stress management, resilience and mindfulness - rather than react to it with crisis methods such as hotlines and counselling. And she says, this shift is important given the way we now run our lives:

 "The modern workforce has dizzying demands on their time, and they don’t all work one way, nor do they have the freedom to “only” work on one thing or another: about 75% of employees are parents; more than a third of employees are non-professional caregivers; and 47% of employees are part of dual-income households," she says.

"Along with this shifting demographic, the new reality is that there are no hard lines between work and home, personal and professional. People now tend to bring their whole selves to work, including their stressors and emotions every day."

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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.