How Leaders Can Optimize Their Employees' Working Conditions

I recently spoke at a corporate conference where the majority of participants were executives from Fortune 250 companies. I asked several distinguished HR executives and leaders overseeing diversity and inclusion projects what they are doing to optimize the workplace for their employees. Some looked terrified. Others had blank, distant looks on their faces.

Optimizing the work environment for individual performance? It was almost as if I had spoken the “unspeakable.” Businesses expect their employees to give their all, be fully engaged, and perform at their peak, but how are businesses adapting the work environment so that employees can do that?

Simple example: All too often organizations decide moving people from offices to open floor plan will promote collaboration. Few consider the implications to individuals with ADD or who simply prefer solitude. Too often, changes are made without stopping to ask individuals what they want or where they perform at their best.

For many, the thought of interacting with their employees at this level is daunting. This is why too many executives simply write out a check for a free pizza lunch while continuing to ignore the conditions under which employees truly excel. 

Yet, corporations want to be recognized for their progressive, diverse and inclusive workspaces. And while promoting flexibility, open office workspaces, and rewarding performers are important, it's crucial to engage and then listen to your employees. When do they feel their best? How do they like to work? What do they need to deliver great work?

We know that individuals who are in flow, or performing at their peak, are five times more productive and up to seven times more creative at work and in life. We also know that there are specific psychological, environmental and social triggers that optimize the likelihood that individuals will get into flow. In flow, people are more productive and feel better and happier. And the good news is that corporate leaders can easily help their employees create the conditions for flow.

Want Radical Improvement? Don’t Settle For Lateral Shifts

While we all want radically improvements, too often, we settle for “laterally” different approaches. To achieve new levels of engagement and reach new levels of productivity — to harness a new level of creativity that can truly innovate and solve tomorrow's problems — we need to actively position ourselves and our teams to perform at our best and to create more flow. This begins with interrogating how you currently do things and even what is valued most in your organization. Next, it means opening yourself up to change on an unprecedented level.

Hyper Customization Is The Future

We are living at a time of increasing customization. Simply look at the range of cell phones options to see how individualized products have become. Today, everyone has a separate color, ring, and screen saver. Yet, most workplaces still operate in a one-size-fits-all modality (e.g., this level of employees gets this size office or cube and this type of phone, this quality laptop and so on). And all too often, corporations are managing in a one-size-fits-all leadership model (e.g., this type of employee doing this type of work is expected to follow these types of metrics, perform during this period of time, and enjoy only these perks). To promote more flow, reward employees doing great work by giving them more opportunity to do even better work moving forward. How specifically? Give them clear outcomes, and then give them autonomy in how they execute.  

Make It Personal

In his book The Three Signs of a Miserable Job, Patrick Lencioni described three fatal workplace flaws: employees feel anonymous (who they are does not matter), irrelevant (they can not see how their work contributes to the mission of the organization), and unquantifiable (they can’t see results in their work). 

Now imagine a workplace where an individual was given very specific, challenging yet doable goals and told how these tasks would impact the organization’s broader mission. Imagine a workplace where individuals understood what was expected of them, and then simply given the time, space, resources and working environment to execute these expectations. Imagine a workplace where every worker felt confident that they were contributing and making progress daily and not just once a year during their performance review.

The takeaway is simple: Personalizing one’s work and relationship to the organization increased productivity because employees feel more invested in what they are doing. How? Link priority projects to the company mission. If you can't make the link, reconsider if they should be priorities.   

Expect More, Beginning With Your Leaders

Expecting more necessitates a shift in managing and leading. It means giving individuals the flexibility to design how and when they work, and it means ensuring that leaders have laser clarity on the tasks they are delegating and clear metrics for success. It also means leaders need to trust employees and give them the autonomy required to execute on deliverables. This, in turn, means having more conversations about deliverables and being more accountability and transparent. In this scenario, leaders need to be prepared to provide specific feedback on what is working, what isn't working, and how to position every individual in their organization for success. 

Doing all of this might seem time-consuming and daunting, but it’s not. More importantly, any time or energy spent on this endeavor will reap major returns.  The research is compelling: Increasing our time in flow by 15-20% can literally double our productivity. The numbers are striking, and the reality is in reach. Creating the conditions for more flow holds the potential to double the productivity of your entire workforce.

Originally published on Forbes.com