Career Path

Bridging the ‘Joy’ Gap at Work

An estimated 90% of employees expect to experience high levels of joy at work. But only 37% actually do.

When Jackie offered to lead her company’s site redesign, she knew it would be a difficult project, filled with a flurry of tight deadlines, power struggles among her teammates, and, most likely, an end product that would be better than the current iteration but hardly a masterpiece.

So she was floored when the exact opposite happened—her team created an impressive website that caught the attention of a national web-design association. When problems crept up, the team managed to overcome each hurdle with nary a passive-aggressive email. Even in the stressful hours of testing, they found themselves cracking jokes.

Jackie’s joyful experience is one that many professionals hope for yet rarely achieve. According to a survey by the consulting firm A.T. Kearney, nearly 90% of employees say they expect to experience a significant degree of joy at work—while only 37% say they actually attain it. People want to do meaningful work and form strong bonds with their team, which the survey found to be two drivers of joy. But too often, company culture doesn’t live up to those hopes.

Achieving joy at work depends on everyone knowing their role and contributing in a way that plays to their strengths.

At a time when companies are increasingly driven by the purpose movement, in which employees want to back organizations that make positive social contributions and give them a sense of meaning, this so-called “joy gap” is at risk of widening. Much of it is a result of the way workplaces are structured: the traditional “team” with one boss is being replaced by matrixed organizations that have complicated lines of command. And with more people working remotely, eliminating face-to-face interaction, the focus is on how the work gets done—without any regard for how happily it gets done. But finding joy at work can be a powerful force, giving people a sense of purpose and increasing their engagement and loyalty. Here’s how to find joy in your day-to-day duties.

Know what’s expected of you.

Achieving joy at work depends on everyone knowing their role and contributing in a way that plays to their strengths, says Marquitta Cherry, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance. If two people working on one project have similar skills but different methods, they’re likely to clash in a power struggle.

You may not always get to choose the makeup of your team, but you can ask the project leader why they chose you, and offer up what you see as your strengths. Asking something like, “Can we discuss the role you had in mind for me on this project?” can help you steer the leader toward giving you clarity, while also volunteering you to handle an area where you shine.

Highlight how your work fits into the bigger picture.

If you spend your days sending emails or looking at spreadsheets like many office workers, it can be easy to lose sight of the meaning of your contributions. “Think about your company’s mission and how this particular project supports that mission to find joy in your work,” Cherry says. You can also use your project’s potential impact as leverage with the higher-ups. If you need more resources, for example, you can remind those higher in command of the impact the project may make within the organization, before making your request.

Celebrate the little wins.

While it may seem logical to save a celebration until a job is well done, career experts say highlighting little milestones, or even just the hard work that’s being done, can help increase joy at work. Whether you’re heading up the project or just a member of the team, it’s important to make your colleagues feel valued and appreciated. “Saying thank you might seem obvious, but it’s often overlooked in work settings and can go a long way,” says Jennice Vilhauer, a manager for Korn Ferry’s Search Assessment practice.

And while you’re at it, make sure your manager and higher-ups are aware of these little wins. Too often, companies check one project off the list and breeze right on to the next. Just be sure not to go overboard in highlighting those wins in every conversation you have with your superiors.

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