Why happiness is the key to better business results

Written by Ann Francke Tuesday 19 May 2020
Across the UK, many employees have been happier working at home during the COVID-19 lockdown. This gives managers and leaders a lot to think about, says CMI's President-Elect Mark Price.
Ann Francke OBE

I was delighted to have CMI’s president-elect Lord Mark Price as my guest on our Better Managers Briefing recently. He spoke of his career as deputy-chair of the retailer John Lewis; the characteristics of good leadership; why engaging works and most people are happier working now than before the Covid-19 crisis; and the relationship between employee happiness and business results.

Here are some highlights from our conversation...

Learning from lowlights

Mark spent 34 happy years at the John Lewis Partnership where he ‘stumbled’ into a job after reading archaeology and wanting to be a pro-golfer. “The culture and the values resonated with my own and I felt very happy… it was just all highlights really.” That said, Mark did have two low points, and he shared the lasting impact that these events had on his leadership approach.

The first was when he was the last of his intake of five graduate trainees in Southampton to be promoted. Mark was pretty miffed and complained to his then-boss about how it wasn't fair as he’d worked really hard. His boss gave him some advice that has stuck with him. “He said, ‘look, you don't judge your career over one month or two months or two years or five years. You judge your career over a lifetime. And if you keep your head down, work hard, you’ll get your rewards’. From that moment on I never, ever asked for a promotion. I never asked for a job. I was always approached.”

That low moment taught Mark the value of self-reliance and reflection, and he developed a habit then that has stuck with him for nearly 40 years. Every night he writes in a journal about what went well and what went less well that day; what he’s learned and what he can do better.

Later, as managing director of Waitrose, Mark would ask graduate trainees about what they were doing today to support their long-term career aspirations.

Mark’s other low point came when he failed to make an acquisition that he had championed for Waitrose. The experience taught him about resilience and to respect others’ differing points of view as equally valid. “There will always be occasions when something that you passionately feel is right doesn't go your way. You have to think about how you react to that.”

Three things leaders do

Mark believes – as do I – that all good managers are good leaders. And he believes that good leaders share three qualities. The first, not surprisingly, is experience. “You’ve got to have credibility,” he says. “It’s very hard to lead a team if people don’t believe that you can do the job.” Experience, however, takes a long time to build.

The second trait of leaders is, he believes, the most critical difference between good management and leadership. “Management is more about telling people what to do; it's about how you use that resource. Leadership is about encouraging people to want to do something – not because you’ve told them to do it, but because they believe in the vision that you have.”

Lastly, good leaders make the team feel that success was all about them, rather than the leader. “Good leaders have a low ego. They’re able to engage with and congratulate the team.”

Why engaging works

When Mark left John Lewis, he founded a company, Engaging Works (EW), that built on the values that shaped his career and outlook. Like Spedan Lewis, the founder of John Lewis, Mark advocates employee happiness as the key to better business results. “His very straightforward thought was: if my people are happy they’ll stay longer, they’ll work harder… my customers will get better service, as a consequence of which we’ll have a better business over the long term.” Engaging Works is a tech platform that measures happiness at work and offers up resources and advice to people to help them to benchmark and improve. It’s been deployed with hundreds of thousands of people at more than 100 organisations. The platform tracks a so-called “Happiness Index” comprising the principles of good engagement – reward and recognition, sharing information, instilling pride, empowerment, wellbeing and job satisfaction.

“Wanting to be happy at work is not a bad thing… It helps people progress in their jobs. All the research says if you have a happy and engaged workforce, you're more productive as a business and more profitable. And it’s good for society in a whole host of ways.”

Happier at home, and its workplace impact

CMI partnered with EW and ran the Happiness Index survey twice – in January before the Covid-19 crisis, and in May after lockdown. The results show that people were happier at work post-Covid crisis, when they were working from home.

These results are consistent across every workplace survey EW has run, says Mark. “People say they are much happier working from home and they're happy across every dimension of the survey... They’re not spending money on commuting… They feel better off. They feel more informed. They feel more empowered. They feel that their organisations care for them more when they’re working from home.”

Two-thirds of employees (66%) are saying that they would like to keep working flexibility from home two or three days a week indefinitely; 20% want to remain working from home full-time for the foreseeable future.

The only negatives are that people miss socialising at work, and feel they are missing out on career development.

Big implications

Mark, along with many CMI Companions, believes that organisations will become more employee-centric as a result of the Covid-19 crisis. “People feel that the organisation cares for them more today than it did ten weeks ago,” he says. He sees a number of knock-on effects such as reduced costs of office space, less time spent commuting, and a positive impact on climate change. “It's going to be good for the bottom line in terms of occupancy costs, in terms of productivity, but it's good for the individual as well. Many organisations are, he says, already paying much more attention to wellbeing and mental health.

And these changes will be permanent. “I don’t think it can go back to the way it was… Covid will make people think differently about their work and what their values are.” Organisations will have to embrace flexibility to recruit the best. “You are going to have to think about flexibility, career development, and being more values and purpose-driven.”

The business of happiness at work is here to stay. Spedan Lewis would be delighted…

CMI’s Leading through Uncertainty portal has been providing regularly updated resources, guides and tools throughout the Covid-19 crisis to support members as they step up to this unprecedented management challenge.

You can rewatch Ann Francke’s conversation with Mark Price and all previous Better Managers Briefings on CMI’s YouTube channel.

And we’d love you to join the conversation about how you’re stepping up to the Covid-19 leadership challenge on Twitter and LinkedIn, using the hashtag #BetterManagers.

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