Go with the flow

01 March 2019

This article was featured in the March 2019 issue of the magazine.

Julie Lock, general manager (Flexipay) for Mitrefinch Ltd, argues that flow is the secret to workplace happiness, increased productivity and talent retention

I was a guest speaker at a recent  _Driving Change conference, where  _human resources (HR) professionals gather to discuss forward-thinking strategy and share ideas. During my speech, I touched on the notion of flow – a state of complete focus and absorption in a task – as the key to employee engagement and a productive workforce.

This appears fairly obvious: a focussed employee is an engaged employee, and employee engagement is a key driver of productivity. Yet when I presented this idea to the audience of chief executive officers and HR directors, it seemed to inspire a collective lightbulb moment, as though this were something new altogether. This got me thinking: how can such a simple idea seem so radical?

The truth is, effective employee engagement is still more a theory than a practice. In terms of actual HR strategy, we still aren’t doing enough to engage our people.

Let’s take a closer look at both what flow is and how we can help our people achieve it.

‘Flow’ is something we’ve probably all experienced at one time or another – a sense of being completely lost in the moment, also known as being ‘in the zone’. When in a state of flow, we forget the outside world and all its distractions, and we lose track of time. In this way, it’s similar to a meditative state, with our attention focussed purely on the task at hand.

The idea of flow was conceived by positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who found that people were happiest and most productive when in this state of hyper-focus. He found that achieving a state of flow is dependent on the interplay between the level of challenge (that is how hard the work is) and the level of skill (that is how well-equipped the person is to handle the task at hand).

Flow is achieved when we are challenged just the right amount to utilise our skills to an optimum level. If a challenge is too great and our skills insufficient, we slip towards stress and anxiety, but if work is too easy, we quickly become relaxed, bored and apathetic.


...in a state of flow, people feel happier, more creative and more productive


Put simply, what’s good for your employees is good for your organisation. When in a state of flow, people feel happier, more creative and more productive.

People are much more likely to solve difficult problems or come up with ingenious ideas when in a state of complete focus. The quality of work done is likely to be much higher, too. 

This all seems fairly obvious, but the truth is when it comes to talent management, many organisations are still stuck in the past. Annual appraisals and other box-ticking administrative exercises are still widely used, despite their negative impact on employee engagement.

Thankfully, organisations are slowly waking up to the fact that their processes need to adapt in order to keep up with changing attitudes to work. The shift towards a focus on employee wellbeing and engagement is inevitable; and working out how to get your people in a state of flow is at the heart of this movement.

The challenge for organisations is to provide the right conditions for employees to achieve a state of flow. To do this, you need to know how your employees are feeling – are they happy, bored, enthusiastic or negative? Are their skills being fully utilised? Do they feel sufficiently challenged? Are there any parts of their job that they particularly love or loathe?

Real-time performance check-ins give managers a chance to give feedback as and when it’s needed. But they should also be an opportunity for employees to express their feelings about their work.

If an employee is overworked and stressed, this should be addressed as soon as possible. Likewise, if an employee spends their days in a bored stupor, it’s clearly time for a change. It is the employer’s challenge to create an environment where openness and honesty are encouraged.

Assuming you already have the right people with the right attitude, real-time feedback and a flexible approach to the way you utilise your staff is the key to getting people in the flow. In simple terms, the goal of any organisation should be to ensure that its employees are challenged just the right amount in their work – too much and they’ll feel anxious, not enough and they’ll feel bored. This is the key to employee engagement.

And, finally, addressing a healthy work-life balance is key to productivity improvement. If time is well-balanced, there are no personal-time issues that will distract employees from being in the flow. Flexible working is not a new concept, but what is new is that it has fast become a basic expectation of the workforce. To attract and retain top talent organisations must adopt a more flexible approach to terms and conditions.