Why High “Flow” Companies Will Win – And How to Become One

Have you ever found yourself so totally immersed in an activity that you lose track of time? Perhaps while putting together a puzzle, solving a complex problem, or heads-down in a hobby, you’ve become engrossed in the task at hand.

If so, you’ve experienced “flow,” the highest state of human performance and productivity.

Working in the flow stateThough the term originated in research by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his 1990 book on the subject, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, the business world has only fairly recently recognized its potential for increasing employee happiness and improving the customer experience.

Writing about the work of Csikszentmihalyi (Mee-high CHICK-sent-me-high-ee) in Fast Company, Ann Marsh defines flow as “a condition of heightened focus, productivity, and happiness that we all intuitively understand and hunger for.”

Describing Csikszentmihalyi’s  research on the subject, she writes:

“Csikszentmihalyi spent hours interviewing and observing exceptionally creative people, including leading chess players, rock climbers, composers, and writers, and normal folks as well, as they did their work. He…discovered that the times when people were most happy and often most productive were not necessarily when they expected they would be. Passive leisure activities such as TV-watching consistently ranked low on participants’ scales of satisfaction…Instead, people reported the greatest sense of well-being while pursuing challenging activities, sometimes even at work…In the flow state, Csikszentmihalyi found, people engage so completely in what they are doing that they lose track of time. Hours pass in minutes. All sense of self recedes.”

Business Benefits of Flow

Marsh notes the interest business has taken in the flow concept, reporting that “In the past few years, many major companies…have realized that being able to control and harness this feeling is the holy grail for any manager — or even any individual — seeking a more productive and satisfying work experience. These companies are now using Csikszentmihalyi’s ideas to learn how they can get the best out of their workers or create more compelling connections with their customers.”

Yet Csikszentmihalyi has been “ambivalent” about the connection between flow and business. Marsh speculates this “may be because none of his research has established any link between happiness and the possession of lucre.”

Recent research, however, shows companies that pursue employee happiness more broadly (of which flow is one component) tend to enjoy higher profitability and stock price gains than their peers.

In the webcast Rewriting the Rules of Service Management, Eveline Oehrlich of Forrester Research describes the business context of flow in greater detail.

She notes that while flow isn’t critical for mundane tasks (like answering emails), for highly complex tasks—including projects and customer-facing engagement—maximum productivity requires a high state of flow.

She also explicitly makes the link between happy employees, happy customers, and above-average business performance. According to Oehrlich, if a workforce is experiencing high engagement, high productivity, and they feel their work is impactful, this enables them to be more customer-oriented, thereby improving the customer experience.

The Role of Technology in Flow

Finally, while there are a number of components to achieving flow, Oehrlich details the importance of technology strategy. Workplace technology and tech support should be designed to enable flow and minimize disruptions.

She lays out the benefits of moving from an “IT support” (reactive) to “workforce enablement” (proactive) approach. And she presents Forrester’s 4 Ps model (productive, pain-free, personal, and proactive) for technology strategy to optimize conditions for flow.

As products and services are commoditized and costs are driven out of the value chain, customer experience is becoming the key differentiator for business. Positive customer experiences are driven by happy, productive employees. Happiness and productivity are maximized in the flow state. And rewriting the rules of service management is a key component for creating a flow environment.

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