Before I joined MHR and the People First team, I didn't fully understand what 'flow' was. I knew that sometimes work felt so challenging that it became daunting and stressful, and that sometimes I felt slightly apathetic – that I needed to be pushed more. But sometimes I knew that my world of work just fitted together – it 'worked'. I was happy, productive and energised.
Without knowing it, I was 'in the flow' – operating in that perfect channel of 'just the right amount' when it came to being challenged and using my skills effectively.
So that's where I am now – as Head of People First Marketing working within MHR. I am well in the flow. So much so, that I am writing my five tips for achieving flow from my sofa – on a day off – simply because I am energised and want to contribute more.
People working in the flow does not happen by accident. It takes consideration, effort and, often, smart use of HR technology for the 'people people' in an organisation (the HR team) to position employees in the flow as much as possible. But how can you as an employee contribute to achieving flow at work?
1. Work out your flow
Ask yourself the following questions:
- What is your flow?
- Where are you comfortable?
- How much do you want to be challenged in your job?
- What keeps you in the flow?
I like to be challenged. For me, my perfect flow is fast-paced progression – a rapid acquisition of skills that allows me to accelerate through the organisation, trying new things, starting new projects. I am comfortable with this rapid pace and get restless if I am not delivering projects in quick succession. This challenging pace sometimes means I burn out, so a combination of quick-paced challenges and short pockets of down time keeps me in the flow.
This will certainly not be everyone's flow. Some of my colleagues prefer making steady progress towards big goals. Their flow is stable and focused over a longer period of time. They are comfortable with development and challenges throughout the progress of a programme of work – as their project progresses, so do they. Autonomy, focus and solid progression keeps them in the flow. Provided they are allowed to complete their project and are given a new clear brief for the next project upon its completion, they are kept in the flow.
The way in which you work is very much aligned with the type of person you are. Defining what your flow looks and feels like can be a great process to go through, and by bringing your personality influence in to it, you will naturally start to be happier and more productive.
2. Work out how much is too much
We need to be challenged just the right amount in our jobs. We have all felt overstretched at one time or another, and we have probably all felt disengaged and unchallenged at others. It is important to understand what over-challenged feels like to you. At what point do you become anxious? What causes this anxiety? What level of challenge keeps you engaged but does not leave you fretting or working in to the night.
This part of the flow requires taking some time out to understand your responses to various work situations and ways of working. It also requires you to communicate this to managers and your HR team, who can respond with role adjustments and development plans that complement your ideal pace of challenge and development. This step benefits all involved – stressed employees that have fallen out of the flow due to over-challenge or over-work will be less productive and less happy.
3. Work out where you want to get to
Ask yourself, what is the point of your flow? Where are you trying to get to? If your flow is floating and seeing where you land, that's fine provided your employer is aware of that and can give you just enough challenge to complement that approach. If your flow is driving strongly in one direction (perhaps you want to be the CEO of your organisation), that's fine too.
Working this out is a pretty fundamental task. Flow means progress, and if you are not heading somewhere, chances are you will drop out of the flow quite quickly.
4. Communicate your objectives
It's time to bust out an old cliché here: communication is key.
If you are clear on your personal objectives, your employer has a much better chance of giving you the right challenges and development opportunities to get you there. If your personal career goals are built in to your job, you will be working towards your own goals as well as your organisation's. This is flow in perfect harmony. You will be happier in your work and perform better, and everyone can happily fulfil their employee / employer contract.
5. Push for systems and processes built around flow
To be happily in the flow at work takes more than just your efforts. It involves understanding and investment from your 'people people' (HR) and your organisation as a whole in its definition of an overall mission, goals, objectives and plans for how to achieve them.
So what does flow look like from an organisational perspective?
It looks like HR practices that put people first, considering the ways of working that will help you as an employee get the best out of yourself for your own benefit and the benefit of the organisation.
It looks like instant and open communication between people, and their colleagues and managers. An example of this would be an 'any time' check-in process rather than an annual appraisal.
It looks like everyone working to the same formalised objectives, achieving and developing themselves and their organisation – because an organisation is itself a living thing.
It looks like systems that support people and help them to find better ways of working – not adding another layer of technology and complexity; rather removing complexity and providing easy to use tools that complement human relationships and development, and enable people to work in the best, most productive way for them.