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Category: Work and Employment

Those who have control over their days are happiest at work

Who is happiest at work and why? The 2017 United Nations World Happiness Report includes a chapter on workplace wellbeing prepared by MIT Sloan PhD student George Ward, a researcher at the Institute for Work and Employment Research, and his University of Oxford coauthor Jan-Emmanuel De Neve. The results were eye-opening for governments and organizations, which are increasingly using happiness barometers to guide their policy decisions.

Ward and De Neve found that levels of subjective wellbeing vary greatly around the world. They attribute this, in part, to the different kinds of work that people in different corners of the world are doing. “Work makes up such an important part of our lives,” they note. “The structure of economies differs a great deal, both across countries at any one point in time as well as within countries. Thus the kind of work that people actually engage in during their days differs greatly—whether they sit in offices, work on production lines, or work in the fields.”

But the duo discovered key common denominators. Across geographies, work-life balance emerged as the strongest workplace driver of an individual’s subjective wellbeing. “Those who have a job that leaves them too tired to enjoy the non-work elements of their lives report levels of positive affect in their day-to-day lives that are substantially lower than those who do not,” the authors found. “Furthermore, workers who report that their job interferes with their ability to spend time with their partner and family, as well as those who ‘bring their job home’ with them by worrying about work matters even when they are not at work, report systematically lower levels of subjective wellbeing.”

Learning new things promotes happiness

The authors found that the content of a job is also a significant driver. “Those with jobs that entail high levels of variety and the need to learn new things are more satisfied with their lives and their jobs and experience more positive emotions day-to-day. Further, individual autonomy in the workplace is a significant driver of happiness: having control over how the workday is organized as well as the pace at which the employee works is positively correlated with higher wellbeing outcomes.”

Job security was also a key component of wellbeing. Those who considered that their livelihood was potentially at risk reported lower levels of wellbeing than those who reported high levels of job security. Additionally, those who believed that they had a job with promising opportunities for advancement and promotion were more satisfied with their lives, as were those with supportive bosses. Although the data the authors were working with did not permit them to measure and quantify the specific impact of a supervisor on one’s wellbeing, they demonstrated that bosses and supervisors can play a substantial role in determining subjective wellbeing. “The competence of bosses has been shown to be a strong predictor of job satisfaction,” they note in the report.

The data that Ward and De Neve worked with was drawn primarily from the Gallup World Poll, which covers more than 150 countries worldwide and is representative of 98% of the world’s population.

Learn about the work of MIT Sloan’s Institute for Work and Employment Research.

Read the most recent United Nations World Happiness Report, including the chapter on employment wellbeing by George Ward and Jan-Emmanuel De Neve.

Running rings around Saturn: A turnaround tale

MIT Sloan Professor Emeritus Arnoldo Hax knows what makes an organization work, and he knows how to turn it around when it doesn’t. Hax has been a major player in transforming companies—even the government of Chile. Generations of his students, scores of colleagues, and loyal readers of his seminal books on business strategy consider him a sort of enterprise whisperer.

So when MIT Sloan alumnus Richard “Skip” LeFauve took the helm of Saturn as CEO, he asked Hax, his former professor, to consult on strategy. “Skip looked at the corrosive relationship between the unions and management at GM, the financial losses, and the disgruntled workers and said, ‘We can’t run Saturn that way.’”

General Motors, says Hax, “was a huge organization, the largest in the country, but the company was beginning to go off the rails. The catalyst was the entrance into the market by Japanese carmakers. Toyota and Honda were creating cars that were affordable, dependable, attractive, and fuel-efficient. And those vehicles appealed to an enormous segment of the American market.”

GM’s solution was to develop the Saturn, the first compact car to be introduced into the American market. The Saturn operation was a kind of skunkworks for GM, a sub-brand with its own management and its own management style—a completely out-of-the-box and un-GM style.

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In “The Conversational Firm,” MIT Sloan’s Catherine Turco Looks at Motivating a Millennial Workforce

Is it possible for a company to shed some of the key trappings of traditional bureaucracy and still be competitive in the marketplace? Catherine J. Turco, an associate professor of work and organization studies at MIT Sloan, went undercover for ten months at a fast-growing social media marketing company to find the answer.

In her illuminating new book The Conversational Firm: Rethinking Bureaucracy in the Age of Social Media, Turco takes an in-depth look at a young enterprise called TechCo, a pseudonym she uses to protect the identity of company and employees. She finds that TechCo has developed a deeply engaged workforce by promoting open company-wide dialogue. That sense of freedom, she notes, has contributed to a culture that is invested, innovative, and adaptable to change. She calls this new style of company “the conversational firm.”

One of the principal tools of the conversational firm, Turco reports, is social media. TechCo provides its employees—who are primarily millennials—with social media vehicles so that they can offer input into major business issues. Because millennials relate to the world through social media, she says, it only makes sense that they would feel comfortable relying on apps to register ideas and opinions in the workplace.

In The Conversational Firm, Turco leverages her interviews with 76 employees, her attendance at hundreds of company meetings, and insights from cultural and economic sociology, organizational theory, economics, technology studies, and anthropology, to portray a company that has found a way to be open without relinquishing control.

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Stress—a Good or Bad Sign in an Employee?

Will the calm, cool, and collected applicant turn out to be a better employee than the person who exhibits stress? Traditionally, companies have tended to think so. In fact, many industries conduct stress tests with current and prospective employees to see how they perform under pressure. Those who remain calm during the simulations are commonly seen as the best fit for stressful on-the-job situations.

Juan Pablo VielmaMIT Sloan professors Juan Pablo Vielma and Tauhid Zaman and graduate student Carter Mundell beg to differ with the conventional wisdom. By measuring galvanic skin response (GSR) over the course of an increasingly difficult exam, the three researchers came to the conclusion that those who perform best under duress actually exhibit some degree of stress when the stakes are lower.

Lie detector technology predicts success

GSR, which is used in polygraph tests, measures changes in skin resistance owing to sweat—a relatively easy way to measure stress, as the body’s sweat glands are connected to the central nervous system. In their paper “Predicting Performance Under Stressful Conditions Using Galvanic Skin Response” Vielma, Zaman and Mundell note that, in the past, the study of stress has focused on understanding it as opposed to predicting it. “Everyone else was looking at, ‘Why are you stressed now?’ We stumbled on whether they would be stressed in 10 minutes.”

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How much is a living wage? MIT Sloan faculty experts weigh in

Arguably, a living wage is the goal of all civilized societies—that is, the amount of money a person needs to maintain a basic standard of living. But what exactly is a sufficient wage? And will increasing the minimum wage create a knee-jerk effect among employers to hit the brakes on hiring?

At present, the hourly minimum wage in the United States is $7.25, and the Democratic Party platform is advocating more than doubling that rate to $15. MIT Sloan asked three of the School’s top economic and labor experts to weigh in on the idea of raising the minimum wage. Here’s what they had to say:

ErikErik Brynjolfsson
MIT Sloan Professor of Information Technology
Director, MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy

Having more people working and earning good wages is good not just for the people we help, but for all of us: People who work are more engaged in community, creating a virtuous cycle. If we do these three things, we’ll be on track to becoming a richer, more engaged, and more dynamic nation.

#1 Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit
Suppose that someone is earning $12 per hour, and we’d like them to earn $15. With an Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) they’d get an additional $3 per hour worked from the government. The money to pay for this would come from general tax revenue including income taxes, or ideally increased taxes on carbon dioxide emissions, congestion, and other things we’d like to discourage.

#2 Reinvent Education
The wage gap between the most and least educated workers has grown enormously since the 1980s, and better-educated workers also have much lower unemployment rates and higher rates of workforce participation. But it’s not enough to simply do more of the same. We need to reinvent education for an age where machines are increasingly doing cognitive tasks—the second machine age. That means a greater emphasis on skills like teamwork, project management, persuasion, leadership, coaching, and creativity.

#3 Reduce unnecessary occupational licensing
Over 25 percent of workers now require a license to do their jobs, a five-fold increase since the 1950s. While some licenses are important for safety or other reasons, research has shown that excessive licensing requirements reduce employment and mobility.

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Transforming workplace culture with micro-affirmations

Mary RoweEarlier this year, a group of undergraduates launched Random Acts of Kindness (RAK) Week at MIT. Members of the community encountered various “kindness crews” dispensing an array of happy surprises—from hugs to hot chocolate. RAK, which has burgeoned into something of an international phenomenon, illuminates the pioneering work of IWER’s Mary Rowe, adjunct professor of negotiation and conflict management at MIT Sloan’s Institute for Work and Employment Research.

An economist and conflict management specialist, Rowe joined the Institute in 1973, becoming MIT’s first ombudsperson. In that role she encountered, defined, and worked to help resolve workplace inequities (large and small) that often had not been identified or articulated. Issues raised in Rowe’s office led to the establishment of MIT’s anti-harassment policy, one of the nation’s first.

Some of Rowe’s reports to the MIT community discussed the ubiquitous phenomenon of micro-inequities—small, thoughtless unfairnesses, often unintentional and difficult to prove, toward those who are perceived as different. Neglecting to invite someone to a group event, for example, or not introducing someone—the only person who appears as “different.” Such slights are often the result of unconscious bias or not understanding another culture. In the aggregate, however, they can isolate and alienate those on the receiving end.

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