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Cultivating Joy: An Organizational Imperative for Success in the Modern World

Leaders are constantly seeking new ways to maximize employee productivity, engagement and retention. However, a singular focus on metrics and output can often undermine well-being if not balanced with considerations for meaning, purpose and joy at work.

Today we will examine research on the importance of joy and human thriving in organizational settings, and provides practical recommendations for how leaders can make joy a priority through both cultural and structural changes.

The Benefits of Joy at Work

A growing body of research points to the myriad benefits of cultivating joy in the workplace. According to positive psychologist Shawn Achor, happiness and optimism have been shown to boost cognitive function and problem-solving abilities (Achor, 2010). This is because positive emotions broaden people's momentary thought-action repertoires, which in turn fuels creative thinking and innovative solutions. Additional studies have linked joy at work to higher levels of employee engagement (Reece & Brandt, 2016), better health and well-being outcomes (Steptoe, Wardle & Marmot, 2005), as well as increased loyalty, discretionary effort and reduced turnover (Swart & Rothmann, 2012). Beyond individual outcomes, embracing joy has also been associated with greater productivity, profitability, customer satisfaction and safety records at the organizational level (Walsh, Boehm & Lyubomirsky, 2018).

With remote and hybrid work becoming more common, cultivating connectedness and joyful collaboration is even more important. According to research out of Stanford University, positive social interactions and "meaningsful mingling" were cited as top factors for combating isolation and burnout among remote employees during the pandemic (Marmarosh et al., 2021). This underscores the dual roles of leaders in architecting both organizational culture and virtual community structures that promote well-being, relationship-building and joyful experiences among distributed teams.

Prioritizing Joy as a Strategic Imperative

Given its proven bottom-line and human benefits, prioritizing workplace joy should be viewed as a strategic, not just ethical, imperative for organizations. Three compelling reasons leaders must make joy a priority:

First, attracting and retaining top talent. As the labor market continues to shift power towards employees, candidates - especially younger generations - increasingly choose companies based on culture fit, opportunity for growth and meaning over just compensation (Bersin, 2016). Publicly prioritizing joy signals an employer that values the whole human experience.

Second, driving innovation and adaptability. Joy promotes psychological safety, relational trust and creative problem-solving required for navigating disruptive change and fueling new growth. This degree of intrinsic motivation, curiosity and resilience will separate high-performing from average organizations in turbulent times.

Third, ensuring longevity and sustainability. Burnout poses serious risks to productivity, health, safety and innovation that can undermine even the most successful firms over the long run if left unaddressed. Leaders must protect the well-being "commons" to sustain competitive advantage in constantly evolving industries like technology.

In summary, choosing joy is a strategic necessity for attracting top talent, cultivating innovation, and safeguarding long-term organizational vitality in today's world. This calls for active cultivation of joy through both cultural and structural levers available to leadership.

Cultural Strategies for Making Joy a Priority

Culture change starts from the top - leaders must authentically model joyful behaviors and prioritize relationships if hoping to influence mindsets throughout the organization. Several cultural approaches and suggestions:

  • Focus on Strengths: Leaders can encourage workers to spend more time doing what they do best every day by redesigning roles, projects and initiatives around personal strengths (Delle Donne, 2021). This strengths-based approach boosts engagement and sparks joy when people feel optimally challenged and useful.

  • Celebrate Small Wins: Regularly recognizing and celebrating even incremental progress and collaboration keeps morale high and builds camaraderie (Kerr, 2021). Simple approaches like virtual high-fives in chat, or shoutouts in meetings goes a long way in fostering an appreciation culture.

  • Empower Autonomy: Granting autonomy, flexibility and choice over workflows and schedules within guardrails empowers people to find what energizes them most and avoids one-size-fits-all policies (Pink, 2009). This type of empowerment has been directly linked to increased joy and satisfaction.

  • Prioritize Relationships: Leaders who spend time fostering genuine personal connections through Virtual Coffee Chats, Lunch and Learns, or Virtual Walk-and-Talks help people feel valued beyond transactional work outputs alone (Cheruvu & O'Brien, 2022). Stronger bonds yield a happier, higher-performing culture.

The above cultural strategies exemplify how leaders drive organizational change through encouraging and rewarding joyful behaviors at all levels. Combined with empowering structures below, joy can truly become a company priority.

Structural Strategies for Prioritizing Joy

In addition to culture shifts led from the top, leaders must put supportive structures in place to make room for joy and choice throughout people's daily workflows:

  • Flexible Work Policies: Allowing hybrid/remote work schedules, results-focused flex-time policies, and asynchronous communication norms provide adaptability to balance responsibilities and recharge energy levels (Sethi, 2022). This structural flexibility reduces stress while increasing autonomy.

  • Learning & Growth: Budgeting for continuous skills development, mentorship matches, and rotational/developmental project opportunities keeps work feeling stimulating versus repetitive (Kagan, 2021). Learning fuels both skills and joy through fresh challenges.

  • Volunteer Time Off: Paid or unpaid days to volunteer in the community fosters purpose, social bonds and gives back while nurturing joy from helping others (Nasdaq, 2022). Companies like Salesforce and Allstate integrate these impactful breaks into schedules.

  • No Meeting Fridays: Boundaries like one meeting-free day per week or monthly "focus time" protects space for deep work, recharging, relationships and unstructured problem-solving that often sparks the most innovative thinking (Cirillo, 2014).

Combined with cultural shifts, these structures embed flexibility and choice directly into workflows and remove constraints that often rob joy. Structural interventions, when paired with authentic support from leadership, powerfully reinforce a strategic emphasis on thriving over just tasks.

Case Study: Making Joy a Priority at Hootsuite

Technology and social media company Hootsuite provides a leading case study in prioritizing joy and well-being as strategic values. To address high attrition from 60-70 hour workweeks, CEO Ryan Holmes instituted comprehensive cultural and structural changes including “Happiness Engineers” - staff dedicated to events and recognition programs celebrating both professional and personal milestones (Cheruvu & O'Brien, 2022).

Core initiatives like unlimited paid time off, volunteer days, hack days granting autonomy to explore passions, weekly optional meditation sessions, and social responsibility values embraced throughout operations all foster an environment prioritizing joy, care for employees as whole people and strengthen loyalty through challenging times (Wagner, 2022). Over the last decade, the company has grown from 30 to over 1,000 employees while maintaining worker satisfaction levels high among tech peers. Overall, Hootsuite exemplifies that prioritizing joy, well-being and humanity within work does not undermine but rather powers business success especially in knowledge-focused industries. Innovation follows when curiosity and passion drive work over fear or duty alone.


Viewing happiness, thriving and well-being as strategic rather than "nice to have" helps attract and retain top talent, cultivate resilience through uncertainty, fuel innovation through empowerment and passion, and safeguard long-term organizational sustainability in today's constantly evolving world. With remote and hybrid norms here to stay, leaders must intentionally architect both virtual and in-person experiences that cultivate joy, learning and strong connections even when teams cannot gather side by side daily. Overall, prioritizing joy should become a central focus for business success as much as profit and productivity goals alone. Leaders who model care for the whole human experience will empower high performance for both individuals and organizations.



Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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