Taking steps to create a happier, healthier workplace? Create the right space for dialogue with colleagues and ask the right questions.

28 October 2015

In my earlier blog I shared some reflections on “the Jam”. “The Jam” facilitated dialogue on a global scale between colleagues across Linklaters’ offices on ways to improve work/life balance.  The aim was to share ideas and develop workable solutions within the firm.

Margaret Wheatley

I think jam generally tastes best when sandwiched in a sponge cake. In this case, “The Jam” will taste richer, and lead to greatest results, when sandwiched between quality insight, reflection and action at both an individual level and at a systemic level.  

Like any cake, to get the best results it is important to get the ingredients right and to use the best tools.  Here are some of my top tips.

  1. Support employees to get to know themselves and each other

The best staff engagement and well-being/happiness programs help build better relationships and support behavioural and cultural change at both a personal and systemic level.  To do this, an organisation needs to not only get to know its people but to also help colleagues get to know themselves and each other.

The following three questions provide a good starting point for any person or organisation looking to build better relationships; achieve work/life balance; improve happiness; and deliver meaningful change –

  • What is important to you –  what does a good day or good week look like?  Who is important to you?  How do you keep active, keep learning, take notice, give and connect (five ways to wellbeing)?
  • What do people most like and admire about you – what are your key character strengths and skills? (see my recent blog on nurturing character)
  • How are you best supported – to do more of the things that make you feel good and enhance your well-being; to overcome challenges; avoid stress points and neutralise toxic behaviour?

By encouraging employees to reflect on these three questions, organisations can support their employees to take notice of how they are feeling and not just their outputs – See Nicola’s recent blog ‘We need more than just numbers when it comes to thinking about ‘happy at work’. This helps build emotional intelligence.  By facilitating ways for people to then share with colleagues, you can help the workforce get to know one another better and to develop an understanding of how to best support and challenge each other.  This helps develop social intelligence.

In order to make positive change within a relationship system – i.e. on a systemic/organisational level, high levels of emotional and social intelligence need to exist within the system (Organisation and Relationship Systems Coaching (ORSC)).  Questions (1) to (3) help develop this intelligence.


2. Focus on people’s experiences

Paul Dolan, in his book ‘Happiness by Design’ demonstrates the inconsistency between the way we evaluate our lives and happiness and how we feel in the experience of their lives, and encourages us to pay greater attention to measuring experience-based happiness. One colleague may say that she has a great job, great family and is both happy and successful. Her day-to-day experience of work, life and happiness may tell a different story. If you want meaningful answers you therefore need to make sure that the right questions are asked and in the right way. You also need to provide the right space for them to be answered.

It can be hard to be mindful when you have a mind full.  When feeling stretched, stressed or powerless people often block out their emotions – we stop paying attention to what we are experiencing.  This needs to be taken into account when seeking employee views on issues such as work/life balance and well-being.  If not, those who may have the most to contribute to the discussion and have the most to benefit,  may be unable to participate in a meaningful way.

Questions (1) – (3) above help people to focus on their experiences and on solutions that will improve their experiences.   People may need to be supported 1:1 or in a group to work through these questions.


  1. Create the right atmosphere for the discussion

In my last blog I explained why I think it is far better to support employees to generate and develop their own ideas, as Linklaters are seeking to, rather than rely on an external ‘expert’.  For this to work, employees need to be given proper time to reflect and to contribute and be supported to do so within a safe and open atmosphere.

In organisation and relationship systems coaching (ORSC) we invest time designing the team alliance – creating the right atmosphere/culture for discussions to take place. Linklaters’ employees were being asked to help design the workplace culture,  to share ways it could be improved in the future to support a better work/life balance.  This is great but only effective if you face up to any team toxins and ensure all perspectives are voiced.  If some voices go unheard, the process is less likely to deliver workable and sustainable solutions across the organisation.

Smart facilitation and design is required for any exercise like this to be inclusive and meaningful – to encourage ‘deep democracy’ and ensure all employees feel listened to as Nicola recently wrote about in her blog “Are you listening to me?”.

Sharing answers to questions (1)-(3) and acting upon them can help build a conducive alliance for working together.


  1. Seek out both quick wins and long-term goals

Linklaters said in their statement that,  “The firm is committed to supporting implementation of ideas that are practical, reasonable and affordable for our business.”   It is essential that some quick and easy wins come out of collaborative working like this. Some small changes can make the biggest differences.  For example, there are often tiny noticeable things (TNTs), that people can do for each other, that improve a person’s day. When multiplied across an organisation this can have a huge impact.  See my recent blog – Want a happier workplace? Put love into tea and other TNTs’.  By seeking out some of the small things that people can do for each other the responsibility and ownership for improving work/life balance, well-being and happiness is shared between everyone.  This is more likely to lead to rapid and sustained change than a long list for human resources or senior leaders to action.

However, to be most effective, it is imperative that any quick easy wins, sit comfortably within a clear and comprehensive over-arching strategy and adhere to the organisations overall ethos and vision.  If viewed as a mere add-on and inconsistent with other areas of practice, change is unlikely to be embedded or sustained.

To do this effectively, organisations need to take the insight they’ve gained from (1)-(3) of the workforce strengths, needs and interests/motivation, and the ideas that have been developed across the workforce, and ensure these are reflected at a strategic level in the organisation’s vision, values and strategic planning.

Why the organisation wants to support employee well-being and happiness, and how it will do so, should be clear to everyone both internally and externally. As well as processes for monitoring, reviewing and celebrating progress. The way the employer treats its employees, needs to be reflected in the way it looks after its clients, partners and the community.  Any engagement and wellbeing strategy should therefore be looked as part of, or alongside, its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) strategy.


  1. Use the right tools

At HSA we’ve successfully developed and applied a variety of strategies, tools and products to help organisations to ask the right questions, develop person-centred thinking, design a good space for positive and productive discussion and to support smart facilitation and outcomes.

These include:-

Community Circles

These support better relationships, greater engagement, increased workforce development/skills and improved collaborative working and decision making.  Collectively they all help people to be happy at work, to achieve a healthy work/life balance and to perform at their best.  See Helen’s blog from the summer ‘Happiness and work – can person-centred tools help?

Further information about any of the above can be found on our website or contact me via Twitter, email or LinkedIn.

Eve Holt, Associate


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