Most of us are familiar with Gallup’s research on engagement, referred to as Q12, which presents 12 actions that can be implemented to achieve higher levels of employee engagement. This article focuses on the concept of flow. Flow is an additional precursor—or subset—of engagement. We will demonstrate how human capital practitioners can contribute to the level of employee engagement in their organizations by simply setting the stage for flow to occur more often.

Flow: A subjective psychological state that occurs when your signature strengths and greatest talents converge, enabling you to become completely absorbed in the activity at hand.

The experience of flow

What is the experience of flow like? When we enter a flow state we are so engaged in the task at hand that

  • time seems to stand still
  • self-consciousness, doubt, and questioning melt away
  • we develop a laser focus for the task at hand
  • the right things just happen.

This particular subset of engagement is one of many aspects that collectively contribute to organizational well-being. Because achieving flow involves relying on signature strengths to accomplish meaningful or pleasurable tasks, expecting to attain flow in every aspect of work would lead to disappointment. (“I am a creative genius who produces exquisitely compelling material for new ad campaigns, and this new manager re-assigns me to the finance department? I will never flow again.”) We can, however, elicit more frequent occurrences of workplace flow by implementing some fairly simple strategies.

Relating to flow

To better illustrate the flow experience, let’s look at some examples. Flow often results from intellectual activities, such as a participating in a problem-solving conversation at work, commanding the room during a sales presentation, or even reading a bestseller. Other ways we enter flow revolve around social experiences, such as working on an interesting group project, rallying with others to achieve team quotas, or even getting caught up in a night of dancing and stimulating conversation with friends. We also get to a flow state when the body and brain “team up” in an exciting and engaging physical challenge. In truth, many activities can produce a state of flow. These examples serve to highlight flow as a positive experience, which brings with it feelings of joy.

How to encourage flow as a tool for enhancing engagement

Identify and consciously use signature strengths—flow happens when we use our strengths. Knowing our strengths is unfortunately just not enough. Look for opportunities and assignments that leverage and build on the talents that come naturally to you or your employees. The Institute on Character has a terrific free signature strengths assessment that can help you get started. Or, check out Strengthscope’s 360-degree or team strengths assessment.

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Start by tackling a Goldilocks task—not too hard, and not too easy. If you are looking for flow, begin with a task or goal that feels “just right.” Why? Because when the task or goal is too difficult, there’s a risk of becoming frustrated; if the task is too easy, there’s a risk of becoming bored. Either way, you may quit long before you reach a state of flow. Flow comes from consistently learning and increasing competency. If you are a manager, help employees find challenging but achievable tasks that build on their strengths, and then give them immediate, consistent, and constructive feedback that focuses on the effort they are putting into the assignment.

Remove distractions—focus is key to finding flow. Intentionally and purposefully find ways to limit interruptions and distractions for yourself and your employees. Reserve a block of time and make it multitasking-free. Work from home, book off-site meetings, or hide out in an isolated conference room. Turn off your phone (or at least the audible reminders). Don’t expect instant communication between team members. Set expectations for communication-free hours. Honor weekends, lunch hours, and vacations. Meditate.

 What are the benefits of flow in the workplace?

Flow is about being “in the zone.” The more we are in the zone at work, the more productive, motivated, and inspired we remain. In addition, research indicates that inducing a state of flow helps to

  • reduce workplace stress (similar to the brain benefits derived from meditation or mindfulness practices)
  • broaden our capacity to solve challenges
  • increase creative output
  • expand an employee’s comfort zone by diminishing self-consciousness and enabling greater personal effectiveness
  • increase overall well-being and satisfaction with work.

The simplicity and importance of a positive psychology science

One of our objectives within these articles is to provide evidence-based, actionable strategies that—through their simplicity—promote optimal performance. Scientific minds around the world spend years conducting and then publishing research that has the ability to impact our lives greatly. Unfortunately, this research usually finds its way to some lonely psychological or behavioral journal, and there it stays.

Tal Ben-Shahar has off-handedly remarked that, on average, seven people read any given article printed in a psychological journal. (Even more disheartening is that one of the seven includes the researcher’s mother.) As human capital professionals, we have a collective opportunity to capitalize on this important research by simply putting the findings to the best possible use. In other words, simple interventions can be great interventions—when we apply them.

For more on the positive workplace, read the full blog series.