I recently went ice skating and happened to watch some children taking classes (above image courtesy of purealpine.com). Before the training, they all stood at the edge of the rink, struggling with their feet, waiting desperately until finally, the sheet of ice had been prepared. Then, all at once, about 30 children stormed onto the ice rink, as if it was a matter of life and death. They skated like mad and, even when they fell, quickly stood up and kept on racing. It was an impressive spectacle. None of them thought about pausing or doing anything else than just ice skating.
Isn’t this wonderful? They had fun in doing this just for its own sake. Not for a purpose, not for money, not for anything or anyone. I’d like to ask you to consider two questions, and be honest!
1) When did you last feel something like this?
2) Was it at work?
More precisely, flow is characterized by the following components:
- An optimal balance between your abilities and the requirements of the task. This match occurs at a high level of both, so that you perceive the task as challenging, but achievable.
- Whilst performing the task, you get immediate feedback, so you always know what to do next and keep momentum.
- Concentration occurs automatically, you do not have to force yourself.
- You forget about time – performing the task, you do not know how long you’ve been involved with it, hours can seem like minutes.
- You may even perceive yourself as “one” with the activity.
Flow is often reported for passionate leisure activities, just like the ice skating I saw. But the interesting thing for us is that in office work flow is also possible. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, intellectual father of the flow concept, studied flow at work in many professions, for example surgeons, engineers, architects, musicians, chemists, and authors. He found that people in all of these professions experience flow because they modify their jobs. They modify the meaning and the content so that they have the most opportunities to experience flow and thus, the most fun doing their jobs. You can always change little things in your job, like changing the order of tasks or deciding to ally with selected colleagues or clients for a specific purpose. Thus, flow should not only be possible if you are a surgeon etc., but in all professions.
I had the opportunity to interview a few colleagues about what they need to experience flow at work and what is detrimental to flow, and got the following feedback.
“Flow boosts creativity, provided you have expertise” A consultant told me that he experiences flow when he faces a new, challenging task and at the same time recognizes that he can use his experience from earlier jobs or projects to approach this task. The creativity and the knowledge transfer produce an extremely positive and motivated mood.
“Flow can easily be interrupted” An app programmer told me that flow requires a state of total concentration. In app programming, every interruption can lead to a break of thought that increases the risk for application failure, like in a “swiss cheese model”. To enable flow in highly concentrated individual work, the programmer uses the following strategies:
- Listening to music via headphones to set a positive mood and to prevent distraction (louder music if the background noise is high).
- Turning off email and instant messenger.
- Being available for requests in a much-frequented place before an important task.
“Flow can also emerge in teamwork” This occurs when colleagues perceive that they share the same “mental model”. This means they have the same understanding and the same knowledge background of a problem or task. Provided this is the case, collaboration can “flow”, but usually requires the following conditions:
- A clear goal, clear tasks, and clear roles and responsibilities.
- “Out of the box thinking” allowed.
- The opportunity for regular serendipitous encounters and thus exchange of ideas.
I’d like to thank my colleagues for these brilliant insights and ideas, which made this exploration of the subject a lot more vivid!
Finally, I’d like to repeat my questions from the beginning and add a third one – please let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
1) When did you last experience flow?
2) Was it at work?
3) How should space augment the possibility for flow?
Jennifer Gunkel is a consultant with AECOM’s Strategy Plus practice in Munich.