What Silicon Valley Developers Can Teach Us About Happiness At Work


"Work-life balance" is a buzzword in the business world -- frequently dropped into conversation, but rarely put into practice. Employee wellness programs and in-office yoga classes are a start, but oftentimes, employees still struggle to keep up with unreasonable workloads and 24/7 mobile connectivity.

Particularly in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street (where it's not uncommon for summer interns to pull 85-hour workweeks), balance is a somewhat mythological concept. But the truth is, for high-pressure, fast-paced tech industries, in particular, encouraging employees to scale back may lead to an increase in both profits and happiness.

Agile -- a management strategy devised by Silicon Valley software developers in the late 1990s, deemed the "best-kept management secret on the planet" by Forbes last year -- is helping tech companies build more reasonable workloads for their employees while also improving their products.

In a recent VentureBeat blog, Donna Wells, CEO of Mindflash, an online employee training firm based in Palo Alto, labeled Agile the "rational approach" to work-life integration.

"We run the company using an Agile development process which, when followed religiously, actually enforces some work-life balance," Wells writes on VentureBeat. "Our results show that it’s possible to take a more rational approach to work-life balance and still achieve rapid growth and high returns."

At Mindflash, Wells explains, managers aren't just looking to empty "work-life balance" policies for bragging rights -- they're walking the walk in their everyday activities and interactions, with the help of Agile. She says:

Maintaining a culture of work-life balance requires constant reinforcement. We’re regularly tempted to compromise these values due to business challenges and crises and sometimes new employees eager to demonstrate their passion and commitment by working crazy hours on a key project. But the team invariably self-manages back to our values in simple, but effective ways: people pulling late nights don’t get held up as heroes and they may even get a message from their boss saying that working crazy hours is not a company value.

The original "Agile Manifesto," written by 17 software developers, consists of the 12 principles of management, including a focus on face-to-face over digital interaction, simplicity ("maximizing the amount of work not done"), and sustainable development. Some of the core group of developers then created the non-profit Agile Alliance to promote software development that follows those principles.

Since the manifesto was created in 2001, Agile has been implemented in a number of companies (some outside the tech world), and it's continued to gain traction in recent years as workers' stress levels have risen and employee engagement has plummeted in the American workplace.

For some companies, like Mindflash, Agile has been a way to redefine success -- an alternative to a workplace culture of stress and burnout that ultimately takes a toll on both employee well-being and the company's bottom-line profits.

"Compared to other start-ups I've been with, I think developers here are less stressed, more productive, and more confident that they're doing the best work of their careers," Wells tells The Huffington Post. "Those things make for a much more positive work environment than some of the alternatives I've lived through."

Here are four Agile principles that anyone can use to boost productivity -- and happiness -- at work.

Take breaks.

A major focus of the Agile program is creating reasonable workloads that allow employees to take the breaks they need to fuel productivity, health and well-being. According to Wells, it's all about determining a team's output capacity and maintaining a sustainable pace without exceeding that capacity. Instead of working 80-hour weeks for a month before a big launch and then crashing afterwards, Wells' teams works 40-hour weeks for two months, yielding more and better results.

"It really forces a discipline that we all work within our capacity," she says. "Ultimately, in the long-term, you're much less productive ... if you try to run sprint and run 'death marches' than if you have a predictable pace that's actually sustainable."

Focus on what you enjoy and what you're good at.

The Agile method can boost happiness and productivity by allowing individuals to do the work they care about. Teams are self-managed, and they divide the workload so that employees can focus on what they do best and derive the most enjoyment out of. According to a 2011 Society for Human Resource Management survey, 62 percent of employees said that the opportunity to use their skills and abilities was an important contributor to job satisfaction.

"That's critical -- it's a big aspect of allowing folks to do their best work because they're really in control of their won work day," Wells says. "It's much more empowering; it's much more satisfying than an archaic, top-down environment."

Eliminate unnecessary work.

Simplicity (i.e. eliminating work that doesn't need to be done) is one of the foundational principles of Agile, which strives to allow employees to spend the majority of their day on work that actually benefits the customer, rather than work that satisfies administrative or bureaucratic needs.

Giff Constable, Managing Director of Neo, a global software development consulting company based in New York, has seen the program have a humanizing effect, eliminating needless work and documentation so that team members can focus on more productive tasks.

"Agile broaches the question of, 'Are we working on the right things?'" Constable tells The Huffington Post. "You're not a drone on a factory line. You can actually use your brain, you can ask questions, you can be creative ... It's really empowering, and it can make the job a lot more fun."

Take time to reflect.

"We follow religiously the Agile precept which dictates that at the end of each 'sprint,' you have a session called 'retrospective,'" says Wells, describing retrospective as a time when every member of the team shares what was done well and areas of improvement. "It means that issues get aired, discussed and resolved, rather than being allowed to fester within a group."

Research has shown reflection to be crucial to effective learning, particularly in the workplace. "It's very important for clearing the air and setting us up for success during the next sprint of work," Wells says.

Communicate face-to-face.

Agile can also boost satisfaction at work by fostering social connections. The Agile principles stress the importance of cutting back on email and increasing the amount of in-person brainstorming and problem-solving among teams, according to Constable.

Extensive research backs up the idea that employees with strong relationships at work are happier, feel more passionate about their work and more connected to their employers, and are less likely to quit their jobs. A 1995 University of Georgia study even found that the mere opportunity for friendship could increase job satisfaction and organizational effectiveness.

"To work lean and agile, you stop focusing so much on documentation and you rely much more on constant communication. Not meetings, but lots of little touch points," Constable says. "That in itself is humanizing -- you are freed from the drudgery of documentation and can instead talk to real humans and solve problems together."

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