Tiina Saar-Veelmaa is a passionate happiness advocate at work, a work culture designer, an award-winning HR manager, and the co-founder of two apps that track emotions in the workplace. She lives in Tallinn, Estonia.
I had the pleasure to meet Tiina during my last work trip to Tallinn. Having heard about her achievements, I couldn’t hold myself back from inviting her to my talk at Kultuurikatel and start a conversation about workplace well-being, which continued with a cappuccino the next morning, and this interview.
When I asked her how to achieve work happiness, she said that she hasn’t found the perfect recipe, but she knows wholeheartedly that a happy organization attracts and retains talents and makes employees more motivated. In this Workplace Wisdom interview, we talk about how to track and measure happiness, how to redesign work culture, and why she thinks that eating better food makes people happier and organizations healthier.
Could you tell me more about your work?
I specialize in work culture design: creating an environment where people can give their best, where they are autonomous, and where they feel that the management hears them. I like to think that the “R” in “HR” should not stand for “resources,” but rather for “respect.” My interest in work happiness began about 15 years ago. Since then I’ve worked as a career counselor, trainer, consultant, and lecturer. I’ve published six books on these subjects and have produced TV shows related to career. Those experiences have given me a broad and meaningful perspective on work and career leading me to the area of work happiness.
“I like to think that the ‘R’ in ‘HR’ should not stand for “resources,” but rather for “respect.”
What are the challenges that organizations face in an increasingly tech-driven world?
This technology-centered world presents high demands: constant change and development, but also burnouts. We continuously need to measure our results and improve, so our nervous system responds with a fight-or-flight frequency. Especially in jobs like high tech or medicine, where mistakes carry a high price, the brain has a lot to bear on an ongoing basis. Fast-growing startups and tech entrepreneurs have high burnout rates because of the constant pursuit, need to survive, and seek a niche.
To maintain such a pace, organizations need frameworks that support the principle that to err is human. On the other hand, employees need to learn how to ground themselves and take care of their health. That’s why many organizations offer mindfulness and yoga training alongside coaching and psychological consulting. Also, for work not to become an addiction, we must have a healthy and balanced life outside of work. Since schools don’t teach self-management, it’s the employer’s responsibility.
What is the secret recipe for happiness at work?
I explore this question in my scientific research at the moment, and I don’t have the final results yet. But it looks like happiness at work may comprise three elements:
1. MEANING IN WORK: People want to do work that makes and leaves the world a better place. If they don’t, they feel frustrated. Many back-office workers at corporations, employees in the public sectors, salespeople, and finance consultants share such frustration. Even teachers, doctors, service designers, and artists don’t feel much better despite deeper meaning in their work and direct customer feedback and recognition for their work.
2. NEED FOR A TANGIBLE RESULT: People want their work to be visible, so that one day they are proud to tell to their children, “Look what I did!” I refer to this tangible result as the “mammoth”- Think of a caveman who shows off this hairy object as a trophy after killing a fellow man. You have that mammoth if you build roads, houses, or write books. But unfortunately, writing a financial report does not provide the same pleasure, since it is useless a month later. Those with virtual jobs compensate by doing handicraft work or studying trades like blacksmithing, carpentry, or gardening. Throughout evolution, work has always produced a visible outcome, but since today’s work outcome is virtual and temporary, many people struggle with an existential collapse.
3. BE THEMSELVES AT WORK: People want to be accepted in the workplace as they are, for their strengths and dreams, but also for their weaknesses. They don’t want to play a role that does not suit their personality.
“Happiness at work may include three elements: meaning in work, need for a tangible result, and being our authentic selves.”
How do organizations measure happiness? And, how does one know when it’s the time to do something about it?
The most obvious signals that something needs to change is when too many employees depart or when it’s challenging to recruit good candidates.
Most companies measure happiness with employee-satisfaction surveys. However, the process is lengthy. Sometimes it takes up to two to three months to issue a questionnaire. Then, analysis follows. And if the results show that workers are not satisfied with something as intangible as communication or work recognition, then more time is needed. Ultimately the results may show off after a year or two without knowing for sure that it was the right approach.
Measurements should be agile and enable a faster evaluation of change through an approach that allows pilot programs. Assessing work happiness can take place through weekly one-on-one meetings with workers, value-based career discussions, or through a variety of feedback applications like Bluemonday, Clanbeat, or Happyme.
How does the design of the space contribute to making empathic and happy work environment?
Environmental design has a huge influence on work happiness. The Danish concept of hygge – that feeling of coziness like if life is hugging you – has become a clear expectation in work environment design. The workspace must be a pleasant place where you want to be and where you feel cared.
Unlike in the past when there wasn’t much knowledge about the creative process, today organizations know how to foster creativity. And so, they rely on user-centered design, smart color solutions, and an environment with the right tools to enable innovation. But the workspace is not only physical. The emotional and social component of space design are both critical. For example, in the manufacturing sector in Japan, improvement is part of the culture (kaizen). And workers come together from time to time to generate ideas about how to better organize their work.
With your design of a human-centered HR philosophy, Proekspert won the first prize in the category “Work 4.0 – work of the future” at the European Excellence Awards, competing in the finals with such large corporations as Coca-Cola European Partners Germany, Deutsche Telekom, and Henkel. Can you describe your work at Proekspert and your design approach to HR?
Proekspert is a 24-year-old Estonian software and product development company, which I joined six years ago. The HR project took place over a six-year period, in which many things changed. First, we shifted from a process-centered approach to become a human- and client-centered organization. And second, we dismissed the traditional management hierarchy to turn into a boss-less company.
What drew the jury’s attention was the holistic approach to HR, which is partially based on the healing circle philosophy of the American developmental psychologist and social scientist, Ann E. Hale. Hale uses the seasons: “spring” referring to “new beginnings,” “summer” to “communication and synergy,” “autumn” to “excelling in your specialty,” and “winter” to “looking back, conclusions, and recognition.”
Could you explain more what happens in each phase?
Every development cycle, or “season,” has a different mission. So we conducted different activities in each phase:
- In spring we created a strong employer’s brand. We measured its strength by asking the candidates we did not recruit if they recommended us as an employer to others. Also, new employees participated in a gamified workplace acclimatization program in which they met with key workers and collected information.
- Summer’s mission was good communication. We developed communication through a soft-skills university. We also gave out the company’s newspaper and organized teams for 360 live feedback.
- For the autumn phase, we conducted a talent exchange program, where our engineers studied with engineers in a different field. We also hosted a seminar called Jagaja (“sharer” in English) where teams shared their own experiences, including their failures.
- In winter, one notable accomplishment was a recognition system where every employee prepared a thank you card for a colleague via the intranet. It included a small gift which the office staff then delivered to that colleague’s desk.
Which kind of results did you achieve?
Through the entire development circle application and service development, we reduced our employee turnover from 20% to 5%. Also, our worker satisfaction rose from 88% to 97%, and our dissatisfaction score dropped. Most importantly, the company’s recognition in the job market rose, and we found it significantly easier to recruit talent, which in and of itself had a positive influence on the business and its growth.
How does food culture play a role in shaping happy organizations?
Food culture is essential to happiness at work. When I began at Proekspert, I noticed that people’s eating habits weren’t the healthiest. Often, they didn’t eat breakfast or lunch. Instead, they ate a hamburger at their desk and drank a Coke while standing by the vending machine!
To change their habits, we started with a healthy breakfast program with porridge, sandwiches, or salads. The workers began their day in the office break room or the kitchen talking to one another. Later, we expanded the program to include lectures about food and cooking. In our new office, we built a kitchen where teams could cook together. Once a month, a chef prepared a gourmet breakfast, which contributed to making the office cozy and social. Also, every year we have a “health month,” in which we draw attention to food, physical movement, and healthy sleep. Finally, we offer people an in-depth health checkup that includes information on dietary needs.
During these past six years, everyone has become more aware of food culture as a critical part of work happiness.
“Food culture is a critical part of work happiness.”
What’s the current state of eating on the job in Estonia?
Success-minded employers in Estonia make sure that there are places to eat near their premises. Alternatively, they offer food at the office. Of course, though, there are still some employers who don’t find eating important at all. The most significant influencer is work tempo. It doesn’t matter if the nearby restaurants are great or if you bring food from home. If your colleagues book your lunchtime with meetings or don’t respect your need for lunch, you just can’t eat.
Skipping lunch is a big problem in both business and public-sector organizations. As a result, people are nervous and drowsy in the office. Irregular eating or the lack of proper fuel creates a negative work atmosphere and causes health problems.
Eating lunch at the desk has become so popular that sociologists have coined the terminology “lunch al desko.” For workplace happiness, is it a “yes” or a “no?”
It’s a “no.” You either focus on work or eating. Psychologists have discovered that we must relax to be creative. Lunch break is ideal for flows to as it helps to direct your brain to other topics and talk with your colleagues.
“Lunch break is ideal for flows as it helps direct your brain to other topics while you talk with your colleagues.”
You’re also the co-founder of BlueMonday.ee, an app that tracks emotions in the workplace. How does it work?
BlueMonday is an inclusive app and management tool that records and reports the workers’ emotions on a daily basis to describe the levels of happiness in that organization. By asking questions like: How did the meeting go? Is my colleague friendly? Does my boss understand me? Do the processes work fluently, or not? The software analyzes the data collected to find patterns in the organizations. For instance, a worker may be unhappy every Monday because that’s when a boring meeting takes place.
In addition to gathering information, BlueMonday removes work-stopping barriers and inhibitors to motivation. Through a two-week retrospective, the app analyzes the previous period’s most essential plusses and minuses, achievements, and failures. In short, by creating positive feedback and solving problems at work, the app empowers and engages teams and help them achieve 100% of their capabilities.
Unlike others management platforms, the manager doesn’t have to lead the process and culture alone. Instead, with the assistance of his team, he can create a no-hierarchy work culture. All subjects become transparent, and progress is measurable and visible to everyone.
What are your TOP 3 suggestions to create a happier work culture?
1. Involve people in management fully and sincerely so that the process will succeed. Hire a work happiness specialist and make sure he/she is part of management.
2. Use knowledge from a variety of disciplines: design, career philosophy, psychology, technology, etc.
3. Give up slow work tools and measurements, and adopt methods and solutions which are agile and worker-focused.
Learn more about Tiina’s work
For a different perspective on work happiness, check the interview with work happiness consultant-coach Samantha Clarke.
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