What is flow?
Have you ever felt so engaged in your work that time seemed to speed up, you felt in tune with everything around you and you were totally oblivious to outside distractions? This is something called “flow.” Simply put, it’s a highly focused mental state where employees are able to attain their peak performance levels. Getting employees to achieve this state of mind is key to mastering employee engagement, because these flow periods are when they’re the most productive, creative and engaged.
Researchers from the Association of Psychological Science define flow as “optimal states of consciousness, those peak moments of total absorption where time flies and all aspects of performance go through the roof.” Flow researcher and author Steve Kotler describes flow as “the moment of total absorption. Time speeds up or slows down like a freeze-frame effect. Mental and physical ability go through the roof, and the brain takes in more information per second, processing it more deeply.”
That’s a pretty good place to be.
Maybe you know exactly what I mean, but you’re thinking, “Isn’t all of this just common sense? Sometimes you have good days; sometimes you have average days.” That’s what I thought at first, until I took a deeper look at the history—and science—behind this optimal state of mind.
There is a science behind flow.
The science of flow dates back to the 1900s, when researchers began documenting the ways the brain can alter consciousness to improve performance. Physiologists discovered a link between mind and body—the fight-or-flight response—that helped explain this amplified performance we know today as flow. In recent years, scientists have made enormous progress on understanding flow, including advancements in brain imaging technologies. “When a person is in a state of flow, all five potent neurochemicals massively amplify the immune system,” says Kotler.
“Stress-causing hormones are flushed out of body in flow, and the autoimmune and nervous systems go haywire. Flow brought me from seriously subpar back up to normal, and it can bring normal people to Superman.”
Why is “getting in the zone” so important?
Being in a state of flow can turn good-enough work into above-average work. When employees are in flow, their productivity and creativity increase dramatically. Levels of employee engagement go through the roof, too. Today, the average employee is spending less than 5 percent of their workday in flow. Imagine if you could increase that to 15 percent. Overall workplace productivity would double.
How do we get people into a state of flow?
The concept of flow was conceived by University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who found that flow is achieved “only when the degree of challenge is comparative to our level of skill.” When the task is too challenging or if their skills are insufficient, employees fall out of flow and into stress and anxiety. Similarly, if the work is too easy or employees are too skilled, they’ll also lose that state of flow and become bored. To get employees to a state of flow, we must understand what they think and feel in order to best match and optimize their job duties to their skill levels.
To help your workforce achieve flow, you need real-time information about how your employees are feeling and what they are thinking – that’s where technology comes in. An annual employee engagement survey is not enough. Your organization needs a tool that takes data sciences, modern technology and action planning to maintain a continual event-based connection to your workforce, one that provides your company with the agility to identify and implement real-time strategies and solutions that promote a state of flow.
Some tasks that employees do lend themselves to flow more than others. People in customer-facing or performance-based jobs are likely to spend more time in flow than those working in a desk job. But there are many ways you can create a work environment that fosters flow:
- Reduce distractions and ensure workers can be fully present with what they’re doing.
- Implement HR technology that provides continuous employee feedback, so you can best match the work to each employee’s specific skills and preferences.
- Offer workers opportunities to better themselves, physically and financially with wellness programs and financial coaching so that they are not burdened by life stresses during work.
- Lastly, share this article with your employees. Help them fully understand what flow means. Inviting their participation in finding their “sweet spot” will prepare them to jump in the flow whenever they get the chance.
Learn more about the concept of flow. What have you used at your organization to encourage flow?