Episode 17: Finding “Flow” in Employee Engagement
Finding the balance between an employee’s skill level and tasks that challenge them enough to remain engaged, but not so much as to overwhelm them, is key to keeping an employee engaged. In game theory, that sweet spot is known as “flow.” In sports, it’s often referred to as being “in the zone.” An employee performing work in the optimal flow space is an employee who is engaged, fulfilled, and likely happy.
In this episode of Employee Connectedness, Unitonomy founder Charley Miller discusses how game theory and the goal of a flow state can be applied to employees in the workplace with UofL researcher Dr. Brad Shuck, and OnPlane consultant Martin Low.
In addition, they will discuss a new survey On Plane is conducting to take a quick pulse of how employees are feeling during this COVID-19 crisis. Please take a moment to fill out the 50-second, anonymous survey here (and share the link with others):
Link to the On Plane Survey
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Episode 17: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VP439fXJFpk
Employee Connectedness is live-streamed weekdays at 10:15am EST on the Unitonomy YouTube channel. You can join there and ask questions in the chat. You can also find previous episodes posted there and on the Unitonomy blog.
Employee Connectedness: Finding “Flow” in Employee Engagement
Charley Miller 0:15
Hello, everyone watching us. I’m Charley Miller with Unitonomy. I’m joined by Martin Low, On Plane Consulting, and Dr. Brad Shuck, University of Louisville. Getting my mirrored video camera thing down still. We’ve been doing this for like a month and I still have to like, figure out which ones go on which way. It’s kind of nice to be in below you guys see I can kind of shoot up at you. So, we’re all doing the work from home thing here as we continue to social distance. Today, we’re going to dig into employee engagement, which happens to be Dr. Brad Shuck’s specialty of research. We’re going to kind of do some brainstorming around expanding our concept of employee engagement.
My background is in game design and something I studied heavily was just the idea of how players psychologically engage with games. It’s a famous area that people will try to understand which is called flow. And I think if you follow sports you often hear about players getting in the zone. This is kind of related to the idea of a flow state. So, to just kind of kick things off here I’m going to jump over to my whiteboard and sort of really articulate what it is when I talk about flow. So if you guys will bear with me, let me draw something up real quickly and I’ll jump back to you here in a second. All right, here’s my whiteboard.
I’m going to graph this idea. So here is the y axis and x axis. I want you to imagine that on this axis, what we’re doing is understanding, in terms of a game. The challenge of the game is nice and big so you can see it. And down here I want you to just think about this the skill of the player. And when someone plays a game, if their skill is really low but the challenge is really high–let’s do “challenges” actually bigger. Challenges high, Skills low–they’re gonna get frustrated. And make that nice and big now too. So again yeah Challenge high= ” games really hard but I don’t really know how to play very well, I get really frustrated.” Now the opposite of that is if my skill is really high but the challenge is really low. “I’m like way too good for this game, I get bored.”
Charley Miller 2:55
In the most basic sense this is the premise of understanding flow with realizing that somewhere in the middle here is sort of the perfect balance between challenge and my skill. And generally when you’re designing a game experience you’re trying to actually aim for something right above that line right here, sort of the sweet spot. And the reason that is, is because the game is slightly more difficult than the player skill level, and the slight challenge is what creates the real compelling nature of games and some people call it fun but it’s really just the idea that the game is as I get better, the game is getting harder. And that continues to keep me engaged as a player. So what we’re really designing for is this area right here. Now, I want to add if you really want to dig into this concept just a hair more, I think this is sort of interesting to think about. If we move this right down here just above that sweet spot, this is an area that we think that creates anxiety, you’re not frustrated, but the game’s hard enough and just above my skill level that I’m just anxious at this point. And then down here. Oops. Down here, if my skill level is pretty high and the game’s not quite challenging enough, I can actually find a state where I’m relaxed. And we’re going to talk about this more in a minute as well, that’s not necessarily a bad thing for certain types of experiences. And one more to label here, which is if there’s really no challenge, and I don’t really have much skill–down here–that’s apathy.
So, what happens when we start to apply this learning to the employee in the workplace, right? And there’s lots of different scenarios and lots of different kinds of roles you can apply here and think about how they would look on this sort of graph. But keep in mind there’s also another axis, which I think is important to understand, which really is this idea of time. Some people have roles that shift often, and that actually helps keep things interesting. That’s almost a way of new challenges being presented the same way games have levels. If you have a role that changes a lot, that’s presenting its own challenges by the unique nature of things changing. If you have a role that doesn’t change at all, every day is the same rigamarole, well, you have to think about how there’s going to be new types of experiences coming at the person that challenge them or new types of things they need to learn to challenge them. If they’re not getting that challenge there’s a chance they’re gonna get bored. But as something to talk about with you guys is the idea that in those sort of roles that don’t change, how can you kind of angle that role more toward a relaxed state, a Zen-like state versus the boredom. Alright, so let me jump out of this and get back to the gang here. All right, good. What are your initial thoughts throw a few ideas at me here as I walked you through that.
Dr. Brad Shuck 5:56
Yeah. So I love that idea and I love the application of different science disciplines, kind of coming together to help us understand a very complex, often psychologically grounded construct that work by using game design, and the term we might use in the field would be job crafting. But even job crafting doesn’t really get at the nuanced level that I think you’re describing in terms of game design and flow. It’s terrific, fascinating.
Charley Miller 6:33
Martin, right before our call, we were just talking about what’s coming up this weekend. You’re talking about jumping into some home projects. In your background apparently, you have some handyman skills. I do not. I’m envious of that. But you mentioned you love kind of working with your hands and kind of getting in there. Just talk about that for a second. Oops, you’re muted I think.
Martin Low 6:56
I might be handy but I’ve yet to figure out to unmute.
Charley Miller 7:00
Every episode man.
Martin Low 7:02
Every one. It’s like the running joke. It’s like Monty Python, it just kind of keeps going. No, you know for me it’s interesting because some of these things are, it’s a way to kind of change up what I’m doing in terms of like the things that I’m doing through the day. So like that boredom piece that the neat thing that I noticed about your model is is that there’s no outside factors that impact kind of where somebody is or impact where their mind share is. It assumes that like you’re 100% consumed by the game or the experience.
Charley Miller 7:43
That’s a fantastic point.
Martin Low 7:44
Yeah, you know, and I think first of all, I think the model is great, right. So I’m not trying to take away from that at all. I think that as you start to ponder what makes you engaged, there’s a little bit of like, how does that work track over time? And for me, if I’m doing the same thing over and over and over again, even if it takes like an intensive amount of skill and even if I’m kind of right in the sweet spot of that line, sometimes I just get a little bit like I’m gonna call it mentally fatigued. And one of the things that’s great for me as I go out and do something with my hands, whether it’s pulling weeds in the garden, you know, fixing something around the house. Like there’s times when I’m taking a call with somebody that’s like a social call or a networking call, and I might be like, I might be fixing a piece of drywall, I might be weeding in the garden, I might be doing some like like real physical labor because I need that, like that movement, and that secondary activity kind of drives some engagement for me. And so as we were talking about it, I’m like, I like actually just listening to podcasts and doing something else at the same time because there’s not like I can’t just sit still long enough to just sit and listen or sit and read. So it’s a great way for me to consume it and maybe it’s because there’s a little bit of added challenge inside of it that fills in the whitespace between like concept one and concept two where someone is like explaining something. Like I don’t want to hear your explanation, I just want you to like move on to the next thing cuz I got it. This gives me something else to focus on while I’m waiting for that next bit.
Charley Miller 9:19
Music is a really interesting way of kind of gauging where you sit within that graph. My point being, my wife is an artist and when she’s in her studio, much like you, Martin, depends on the test if she can listen and concentrate on a podcast or does she need to go towards something else like classical ambient focus music? The ambient focus music has proven to help people get into sort of a flow state. And that works really well when you are trying to push the envelope of what you’re doing, if you’re maybe trying to do something sort of new and really see where it goes. Maybe you’re typing, or writing something…music like that it’s really helpful to maintain concentration. On the flip side, if you’re doing something repetitive and you almost have the muscle memory of doing that thing, a podcast is great because now that part of your brain that needs to be stimulated is getting that through the podcast, while your body is doing the other thing that works really well to stay in the zone. So the zone on the floors, different concepts here.
You know a great maybe metaphor here is Michael Jordan. Everyone’s watching The Last Dance right now which is an excellent documentary series, Jordan being the master of masters when it comes to basketball. Well, one thing that’s interesting he learned he has to constantly give himself new motivation. He has to figure out new ways of keeping himself engaged and he struggled with engagement. He literally retired from basketball to go play baseball at one point, most people will probably recall, because he lost engagement, he was burned out. Well, back to my point here, I think, when a player is in the zone, they figured out some other way to stimulate themselves and they’re using that muscle memory to be successful. When someone’s in the flow, they are being challenged to do something new. You can be kind of merge those into the same thing at the same time. Again, this is the game designer talking.
When a player is in the zone, they figured out some other way to stimulate themselves and they’re using that muscle memory to be successful. When someone’s in the flow, they are being challenged to do something new. You can…merge those into the same thing at the same time.Charley Miller, Founder of Unitonomy
But just to articulate it slightly further, those are kind of two different areas. Just to geek out for one more minute on this. There is a flip side to this, which I think is also really interesting but I don’t know how this wouldn’t really apply to employee engagement, but maybe it comes to leadership and sort of crisis mode. The opposite of sort of the flow zone is the idea of panic and choke. Again, I can use a sports metaphor here to explain this, yeah yeah. Panicking is you can’t think enough in the moment, and there’s disrupting your muscle memory of doing the thing. Choking is you’re thinking too much. You’re overthinking and therefore you can’t rely on all your training to do your task. We see this in sports all the time: famous meltdowns where a tennis player can’t even get the ball over the net or baseball player can’t throw it to first base, something they’ve done 10,000 times. Suddenly they can’t do it anymore. Sometimes it’s just, they’re choking they’re overthinking it. Sometimes it’s like game seven of the World Series and they panic and they just make an errant throw. Right, so those are those kind of flip models of this thing that I think are interesting to chew on.
Dr. Brad Shuck 12:11
What’s interesting about that those situations in particular right now is there’s the element of unknown and pressure. And that may exacerbate panicking or choking certainly. I’ve had times in my life where I’ve done both of those things. And, as I recall back on those instances, there’s always been some kind of outside pressure that’s caused an internal pressure. That’s fueled my reaction, and my ability to handle that kind of in the moment and pause and breathe and do all the stuff that we know we need to do to recenter it. I just lost the ability to do that, couldn’t think quick enough to do that. There’s a…I can’t remember what baseball movie it is but there’s one where there’s a guy that’s a pitcher on the mound and he says “clear the mechanism.” Do you remember what movie that is? It’s terrific. I think I want to, I can’t remember, but he’s on the mound and it’s like game series, bottom of the ninth, two outs, about to win, and the pressure just kind of starts to build outwards. And he says, clear the mechanism and at that moment, it’s like everything shuts down, ” I’m focused and I’m in the zone.” The only experience that I can recall, and I’ve ever had in my life like that is when my wife and I were on Wheel of Fortune, about a decade ago. Well, and we cleared the mechanism. and we were laser pointed, focused in. We were on the show together, and we were a team and we were in hot pursuit. And nothing, nothing frazzled us, it was cool.
Charley Miller 13:58
Oh man, if you can get a YouTube link or something, we’ll attach it to this video today so everyone can go watch Brad Shuck and his wife, Angie killing it on Wheel of Fortune. That’s a great story. Like it’s well documented some baseball players get the yips as they call it, like they just, the catcher can throw it back to the pitcher, it’s the weirdest thing in the world. And to your point, what psychologists do to help players like that is actually give them sort of a phrase to repeat, in their head or something. And I do know that I thought you were gonna reference Major League. In that movie, or Major League II, I can’t even remember, the catcher has to repeat, I think it was like Playboy articles, but as soon as he starts reciting a Playboy article, he can throw it back to the pitcher. That’s happened to Major League Baseball many times over, it’s well documented. Poor players literally career crash in half because they get the yips and can no longer repeat the most basic tasks.
So I think a recurring theme here both you guys brought up is the idea of external factors. How do external factors affect people’s performance? How does that disrupt the flow and zoneO of course we’re probably going through the biggest external factor in the history of the last century, with the coronavirus and the pandemic disrupting everything across workforces. But we’ve talked a lot about that so I’m going to sort of veer away from that conversation. I think something as interesting focus for me is that for Unitonomy, we’re very focused on knowledge workers, people who sit in front of computers and oftentimes people who do remote work. Those people aren’t really working with their hands or typing on a keyboard is not the same as making something crafting something with your hands. Psychologically it’s proven that people are stimulated when they’re actually crafting things with their hands, so like Martin working on his home. Whoops wrong point, there we go. So I’ve often thought about well, you know people are doing crafts and things are probably pretty damn happy people and I can tell you my wife as an artist, she is. Whereas someone in a factory, they’re also working their hands, but I don’t know if they get the same amount of pleasure and there’s probably some studies out there, that’d be interesting to look at.
Martin Low 16:01
I think, Charley, if you went back to your graph and you said skill and ability. If you really start to talk to the folks that are crafting things in factories, there are plenty of happy people that have like high skill and high challenge stuff. You also have a lot of factory jobs where it’s, you know, potentially, somebody that’s mid skill or high skill even in doing a low, low challenge thing. Like if you’ve been doing the same thing for the last five years, you probably got it down. And I think that’s where the Delta comes in and that’s where, when you start thinking about the future work that’s where I think this gets exciting. Because a lot of the AI and a lot of the automation that has come in today and will continue to come in, gets rid of those low challenge things and now releases that skill ability in people to kind of really get some leverage out of that. Like, I think. Right future out there. If we can all figure out how to leverage it and really for businesses if they can figure it out.
There are plenty of happy people that have high skill and high challenge stuff. You also have a lot of factory jobs where it’s…somebody that’s mid skill or high skill…doing a low, low challenge thing…That’s where the Delta comes in and that’s where, when you start thinking about the future work, that’s where I think this gets exciting. Because a lot of the AI and a lot of the automation that has come in today and will continue to come in, gets rid of those low challenge things and now releases that skill ability in people to kind of really get some leverage out of that.Martin Low, On Plane Consulting
Dr. Brad Shuck 17:11
Maybe one of the uses here with AI is that it is used to like a game to ratchet up. As your skill gets better, the challenges get better. I don’t know what that would look like. But, you know, that maybe AI is utilized like you would if you were taking a standardized test. Like, you know, as you get these five questions right, the next set are a little harder and then it gauges and it kind of locks in your skill level for you in terms of productivity and maybe that from that output it’s like “alright, well your skill level’s here, your capacity’s here, here’s your to-do list for the week. See if you can get it done and if you get it done by Thursday at four, take the day off.”
Charley Miller 17:58
Yeah, so this whole conversation I think has some interesting segues as we kind of push the envelope on what is the new currency of work, something you all brought up in our last episode as we started talking about AI with Ben Reno-Weber. And I think we need to keep pulling that thread and just see where we wander. I think, Brad you’ve been looking at employee engagement for a decade, I know you often reference other things sort of evolving as we now think more about the fuller employee experience. And that engagement is not the only marker that is sort of meaningful to understanding how employees are doing well or poorly. When you talk about things like stress and capacity and connectedness, how much is that related to purpose, versus, you know, other factors?
Dr. Brad Shuck 18:43
Yeah, so it’s interesting when it comes to stress, so let’s just take that for a second. The stress, when we look at the research models the data models on stressing, and engagement can live together at the same time. You can be engaged in flow and stressed at the same time, and that stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But when you’re stressed and you’re not engaged. That’s burnout. That’s burnout or dysfunction. So, if the job is too hard, if I’m anxious, if I don’t have the resources, if I feel like I’m not supported, there’s no hope for me to be able to do this work. If I don’t feel like I have the knowledge, skills, and abilities to do it, or, or I’m, I’m not challenged enough, to your point in the model, where I’m a little bit on the bored side but I’m really stressed about it. We find that that causes sickness, dysfunction, and high levels of burnout. That’s where people get emotionally exhausted and they say things like this doesn’t matter anymore, I don’t care about this. And they, they actually like physically distance themselves, at the same time, emotionally and socially distancing themselves.
The stress, when we look at the research models the data models on stressing, and engagement can live together at the same time. You can be engaged in flow and stressed at the same time, and that stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But when you’re stressed and you’re not engaged. That’s burnout. That’s burnout or dysfunction.Dr. Brad Shuck, University of Louisville
Charley Miller 20:05
Martin, I have a question for you now. You see all kinds of companies in your work as a consultant with On Plane. Are there companies, this is assumption I’ve always had, but are there companies out there that really program into their business model to know like, our roles here are predominantly going to be boring roles and we’re going to have lots of turnover, that’s okay. Versus other companies say we don’t want to have to spend that amount of money on turnover, because it is a huge expense, right, we’re having to re-recruit and retrain. Do you see that a lot or is that assumption offbase?
Martin Low 20:34
I think you kind of see two camps, right? You see a camp where you do have people who say “hey wait a minute I’ve realized that turnover cost me a lot of money.” Ideally along the way they’ve also said that the low skilled work is low value work and there’s not a lot of like marginal utility that you can get from somebody for that work. And they figured out ways to automate it or make pieces of that low skilled work go away so that they can focus their people on the highest skill work, which has the high marginal utility or high value that the person could add into it. And so, if you really want to start talking about how you get leverage out of your business, how you make this highly profitable business, you have to put your business into that, that framework, and then it naturally lends itself to doing all the human capital stuff that we do around, you know development plans, employee engagement, like all these things that you need to get that significant leverage out of the population. I think on the other side of that spectrum is people who’ve just punted. And they’ve said, this is the industry, this is what it is we’re gonna have some turnover. This is all we make, I can’t do anything more with the margin that I’ve got, and those, you know, it’s just kind of this like slow path to death for those businesses because sooner or later someone comes into the industry and says, hey, I’ve figured it out. I can make a 10% or 20% margin on this if I work this way, versus the competitor industries, you know, 5% margin and all of a sudden they just eat the world around them. Right, including that business.
I think you’re gonna see more and more of that especially as the AI side of things, speeds up in, you know, you see this. Ben mentioned McDonald’s as an example. So what happens when McDonald’s can be run with you know five people. There’s a whole bunch of, and you go out and look at McDonald’s earnings and stuff it’s all public data, and they show like headcount and they show what’s happened with EBITDA over a period of time and their headcount is gone down and to the right, over time, and their EBITDA has gone, you know, up into the right over time. And what they’re doing is they’re getting leverage out of the headcount that they’ve got now all of a sudden. If you’re running a mom and pop burger joint and you’re competing with them, you can’t, right? And you can’t because they’ve invested in automation they’ve invested in their people. They really have tried to do a lot to shift that paradigm. So, you know, the business case that I would make is like you have to do this if you want to stay ahead of the rolling boulder that is always chasing you as a business owner. Yeah.
Charley Miller 23:32
All right, well I think maybe a good way to wrap up today is to advertise the big survey that you guys have put together and are running to sort of aggregate data and just take a pulse of the industries overall how people are feeling. We’ll put a link to this survey. It takes less than one minute to complete. It’s in the YouTube description, and of course the blog post here. Please click on that. It’s like eight or nine questions really fast, and it’s totally anonymous. It’s just a great way On Plane is going to make sure they, they can share these results with everyone, so everyone gets a sense of how people are feeling as employees right now as COVID-19 continues onward, and people adapt. Largely built from Dr. Brad Shuck, this survey here. So thank you guys. Any parting thoughts here today?
Dr. Brad Shuck 24:30
I think this is gonna be an interesting thing to evolve over time. I’m excited results at that On Plane’s gonna be able to share back with the world but at the same time the overlay of on these kinds of models, how is this changing the game of work, what’s this gonna look like.
Charley Miller 24:50
Alright guys, everyone have a nice…oh, go ahead Martin.
Martin Low 24:54
Oh, I was gonna say you know I love the thought process behind, you know, how do you match up challenge with ability. I think that becomes so important as people try and derive some purpose into what they’re doing. And I think that we could do like a future episode on, you know, how do I find the right place and avoid things like panic and anxiety, driven mostly by internal factors probably more so than like external factors sort of a thing. I think that’s, that’s a great future concept that you guys talked about that we didn’t spend enough time on we should spend some more time on.
Charley Miller 25:32
Yeah, I think there’s a lot we can dig in here. This is fun. All right guys, everyone, have a great weekend. Thanks everyone for watching, and if anyone ever has a question for us to answer just ping us on the LinkedIn feed with Unitonomy, and we’ll make sure to address it.