I started at UPS on Monday. I drove to the San Francisco UPS headquarters, a block-wide fortress of freight. A staffer from human resources took me to get a uniform and pointed me toward the locker room. I changed out of my street clothes and into the brown outfit. I had the locker room to myself; after buttoning up my shirt I took a second to stare into the mirror. As I changed into this new brown uniform, I was changing my attitude. I was becoming one of them.

For a decade I had worked as a journalist, covering business and the rise of branding. But by that fateful morning, I’d decided to leave my desk behind and dive deeper into a subject that had long intrigued me: the role of corporate cultures in large companies. In what became a two-year adventure through the world of commerce, I served as a driver’s assistant at UPS, poured coffee at a busy Starbucks cafe, folded garments at Gap, rented cars for Enterprise, and sold iPods at an Apple Store.

The author during his stint at UPS

Though my mission was primarily to study modern workplace cultures—reporting that turned into my 2007 book, Punching In—I came away with an appreciation for the roots and benefits of on-the-job happiness. Companies like the ones where I worked are not necessarily aiming to create staffs of happy people. They seek hard workers that believe in what they do, and if this makes people happy, that’s a secondary benefit. Happy people, in other words, don’t necessarily get the job done.

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And yet some workplaces are definitely happier than others. Employees at Gap, I discovered, couldn’t wait to leave; UPS drivers, on the other hand, often enjoyed their work and were even able to discover a larger meaning in what they did. Just how companies create positive work environments was something that revealed itself to me slowly. I learned that it had a lot to do with how employers choose employees, and how applicants decide just where to apply.

Here are my three secrets to a happy workplace.

One: Go for flow

“Dude,” said one of my colleagues at Gap. “This place messes with time. It slows down, it crawls, it moves backward.” He was right: At Gap (we were told to never call it “the” Gap) my chief duty was to fold clothing that had been unfolded by customers, a Sisyphean task. Sisyphus, you might recall, was condemned by the gods to keep rolling a boulder up a hill for eternity. And that’s just what working at Gap felt like: an eternity. This was also true of working at Enterprise rental car and Starbucks, where all of our movements were measured and monetized. Perceptions of time, I found, are closely linked to the employees’ feeling of freedom: The more constrained the environment, the slower things moved, and the less happy employees were.

In contrast, work at the Apple Store was set up so you were focused on accomplishing goals, not filling up time. At Apple, most product layout was left to one “visual merchandiser” who was passionate about keeping the store neat, leaving others like me to interact with customers, share information, and be ourselves instead of following a script. I was judged about what I did instead of how I did it. By having long leashes, Apple employees could forget about the hours and get into the “flow” state, so well articulated by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in which one is “completely involved in an activity for its own sake.”

Anthropologist Edward Hall originally described the way in which time is viewed in the workplace. Most hourly jobs treat time as monochronic—“an infinitely divisible linear ribbon that can be divided into appointments and other compartments, but within which only one thing can be done at a time.” But at Apple, the polychronic view of time prevailed, so that we could do several things simultaneously, manage our own tasks, and feel pride in accomplishing things, as opposed to just waiting out the hours. This certainly made me happier, and it seemed to work for the other employees as well.

Two: Foster authenticity

Apple helped work hours fly by in part by encouraging employees to be themselves. At Apple I got to hang out, share my knowledge, learn, and stay current with cutting-edge technology. In each discussion with a customer, I continued to feel more at ease, and interactions with my colleagues even came to feel natural. Employees at Starbucks were told to “be authentic,” but Apple gave us a more honest variation on this theme. “Be who you are,” a recorded voice told me in training. “You know the feeling you get from people who just say what they have to say.”

This notion of authenticity is key. If workers feel like they are a part of a plastic, inauthentic culture, they may feel less “real” themselves. UPS has a workplace culture with 100-year-old history and traditions. Through the camaraderie among drivers, the day-to-day company rituals, and the leeway I was given on the road, UPS came to feel like a place where I belonged. And at UPS I gained a strong sense that I was a part of the thumping, beating heart of capitalism, connecting sellers to buyers and family members to each other. It felt much more critical than any other job I held. Its culture felt authentic to me, in a way that even Apple did not.

To function, a culture has to be organic and move of its own accord. People have to believe without being persuaded to do so. Through all my jobs, once the corporate minders pulled something out and identified it as a part of the culture, it immediately lost its authenticity for me. Evolution of the culture is crucial, and to evolve means to change. As a new worker, I had to feel that I could not only join the culture but also add to it.

Authenticity occurs, to some degree, in the mind of the employee. UPS and its culture worked for me. Starbucks did not; I viewed the training I received as simply teaching me how to act. But I remember talking to a fellow barista named Steve after a busy shift: He loved the hard work and the flow state it engendered. Unlike me, he viewed himself as having gained the skills of a craftsman. All of these workplace cultures are fabricated, so what feels authentic to one employee might feel inauthentic to another. Selection, by applicants and employers, is the best way to create happy workers.

Three: Find the right match

It may seem obvious, but it took me almost two years as a front-line employee to understand that not every prospective employee (even if they are all “good” and “hard-working” people) will excel equally in each workplace. We all have different needs and wants in a job, and we will succeed by being matched well to the place where we work. The smarter companies knew this and worked hard to identify the right talent before hiring.

The Container Store, a chain of some 30 retail outlets, didn’t hire me. The company, which hires just six percent of applicants, made the right call—I would have been a poor match for the job. Unlike me, many of the other applicants in our group interview had the requisite passion for organizing and selling storage systems.

Thus, asking employees about their passions, and gauging the quality and truthfulness of their responses, is critical. The first thing that companies can do to maximize the happiness of their employees is to pick those employees wisely, by choosing people who will flourish in their particular corporate culture.

Similarly, prospective employees should try to identify those places in which they will flourish most. Applicants for the Container Store are fanatical about organization and about sharing their organizational skills with others. Apple isolates true enthusiasts and true believers in Apple products, of which there are many. People who self-select for UPS are extroverted, athletic, and restless, which are perfect traits for UPS employees—but perhaps not so good for Starbucks baristas, who spend much of the day standing in one tight place.

To attract employees, you need to offer them something that goes beyond money: a brand, a calling, a community. This force is larger than a person; it is a force that feels worth allying with and merging into. Some companies mold their corporate cultures to appeal to the population they hope to recruit and employ.

In the best situations, the applicant hears a calling to the company long before applying; there is something out there that makes the place seem like the right fit. In the best case scenario, there is a moment when you are working at that place when you feel alive, when you are no longer questioning and thinking about life on the outside, life before the job, life after the job. In that moment, you are the job. It’s a rare, elusive feeling, I discovered. But it’s the secret to happiness at work.

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Great article.  I worked at UPS as a kid and have several friends of mine in Atlanta that work at corporate.  Definitely a unique and transformative environment for sure.

Jackson Smith | 1:21 pm, January 27, 2011 | Link


Ha, I am former UPSer myself and I learned numerous lessons from my time at Big Brown.  Thanks for the posts!

Jason Smitherman - Former UPS | 3:19 pm, February 1, 2011 | Link

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