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Autonomy and happiness at work are closely linked, according to Arko van Brakel. As Happy Office, we use four pillars when it comes to happiness at work: mindset, purpose, results and relationships. Naturally there is a lot more to it, we could also name aspects such as passion, fun, flow, autonomy, mastery, growth, habits, behaviour, culture, trust, ownership and if you’ll stick around we could continue on for a while. But basically, in its essence it is about the fact that people are at the forefront of an organisation. Together with Julia Offergelt we spoke with Arko van Brakel, co-founder and Chief Inspiration Officer of the Semco Style Institute.

Arko, what is your definition of happiness at work?

“Firstly, when you are not commuting to work with a heavy heart and when it doesn’t feel like a chore to get up in the morning to go to work. Secondly, when you get satisfaction out of your job and you get the space to be your best self. Lastly, you have to experience some kind of purpose whilst doing your job, you have to feel like you contribute to something bigger than yourself. If you tick all those boxes you should be alright.”

How do you see the relationship between autonomy, self-steering organisations and happiness at work?

“The more autonomy you have, the more happy you will be. Research shows that there is more than a causal connection between the amount of autonomy employees experience and the frequency of their leave days due to sickness. When employees get a management position, their absenteeism decreases. That connection can also be seen between purpose and happiness. People who have a purpose, are less often sick and in general much happier.”

But isn’t it funny that only a small part of humanity and corporate organisations seem to have a clear goal?

“Indeed, only 11% of humanity knows what they want to mean and offer to others. This small percentage has their ‘big hairy audacious goal’, a clear purpose in life. It is a shame that this is only 11%, because as you know, having a goal triggers others to become a part of your organisation. It helps to have this purpose, to experience more autonomy and to show stronger leadership.”

That said we have also encountered people who didn’t enjoy autonomy

“Autonomy can be divided in two distinctive levels. Sometimes it seems like people are not enjoying this particular autonomy. Often these are the silent forces that form the basis of a solid self-steering team. These might not be the people with the big ideas and the initiatives, but they play a crucial part in the team. They often fare with the autonomy of a team.”

With Semco Style you help organisation undergo change processes in which the topic of autonomy centralized. How do you manage these projects?

“Our starting point is to create an organisation around the qualities of the employees instead of around processes and organisational structures. More often than not, the organisational structure and job descriptions are leading, but that does not really fit in our reality. Organisations are almost always coping with a setting of people that isn’t really interchangeable. That said, there is no reason to change your workforce, people can have an array of talents that in the current way of working isn’t tapped into at all. If you look at it from another perspective and ask yourself ‘What can we accomplish with these talents’. You are able to look at teamwork in a whole new light.”

That sounds absolutely marvelous, but how do you tackle that? Can you give us an example?

“No project is ever the same, and beforehand we never really know what to expect or what can happen. It is ultimately self-management. So we start by discussing our approach with people within the company. We do have our five basic principles: trust, reduction of control, self-management, extreme stakeholder alignment and creative innovation. Phew, that is a mouthful isn’t it? On our website you can read all about it :).”

Personally I think trust is the most important factor

“Absolutely, it is about building a culture of trust. The only way we can accomplish that is when people feel like they know each other well enough and feel connected to the team. In our daily work practise it means that you have to have worked with someone for approximately six months. Furthermore, trust is about letting go of control to give people all the space and information they need to make their own decisions. That can only be done if an organisation is truly transparent.”

That are pretty big steps. How do you make sure people and the organisation become more transparent?

“First of all, by highlighting the importance of transparency. People need to be straightforward about what their motives are. If everyone would do that, a self-steering team would function infinitely better. However this is not natural behaviour. We all conditioned to think a team can only excel when we cancel ourselves out. But no-one will thrive if that would be the rule. And it is not necessary. Actually, when you realize your goal as a part of a team, you can function better. And when everyone does that, the whole team will function better.” 

Do you think that everything should be open for discussion?

“In principle, yes. As long as there is a professional context to it. Within a company you do do not necessarily have to become friends, it is about finding a common, workable context together.”

What about vulnerability? Do you think that people should position themselves as vulnerable beings in their professional lives?

“Sure, as long if you are conscious of the fact that you are realizing a professional goal. Strategic diversity is crucial in a team. With an army of clones you’ll never create that friction that helps to increase innovation. That is the strength of a self-steering team.”

And what do you feel like is the essence of a happy and successful self-steering team?

“A successful, self-steering team that experiences happiness at work and has a lot of diversity and practices the most important values such as trust, respect and appreciation. Eventually it is about being able to name certain topics and make them discussable so people can learn what works and what doesn’t.”