9 Ways to Bring Joy into the Workplace

The author of Joy, Inc. Richard Sheridan shares how he created an Agile delivery environment for teams who went from adamantly against it to avid supporters.  This approach is was what has led him to recognize joy as the very thing that makes a place worth working in.

Here are nine lessons that Sheridan offers for bringing joy into the workplace, and in particular to developers.

1. Look for the energy at the edges not in the middle.

Sheridan shares how he learned this valuable lesson with his teams:

“When I suggested to them I was going to pull them out of their offices and cubes, put them out in a big open room, have them share computers, have them share their code – they went dead silent on me. They wouldn’t even make eye contact with me. I pushed them, and I pushed them and they still wouldn’t make eye contact. Finally, one guy raised his hand. I said, ‘Gill, what do you think?’ And he says, ‘Rich – blood, mayhem, murder. Don’t do it…’

But interestingly, two guys came up to me after that meeting and they said, ‘We want to try this.’ And so we started right away. We used pairing, we used story cards, we used iterative development, automated unit testing frameworks. About three weeks into that experiment [one of the two guys] pulls me aside in the parking lot and he said, ‘Hey, Rich. I just got a question for you. Are you still going to pay me to work here?’ I looked at him, I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He says, ‘Well, I will tell you, this new way of working is so much fun, it doesn’t feel like work anymore. I’m not sure I should get paid.’

This is a real conversation. Here I am, trying to effect a big change, and my first two responses are ‘Blood, mayhem, murder’ at one end of the spectrum and ‘I will work for you for free’ at the other end. I was not getting lukewarm responses. I have come to learn, if you want to make a big change, look for the energy at the edges, not in the middle. You’re going to get resistance at one end and this almost fervent desire to move forward [on the other end].”

2. Sometimes you have to create a forcing function for people get over their discomfort with change.

“I kind of tricked my team into trying all of these crazy experiments [with Agile delivery] for a week by telling them I want to teach them Java. Now, I will tell you in 1999, Java was a big deal. It was a relatively new language. Programmers love to learn new languages, and so I said, ‘Guys, let’s learn Java.’ And they’re like, ‘Yay, Java!’ I said, ‘But we’re going to use all the “blood, mayhem, murder” techniques. We’re going to go out in the room, we’re going to spend just one week, we’re going to pair, we’re going to switch the pairs. We’re going to work off of story cards, and we’re going to do real work.’ Their answer was, ‘Yay, Java!’

For one week, I had my entire team in this room, and we’re switching the pairs every day. It was like watching the cold fusion experiment just come to life – the energy, the enthusiasm, the productivity. At the end of the week, I pulled the team together, and I said, ‘Guys, what did you think? How did this go for you?’ All of a sudden, all the, ‘Oh, I can’t believe how much fun this was! I can’t believe how much we got done! I can’t believe how much I learned! I can’t believe how much fun it was to work with people who, quite frankly, I’ve been here with for 20 years, and now all of a sudden I know who they are.’ And I said, ‘Awesome, because this is the way we’re going to work from now on.’ They went deer-in-the-headlights on me again, and they said, ‘No!’ I played it back to them. I said, ‘Guys what did you just tell me? “Never felt more productive, never felt more energized.”‘ Understand, this is the way we’re going to work from now on.”


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3. Give it time, but don’t give up.

“Now, it still took another six months. It wasn’t like snap the fingers and – boom – everybody happy land. It was still another six months of what I called ‘herding squirrels.’ Because they still had their offices and cubes. We had taken over this old printer factory that had been abandoned right next door to where all the offices were. Every morning about 9:30, I’d just gather them, ‘Come on, guys. Let’s go out to the Java factory, let’s go!’ Everybody was hanging on their cubes, trying to stretch out their morning working on the old work. Finally, I declared to them, I said, ‘Guys, here’s what’s going to happen now. We’re building a whole bunch of new products to take to market. They’re all going to be in Java. If you want to work on those, you’re out in the factory. You’re going to be doing the new reindeer games. If you want to work on the old stuff, do maintenance on the old products, we still need that work done, you can do that in your cubes and offices.’ Well, you might imagine when you set the boundaries around work on new stuff in new languages and new tools, they start buying in. Within six months, I had people coming to me saying, ‘You know what? I never go to my cube anymore. You can give it away.'”

4. Pair people with someone else to get them over their fear and to help them grow.

“These were big changes, and big changes scare people. We’re scared when things change. It’s just a truth about human beings. Even if the systems we’re in are pain-filled, it’s a pain we’re used to. We have this fear of the unknown, but it’s amazing how often humans are willing to venture into the unknown when they’re locked-arms with somebody else. There’s just this natural human tendency to say, ‘If you and I are equally scared, we will march into the deep, dark forest together. But if we were alone, we’d stand frozen on the edge.’”

5. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know.”

“Nobody is pretending to know something they don’t because that, quite frankly, is a threat to the team and a threat to the project. If you’re willing to say, ‘I don’t know, I don’t remember. I don’t know how to do this,’ your pair partner is right there to say, ‘I got this.’ If they’re not, and they’re saying, ‘I don’t know either,’ there’s a pair sitting right next to you that probably does.”

Nobody is pretending to know something they don’t because that, quite frankly, is a threat to the team and a threat to the project.

6. Growing is scary and painful – but also necessary and good.

“Nicole was one of our programmers, and she was working on the Winton project, which was C#, .net – kind of a standard stack of technologies there, SQL server and that sort of thing. She was getting a feedback lunch – which is the way you get promoted at Menlo – and her peers were giving her feedback. They asked her: ‘So, Nicole, is there anything that you’re worried about?’ She goes: ‘Well, I would never want to go over and work on the Vayrone project. It’s all these new technologies and I just don’t understand that stack. I’m really comfortable over here on Winton.’

Well, you might guess that, the next week, Nicole sort of gets grabbed by the belt and gets thrown over into the Vayrone project, and now she’s dealing with an entirely new stack of technologies. But, of course, we pair her in with Ted who knows how to teach, and about three weeks later, she smiles and goes, ‘Yeah, I probably should have expected that.’ But then she also said, ‘And Vayrone wasn’t nearly as scary as I thought it was going to be.’ And all of a sudden, what happened? Nicole grows tremendously. She was still pretty early in her career, so that was an important growth moment for her.”

7. Create a beautiful, inspiring work space.

“When people walk in to see [our work space in Ann Arbor, Michigan] for the first time – because we have like three to four thousand visitors a year come though – they literally walk in and go, ‘Wow.’ It’s that kind of feeling. It’s a very inviting space. It’s a very colorful space, visual stuff because we believe in visual management. We have stuff all over the walls. At least one dog will come out to greet you. There might be a baby or two in the space that day because we let newborns come in with the parents. It’s filled with human energy, and you can just feel it when you walk in the door.”

When people walk in and see [our work space] for the first time… they literally walk in and go, “Wow.”  It’s that kind of feeling.

8. Habits can contribute to or detract from the corporate culture.

“We have very few rules at Menlo, and one of the simplest ones is you can’t wear earbuds while you’re working. Primary reason is because we pair. It’d be kind of rude to block out your pair partner. How would you communicate with this person sitting next to you if you’re blaring music in your ears? We also want your pair to be available to others. We want that availability to literally be serendipitous because if you and I are working together, and we’re working in the SQL database and we’re trying to build some tables, and the programmers across from us say, ‘Hey, let’s just delete this table and see what happens.’ You and I overhear and say, ‘Which table are you deleting?’ Those kinds of moments where the team is always sort of in the background – it’s amazing how this works because I’ve done enough sort of cognitive psychology research to say that the human mind is an awesome filter.

I was talking with somebody about this very topic, and there’s all this cocktail conversation around us. Everybody talking about the conference and what they’re learning, and it was noisy. He was talking to me about this ‘library quiet’ issue. I said, ‘Funny, it’s not affecting our conversation right now, is it?’ He kind of looked at me, he’s like, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’ I said, ‘See how this works? We see it all the time. We go to a noisy restaurant. We sit in Starbucks with another human being having a conversation, and our mind just blocks out all the other stuff because we’re focused on each other.’ This is where I get back to pairing as really important. I think if we were singleton programmers, we’d allow earbuds, we’d allow headphones because I think when you’re alone, you’re more likely to get distracted.”

9. Start with joy.

But how does any of this map back to joy? Sheridan shares his aha moment, when he heard Simon Sinek’s Start With Why presentation. It got him thinking about what the why was for Menlo:

“I thought, ‘If I’m going to start with why, if the first words out of my mouth are going to be something about a why, what would I say?’ So I went over to our mission statement that had been sort of yellowing on the wall for a decade at this point, and I thought, ‘Let’s see if there’s something in here.’

That’s why we’re here… I want everybody in the world who comes to visit with Menlo to walk out with one word on their word on their mind… Joy… There is in fact tangible business value to joy.

It was waiting there as a gift for me. I had actually written this mission ten years before. Down at the bottom it says, ‘Our goal, since our founding in 2001, is to return joy to one of the most unique endeavors mankind has ever undertaken – the invention of software.’ I fundamentally believe that is true about our industry, that inventing software is probably one of the most insanely human activities that we have come up with so far. I thought, ‘Boom, that’s it. It’s joy, getting back to the joy.’

This group came in and I said, ‘Welcome to Menlo. You’ve come into a place that has very intentionally created a culture focused on the business value of joy. ‘They looked at me like I was a creature from the Black Lagoon. They’re like, ‘What are you talking about? Why are you talking about joy?’ I said, ‘Well, pretend half of my team has joy and the other half doesn’t. Which half would you want working on your project?’ They said, ‘Well, we’d want the joyful half, of course.’ I said, ‘Why? What difference would it make? Why would you care?’ They said, ‘Well, they’d be more productive. They’d produce better outcome. They’d be easier to work with.’ I said, ‘Okay, so you’re with me. There is in fact tangible business value to joy.'”

Excerpts are taken from this recent Agile Amped podcast:

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