Whenever I write about lists of great places to work, I make a reference to “free M&Ms.” I always thought this was a great hypothetical example of the silliness of focusing on perks. M&Ms are cheap. You could supply yourself with all you should be eating for less than a dollar a day. Yet stories on awesome companies tend to focus on the free snacks, I guess because this is easily understood and, to be honest, human loyalty is often bought cheap. Just as doctors probably are influenced by the free pens from pharma companies, maybe M&Ms do buy loyalty.
But the “free M&Ms” was just my shorthand way of referring to perks. So imagine my surprise when Fortune’s annual 100 Best Companies to Work For issue actually had a bowl of M&Ms on the cover. To be fair, the Mars company made the list, and of course Mars gives free M&Ms, so that makes sense. Also, some of the thumbnail profiles of the best companies have far more important benefits than free M&Ms: an honor system sick day policy, middle-class pay for hourly employees, long paid parental leaves. Nonetheless, these little thumbnails do have a lot of other random perks listed: a black-tie holiday gala (that’s a perk?), Ping Pong tables, field days featuring trivia contests.
Anyway, the list got me thinking about what does bring happiness at work. Free M&Ms are nice, but would you sit in pointless meetings all day just for free M&Ms? I hope not. Would the free M&Ms bring you joy if your work was burned every night in front of you? Not so much.
One of the most interesting insights I’ve seen into this question lately comes from Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, authors of The Progress Principle. Amabile teaches at Harvard Business School (I also interviewed her for 168 Hours) and Kramer is a developmental psychologist. The two had hundreds of employees on teams at various companies keep work diaries over a long period of time, describing how the day went, and rating it on various dimensions (how productive they were, how they felt, etc.). This produced nearly 12,000 diary entries, which they then scored and analyzed.
They found that the 1000 best days — those with the highest scores — were overwhelmingly characterized by what they call “progress.” People met a goal. They achieved little wins. They got something to work right. They felt farther ahead at the end of the day than they were at the beginning. To be sure, some of the best days featured a boss providing things like free M&Ms (or pizza, or bottled water), but there wasn’t as clear a correlation. The inverse was also true. The worst days tended to feature setbacks, more so than more obvious toxins (like being yelled at by your boss).
This suggests why someplace like Google is a great place to work (for software engineers). The engineers are making steady progress toward programs that Google often tries out. It suggests why people find creative hobbies like gardening or crafting so satisfying: you see progress. But even seemingly not-so-fun work can be joy-inducing if it meets the right criteria. My favorite quotes from The Progress Principle are the near-ecstatic diary entries of a software team called in over a holiday weekend to produce the data necessary for their organization to settle a lawsuit. They worked together and they got it all done. And they were very, very happy while they were doing it.
The question for managers is then how do you help your people see steady progress? How do you structure work so some amount of progress is always possible? That question probably matters more than whether your employees would like free M&Ms.
In other news: Kimberly Wilson featured me in her Tranquility du Jour podcast.