Flow is a state of consciousness where people become totally immersed in an activity and enjoy it intensely. It can occur in a range of different activities: a musician who is challenging herself with a particularly difficult but rewarding piece; a marathon runner running at a pace never achieved before; a gamer competing at a superior and demanding level. All of these experiences involve a certain amount of challenge met by a level of skill. Both skill and challenge need to be in place for flow to happen. It is rare, therefore, that watching an unengaging tv programme will result in a flow experience.
Why is it important?
In work settings flow often results in periods of great creativity or bursts of productivity and high performance. Flow can occur if you are putting together a creative response such as a new branding offering for a boring client; when undertaking an interview with a very high profile, intelligent candidate who expects the most challenging and testing of questions. As ‘being in flow’ results in great creativity and feelings of intrinsic motivation, organisations should make a point of creating the right environment to make flow happen.
Bakker & van Woerkom (2018) looked at the conditions that need to be in place in a work setting for flow to occur and what actions individiuals and organisations can take to enable flow experiences.
What can we do to help it along?
For the individual:
- Self leadership: individuals can help themselves by setting themselves goals, rewarding behaviour by including positive ‘treats’ in to the accomplishment of challenging tasks and consider ways in which feedback and reflection can be built into tasks.
- Job crafting: job crafting is about changing a job to experience greater meaning. By experiencing greater meaning there is the potential for an individual to also experience flow. Job crafting involves physical changes to the tasks involved; cognitive changes in terms of how someone sees their job or relational changes in terms of who to interact with while doing their job.
- Playful work design: people are generally most ‘free’ when at play so building in playful activities by adding fun, amusement and humour into otherwise mundane tasks encourages creativity. This could involve an element of competition or gamifying day to day activities.
- Strengths use: using strengths means individuals are able to leverage more of what comes naturally to them. As a result they feel more authentic in their work and are therefore more likely to experience flow.
What can HR do to help with flow?
Whilst the above is aimed at what the individual can do to create greater opportunities to experience flow, HR and organisations have a role to play through HR practices and processes. Training and development which encourages individuals to broaden their skills, strengths based feedback to reinforce authenticity and self knowledge, performance management which build in challenge can all play a part in enabling flow in the organisation. Moreover HR should keep flow in mind when designing any intervention.
Bakker and van Woerkom also emphasise the importance of transformational leadership which can inspire followers to invest effort and take up challenges. Transformational leaders which provide resources, give feedback and create growth opportunities can facilitate intrinsic motivation which is a necessary component of getting into flow.
Bakker, A.B. & van Woerkom, M. Occup Health Sci (2017) 1: 47. https://doi.org/10.1007/s41542-017-0003-3
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. New York: HarperCollins.