SHRM All Things Work

Jenn Lim on Creating Workplace Happiness

Episode Summary

In this episode of All Things Work, host Tony Lee speaks with Jenn Lim, author of Beyond Happiness, to discuss how to build workplace strategies that spread happiness and, as a result, benefit all employees and the bottom line.

Episode Notes

Research suggests that the missing piece in most organizations’ attempts to increase effectiveness and achieve results is workplace happiness. In this episode of All Things Work, host Tony Lee speaks with Jenn Lim, author of Beyond Happiness, to discuss how to build workplace strategies that spread happiness and, as a result, benefit all employees and the bottom line.

Follow All Things Work wherever you listen to podcasts; rate and review the show on Apple Podcasts.

Music courtesy of bensound.

Episode transcript

Episode Transcription

Tony Lee:

Welcome to the All Things Work Podcast from the Society for Human Resource Management. I'm your host, Tony Lee, Head of Content here at SHRM. Thank you for joining us. All things Work is an audio adventure where we talk with thought leaders and taste makers to bring you an insider's perspective on All Things Work.

In an age of constant change, how can we stay resilient as HR professionals and grow as individuals and organizations? The secret is to embed happiness in humanity within our workplaces, which starts with each of us showing up to work as our most authentic self. Perhaps easier said than done, but research shows that the modern workplace must embrace happiness to move beyond standard practices that stop us from achieving tangible results.

My guest today, joining me to discuss methods for building workplace strategies that spread happiness and as a result benefit all employees and the bottom line is Jenn Lim. Jenn is the author of a new book called Beyond Happiness and is CEO of Delivering Happiness, a California-based business which helps employers create happier company cultures.

With more than 20 years of workplace experience, Jenn helped create the world's first series of culture books at and has spoken at a wide range of top conferences including with SHRM. Jenn, welcome to All Things Work.

Jenn Lim:

Thank you, Tony. Thanks for having me. Honored to be here.

Tony Lee:

Yeah, we're happy to have you. So, why don't we just start at the top? If you wouldn't mind, why don't you share with our listeners your journey that led you here?

Jenn Lim:

Yeah, of course. So, I think there were two big inflection points in my life that got me to this place of Delivering Happiness and now Beyond Happiness. The first was I was a product of the first dot-com back in the days, like the late '90s. I had just graduated from school at UC Berkeley with a degree in Asian American Studies. And so, that pretty much freaked my parents out. Immigrant parents saying, "We're sacrificing all this much and you came out with what degree? Just come home more often, we'll tell you what Asian American life is about." But I decided to do it anyway and I graduated and luckily was able to get a job just because the internet was born.

So, I became an internet consultant at KPMG. And things were easy. Money, title, status just fell on my lap. And as everyone knows the end of that story, the dot-com busted and I got laid off. And then at the same time within the same year, 9/11 happened. And ultimately, for me, one of my greatest losses which I found out, my dad had stage three colon cancer.

So, those three things happened relatively all at the same time in my life. And it made me realize the money, title, status stuff that I was chasing really didn't mean that much at all. So, that's when I took it upon myself to prioritize my days in my life in better ways.

And I didn't really know about purpose and values back then. But my business partner and good friend Tony Hsieh came across this body of work called scientific happiness and positive psychology. And that really blew my mind because here I was asking all these existential questions of like, "What is this all for? Why am I trying to make money?" All this stuff.

And without realizing, there was a lot of research being done in understanding what fundamentally makes us sustainably happy. And I mean, not rainbows and unicorns happy but authentically happy. So, that's when Zappos became like a Petri dish of testing all these things that academics were researching. And essentially trying to see what could be done to make sure number one, employees are happy first. Two, make your customers happier and then to, therefore, have a more profitable and sustainable business.

So, that went really well. As many of you remember, they got acquired by Amazon for about $1.2 billion at the time of closing. And that's when Tony and I launched the book Delivering Happiness in 2010. So, I thought we were just going to check off a thing to do. Write a book. Okay, let's go move forward. But lo and behold, there was a demand for happiness especially in the workplace because there was a lot of people saying, "Yeah, that's all cool. Zappos, that can happen there but it would never happen where I work."

And I took that upon myself as a challenge because I realized the outcomes, the positive outcomes of what happiness could mean at work and in our lives. So, at that point, that's when we formed the company and I started running it and started testing these things from a universal level of how can we use this science and put it into a workplace around the world. And lo and behold, we saw it worked. And it was really cool to see, well, it's not just US-based companies or Western-based, half of our clients are still international.

And it didn't matter what size a company they were or what industry because we work with governments and hospitals as well. And to see all the positive outcomes of what we see in the metrics, retention, attracting the right people, engagement, productivity, all of those things went up and dialed up with more positive work cultures.

So, fast forward to where we are now, 11 years later, it's pretty crazy to say that we're still running that organization. And with the book that I just wrote, I really wanted to capture where we are now especially since the pandemic and recession and all the social unrest we've seen around the world.

Tony Lee:

Yeah. Well, I mean, happiness is what a wonderful state to be. And how do you go beyond happiness?

Jenn Lim:

Yeah. So, yeah, I really wanted that exact question to be prompted because I think what was interesting in the last 11 years is seeing people's perception of happiness. It usually goes to the more extrinsic stuff or like rainbows and unicorns, the pleasures in our life which is a form of happiness, but that's not the most ultimate form.

Most sustainable form is purpose, having a sense of doing and being something bigger or a part of something bigger than just ourselves. Why I went Beyond Happiness is that especially what happened after we saw in the pandemic, we all went through a pretty volatile time in our lives. And it's probably the first time we can safely say the whole world experienced it at the same time at that scale.

And if we reflect on it, there were so many people that had a sense of loss, grief. Basically, you couldn't touch the word happiness with a 10-foot pole for a long time. How can you possibly talk about that when people were dying essentially? And as I was working on this book and I started right before COVID and by the end of it, seeing all the disruption that we had with the recession, with inequalities and social unrest, etcetera, and ultimately for me, the passing of my business partner and one of my best friends, Tony, at the end of the year.

I knew I had to create a new conversation to go beyond what we normally perceive what happiness actually means. And for me, what I realized is that after doing another round of self-reflection, especially all that happened that year, I realized beyond happiness is going not just to our highs but also understanding our lows, not just our strengths but also our shadow sides, our blind spots. That sometimes it's so easy for us to just sweep them under the rug because it's really hard to deal with and come to terms with these losses in our life or traumas.

Trauma, I use the word in a broad sense. Everyone has had some form of trauma. Different degrees, of course, but we have all had that. So, by going beyond happiness, my intention was to create a new conversation of really being at peace with it all. Knowing we can't show up at work every day and feel like, "Hey, this is going to be amazing day." That's just not reality.

And now, what we've seen especially in the last 18 months is the reality is that we need to be grounded in ourselves, our purpose and values. So then therefore, resilience will happen and we'll be able to take whatever might come our way.

Tony Lee:

Yeah. That's a great way to look at it. So, I immediately get the image, I don't know why, of the car with the bumper sticker that says, "A bad day fishing is better than a great day at work." And I wonder how can HR professionals especially take steps to help people blow up that attitude that they can be happy at work?

Jenn Lim:

Yeah. Sometimes people look at it in terms of like, "How can you be a janitor or custodian and actually feel happy at work?" And I reminded that story of JFK at NASA. He was walking around the hallways and he asked one of the janitors there, "What do you do here, sir?" And he responded, "I'm helping put a man on the moon."

But what I've seen though is that it can actually be true. I have specific stories in the book where I bring up receptionists, custodian at a hospital, someone that cleans bathrooms at a cineplex in Mexico. You would think there's no way they can find purpose in their lives, in their work, but they all live very purposefully.

A very simple example is that the receptionist on her business card, she's the highlight of people's days and the people wonder why. And on her business card for her title, it says Director of First Impressions. And for her, that provides her sense of purpose. She knows why she's there and her role and significance of being a part of the team.

Tony Lee:

Well, it sounds like the great way to do it. I know it's easier said than done, of course. But let's talk about some of the practical ramifications I guess of the pandemic on happiness in the workplace. You have a lot of folks who have gone through a period where they felt like they escaped the workplace. They worked remotely or they changed jobs or they just took time off. And now, they're coming back and there are issues in the workplace that they had been avoiding that now they have to deal with.

They have to deal with the colleague they don't like very much or the client they don't like very much or the commute that they can't stand, they have to start doing again. How do you overcome challenges like that and remain a happy person?

Jenn Lim:

Yeah, for sure. I mean, I think there's now actually, in an ironic way, more ways to overcome that than ever because of the pandemic. And this is not me just trying to be a positive person. This is me being realistic about where we're at and the biggest indicator of all that is the great resignation. And the fact that millions of people, and I'm sure your audience knows a lot about this, but millions of people leaving their job on a monthly basis in the middle of a recession.

I mean, when was the last time we've ever seen that? And I think that it's because the pendulum has swung. The scales are more balanced. The power is no longer just on the employer side. There is an equalization of power of people making decisions based on what they have reflected on.

So, instead of the great resignation, in some ways, it's a great awakening as to people really drawing the line in the sand of saying, "Am I going to wake up in the morning and say to myself, 'This is what I want to do for the rest of my day?' And am I going to go sleep at night saying, 'That was a fulfilling day for me because I live by what I believe in, my purpose and values and cared for the people I love?'"

Tony Lee:

So, do you think this is a temporary issue that because the pandemic is winding down, people are using this as an opportunity to find something new? Or do you think we've seen a permanent change in how the workforce thinks about work?

Jenn Lim:

I actually think it's a permanent change. And it's partially because of that reflection, but it's also because remember the whole thing of the future of work that we talked about that for years now. And the reality is the future of work is now. There's no future. It's we're living this model of whether it's hybrid or fully remote.

We're having circumstances where people are taking a stand as to, "No, I need more flex time," or, "No, I would like more pay. And if I don't get it here, I'm going to go somewhere else." And ultimately, it's like, "No, I need a purpose. And if this company is not providing that for me or my team's not providing that for me, I have a better choice."

And so, with all these different factors coming and knowing that basically, the whole world saw a 180 in how we operate, I don't think there's any way we're going to go back. There's no normal anymore. It's just a new abnormal from here on.

Tony Lee:

Yeah. Wow, what a change. So, you gave some great examples in your book of companies that have prioritized happiness above everything else and have thrived. Can you share one of those examples here?

Jenn Lim:

Yeah, there's just so many. I guess one that just comes to mind because they're such a ubiquitous brand, this is a little company in Seattle, coffee company in Seattle called Starbucks. And why I wanted to highlight them is because ... I mean, here's a huge company with 475,000-480,000 partners around the world. In one way, you would think because they've always been known to be a purpose-driven company, they have a mission statement, et cetera.

They came to an impasse and it was all brought up and catalyzed because of COVID. Because they'd been around for 50 years and they said, "Hey, let's build for the next 50 years. What's our vision?" And then of course the pandemic hit. So they had to basically have to go into a state of triage. Revenues were hemorrhaging. They had to close down their retail stores. They had to make really big decisions very quickly.

But what I saw in them was what a lot of other companies did too was they stood up for what they believed in. And they could have went the other way, they could have tried to just triage the revenues. But they said, "Are we living by our mission statement?" And their mission statement is about inspiring and nurturing the human spirit one cup, one person, one community at a time.

And what I witnessed with the leadership team is that they got real with themselves and they said, "Are we actually living this mission statement?" And they said, "Maybe we're not because we've been so profit-driven and being really good at it, but we might not have been living by this mission in today's world, especially after the pandemic hit."

So, they rallied, they aligned and basically developed and launched these huge programs. I'm not allowed to say how much but let's just say a huge reinvestment into programs that it wasn't just about profit anymore, it's about people and the planet. So, them using their purpose statement is essentially trying to use the sense of sustainable happiness to make sure that their partners, their customers and therefore, their suppliers and ecosystem of everyone they touch are also benefiting from their existence too.

Tony Lee:

Well. Okay. So, Starbucks is a great example but let's flip the script a little bit. A lot of our listeners are small companies, 100 people, 200 people. So, how can creating a program that helps instill happiness among employees benefit them, especially the bottom line since that's a key element of your book?

Jenn Lim:

Yeah. I would say number one, being a smaller company is a great benefit to this all. Doing it at scale of course is much longer, is harder. So, I would use that to your advantage, just think about it that way. You're just basically working with a nice size team. So, some of the companies that we work with are in the range of 100 to 200 people.

And as an example, there's a company called NBC out in the East Coast. And they essentially provide lending services for small businesses. And they got hit really hard. I mean, we all did during COVID. They had to lay off employees. They had to restructure. Joe, the CEO there, had to make a lot of hard decisions.

One of the indicative things that he shared with me because he was focusing on his people even before the pandemic was after he laid someone off, this person the next morning brought him coffee and donuts. And she said to him, "You're going to need this because this is going to be a long haul." And that was for someone that was already focusing on culture.

But then at that time, he had to make a lot of hard decisions but the knowledge that he embedded and the culture that he embedded was always around people, purpose and values. And he used that for his decisions. So, even after the layoffs and even after the restructuring, he's at a place again where he's growing and he's hired back a lot of employees he had to lay off. And they actually revisited their purpose. Knowing that they've already been purposeful but because of the pandemic, they knew that they had to do something different.

So, that was like a beautiful story of what we can do within small companies to create an environment where it's not just about happiness, it's about humanity. It's about treating each other as human beings, as whole human beings, not just our skillset, but where we are in our mental state, in our emotional state, our financial state, all these things. If we as employers and leaders can address it more holistically, that's when people want to come to work. And that's when you'll see more productivity and engagement and, of course, more loyalty to a company that actually cares in a genuine, authentic way.

Tony Lee:

Yeah, a great way to stem the tide of employee disenfranchisement and disappearance. So, before I let you go, Jenn, I have to ask, what do you do that makes you happy?

Jenn Lim:

Whenever I can find a course of a day, I do spontaneous meditation so that I don't overthink too much about, "Oh, when am I going to have time to meditate?" It becomes more natural. So, I take time off my day to do that. And then I also do spontaneous dance parties. And sometimes it's by myself because it's COVID, but sometimes it's with my family, my goddaughters and whatnot. So, those two things keep me pretty happy.

Tony Lee:

That sounds fun, great. Well, that's going to do it for today's episode of All Things Work. A big thank you to Jenn Lim for joining me to discuss instilling happiness into our workplace cultures and to talk about her new book Beyond Happiness. Before we get out of here, I want to encourage everyone to follow All Things Work wherever you listen to podcasts.

And also, listener reviews have a real impact on a podcast visibility. So, if you enjoyed today's episode, we'd love it if you took a moment to leave a good review and help others find the show. Finally, you can find all of our episodes on our website at Thanks for listening. And we'll catch you next time on All Things Work.