Dr. Nicole Tschierske

What is Flow State at Work and How Can You Achieve it?

Have you or your team members ever been in a situation where you felt you were thriving at work even when there was a lot to do? And conversely, have you ever approached a task thinking it would be manageable just to then find it incredibly draining? Not all tasks are created equal. Demanding jobs aren’t necessarily stressful, but some are. Interestingly though, there are ways to manage and influence how you feel about a particular activity. And one of these ways is to create opportunities (both for yourself as a leader and for your team) to achieve a flow state at work.

So let’s look at how different types of tasks impact our energy levels and what we can do to reduce their contributions to how stressed we feel and to help us achieve a state of flow.

Understanding why tasks impact our energy and capacity

As we learnt in the blog post How to Manage a Heavy Workload in Your Team, when it comes to the number of tasks we’re asked to complete, what also matters is the type of work we need to do, combined with our personal capacity to deal with those jobs (MacDonald, 2003). This, of course, is going to impact how well we perform at work.

So when it comes to the type of work we’re called to do, what are some of the factors that require our additional effort to cope, as a result, reduce our energy and capacity? Here are some questions you could ask yourself or your team to help you understand the true mental load that different types of activities put on each individual person MacDonald, 2003).

For example:

  • Is the information I need to do this task easily available when I need it?
  • How much thinking and planning is involved in completing this task?
  • What’s the amount and complexity of decision-making involved?
  • How often do I have to switch attention between different parts of my work while keeping the task priorities?
  • Is there much information I need to remember and recall?
  • How much awareness do I have to direct at avoiding errors? And how severe are the consequences when mistakes happen?

But also:

  • Is it tiring to me that I’m sitting all day (maybe even with bad posture)?
  • Or is there a lot of reaching or twisting involved? In other words, is my workstation layout inappropriate or not conducive to my work?
  • What’s the rate of work and how much time do I have to get things done?
  • How much attention and concentration are required to complete this task?
  • Are there aspects of this activity that feel particularly frustrating, annoying, or irritating?

The list could go on. And you may have noticed we haven’t even scratched the surface by touching on the impact of relationships with others or the lack of role clarity.

The importance of task identity 

Another point to consider is what psychologists call task identity. This is a job characteristic that can be defined as follows:

“The degree to which the job requires the jobholders to identify and complete a workpiece with a visible outcome. Workers experience more meaningfulness in a job when they are involved in the entire process rather than just being responsible for a part of the work.“ (Hackman & Oldham, 1975).

This means we feel better and do better work when we can complete tasks from start to finish and can fully see what we created or produced. This is an important consideration, especially as the idea to increase efficiency at work has led to splitting tasks up more and more. And a vivid illustration of this can be seen in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times movie.

Today, robotics and automation are becoming an integral part of our daily work. But with these considerations in mind, it’s a good idea to avoid chopping up the work into too tiny pieces. Because in doing so, we completely lose the sense of what we’re doing, and that is counterproductive when it comes to our motivation at work and how well we perform in our jobs. For more on this, see the blog on meaning/purpose at work.

The importance of achieving a flow state at work

So how do we make tasks more energising and less draining? One way to do this is to focus on creating more moments of flow. What do we mean by flow? Think of a time when you’ve been completely ‚in the zone‘ – you felt totally immersed in the activity and fully enjoyed it. That was a moment of flow. Typically, we tend to get into flow when our skills equal the challenges we face.

Why does flow matter? Because other than being intrinsically motivating and enjoyable, experiencing a flow state also has a positive impact on our performance at work. First of all, when we’re in flow, we personally think we’re performing better. But it’s not unusual for others to also acknowledge and praise our performance when we’re focused on certain tasks. Without a doubt, when in flow, we feel more creative, focused, and self-confident.

However, in order to experience flow, to a degree, we need to be challenged. If our skill level exceeds the challenges we face, naturally we get bored. So a task that’s deemed too easy isn’t going to help us achieve this ideal state.

Then how do we define challenges? And which ones are considered right when helping us achieve a flow state? According to Bakker & van Woerkom, 2017, a clear distinction exists between challenge demands and hindrance demands. 

  • Challenge demands are the tasks and conditions at work that need energy and effort while resulting in growth and learning. In other words, these types of challenges help us achieve our goals. 
  • Hindrance demands also require effort and energy but they have no growth potential. Examples of these types of demands are conflict with others or bureaucracy. And as explained in the blog post about job demands/resources, the context matters. 

Why we should strive to create moments of flow at work 

So if a state of flow can only be achieved when certain conditions are met and specific types of challenges are given, can we influence how much and how often we experience flow at work? Absolutely. We can and should take initiative. We should proactively strive to create moments of flow in order to generate more fun and better performance (Bakker & van Woerkom, 2017).

Can you try and recall when you last experienced a flow state at work? What was it like? What was happening around you that made it possible? And what were you doing to help yourself get into this state? Can you think of ways to replicate these conditions – for yourself and your team members?

The impact of energising tasks on our private life

Researchers also found that when we experience more flow at work, we tend to have more energy both at work and at home. Once the work is done, we feel less exhausted at the end of the day – something that has a positive ’spillover‘ into our private lives too. And this seems to be true even on days when we don’t have time to take breaks during the workday. Because enjoying our work “acts as a protective factor against inadequate recovery” (Demerouti et al, 2012).

Of course, this isn’t an invitation to ’squeeze‘ your team members for more effort and work by playing the card that they enjoy it. But it’s something to be aware of. Because during those busy times when tasks are mounting, creating moments of flow can, in fact, help buffer the exhaustion that might come from work.

Another point worth noting here is that we only reap the energy benefits of flow outside of working hours when we’re able to psychologically detach from work. And this shows how important it is to switch off our computer or phone (as well as our work-related thoughts) at the end of the day. Otherwise, we’re at risk of ruining a perfectly good thing.

How skills and challenges help us achieve a flow state at work

When looking at how skills and challenges help us reach a state of flow at work, researchers found that the higher the skill and challenge, the more positively people experience moments of flow. But that’s primarily true for those who are more achievement-oriented. For someone with a lower need for achievement, the intensity of the skill or challenge appeared to make no difference (Eisenberger, 2005).

This proves that the impact of skills and challenges is individual. This means that, as a leader, you can take this into consideration as you work with staff with different levels of ‘need for achievement’. When thinking of ways to help your staff achieve a flow state at work, you need to be mindful of the fact that the skills applied and the challenges required for the task will have a different impact on team members. Those with a low need for achievement, won’t need the most stretching challenge to experience flow and reap its benefits. But the ones who put more emphasis on achievement will. 

Identifying your staff’s need for achievement 

So how do you know if your team members have a high or low need for achievement? Here are some questions you can use to find out (Eisenberger, 2005):

  • Are they pleased when they can take on added job responsibilities?
  • Do they like setting challenging goals for themselves at work?
  • Do they do their best work when their job assignments are fairly difficult?
  • And do they enjoy situations at work where they’re personally responsible for finding solutions to problems?

You can probably already think of someone in your team who fits that description. And when you do, your role as their leader is to find ways to help them into the ‚high skill, high challenge‘ area of flow, as this increases performance (Eisenberger, 2005). You may also find that these members of staff may also:

  • Look for ways to improve the effectiveness of their work.
  • Contribute constructive suggestions on how the team is operating.
  • And encourage their teammates to find better ways to carry out tasks.

On the other hand, for the team members who don’t display a high need for achievement, you can find other ways to help them to feel more motivated in their job. For example, by giving them more autonomy or more support

The importance of attitude and mindset

It’s also worth pointing out that there’s only so much you can do as a leader. If employees lack self-efficacy (i.e. if they don’t think they can do well in a task or meet a challenge) or have little optimism, they’re likely to not put much effort into meeting a challenge or to give up easily when facing setbacks.

These internal personal resources, which we could call attitude or mindset, heavily influence how likely it is for someone to rise to a challenge or seek out new ones, and experience flow at work (Bakker & van Woerkom, 2017).

So, who do you find has a high need for achievement in your team? How can you increase the challenge for them in a way that fits their skillset? And what about you and your own need for achievement?

How to help your team achieve a flow state at work

In his original research, the father of the Flow concept, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (1990), said that the experience consists of nine dimensions. The below dimensions give leaders concrete ideas and practical applications on how you can facilitate creating moments of flow while completing tasks. 

1. To achieve a state of flow at work you need an optimal challenge-skill balance

We talked about challenges and skills earlier. But how can we define them?

  • Challenges are akin to actions or goals.
  • While skills are the capacities possessed to generate desired outcomes.

A critical factor in the challenge-skill balance is the perception of challenge and skill in the given situation or activity. And the perception of what is possible appears to matter more than the objective skill level.

In addition, the challenge is perceived in a personal way that can be different from its established level. In other words, when a person is in a flow state, challenges and skills are harmonised and go beyond the normal levels of exertion and experience for that person. And because challenges and skills can be adjusted in almost any setting, flow becomes an accessible experience in many different contexts.

Adjusting the challenge-skill balance

However, if the challenge is too big, team members can feel overwhelmed. So how can you lower the challenge to meet their skill level? For example, you could break the task down into smaller goals, lower the complexity of the task, or provide help.

Perhaps you could try and increase your team members‘ skill level to rise to the challenge? This could be done through training, tutorials, or additional practice. In this case, leadership plays a key role in matching tasks with the abilities of the team members so they can experience more flow (Bakker & van Woerkom, 2017).

Likewise, for low-challenge tasks that simply must be done, how can you ‘artificially’ make it more difficult so your team members aren’t underwhelmed or bored? As an example, you could encourage staff to try and complete a task in less time or use the minimum amount of steps. For instance, you could challenge them to use the least amount of words when filling in a form while still conveying all necessary information. This is a way to ‚gamify‘ the work to make it more enjoyable and motivating. Because we’re more immersed in our tasks when we integrate some amusement and humour (Bakker & van Woerkom, 2017).

2. Setting clear goals

People in a flow state describe knowing clearly what they’re supposed to do. The person who’s experiencing flow feels a connection to the activity, and this leads to clarity of purpose. Sport, for example, is an ideal setting for the flow state because it has clearly defined goals and rules. This well-defined structure allows the athlete to focus on the immediate task at hand.

Goals play a crucial role in reaching a sense of achievement in any context in that they provide a focus that helps reach the flow state. So how can you incorporate clear goals in your and your team’s work to achieve a sense of flow?

  • Plan the work the day before. Or, in general, plan! What do you want to achieve per year, quarter, month, week, or day?
  • Create a clear task distribution within the team. 
  • Help your team understand the reason why they’re being asked to carry out a particular job, activity, or task.

3. Provide opportunities for unambiguous feedback

Having clear goals is important in understanding how performance is progressing in relation to goals. And feedback is what tells the individual whether or not they are on the way (and on the right track) to achieving their objectives.

Feedback can come from a variety of internal and external sources. Other people or even machines (depending on the context) can provide useful and valuable information. And it doesn’t have to be only positive for the flow state to occur or continue. Because when we’re in flow state at work, the feedback is immediately and effortlessly assimilated into performance.

So how can you build objective feedback into your processes? Is there a KPI or metric that tells someone whether they’re on track? Also, how often do you provide feedback to your team?

These little tweaks to the work design (building competence, setting rules and goals, and providing support and feedback) can help induce more moments of flow at work. And simultaneously, researchers found, moments of flow contribute to building more of these resources. So it’s always worth looking into how we can make our tasks more engaging, enjoyable, and motivating (Salanova et al, 2006).

So what is the first thing you’ll do to create more opportunities for your team to get into a state of flow at work?

Further Reading

Better Work Basics​