Let’s start with a concept you’re probably familiar with: how it feels to get into a flow state at work. 

Maybe you were creating a new graphics package for a client deliverable. Maybe you were building a new website, or working on a coding sprint for the next product release. Maybe you were digging into some script automations for common technical issues. It doesn’t really matter what you were doing; what’s really important is how you felt while you were doing it.  

Have you ever been so absorbed in your work that you feel a sense that time is flowing by? You feel in sync with the task at hand, razor-focused, and happy about the progress you’re making. That is the elusive flow state, and as it turns out, it plays a vital role in the overall health of a business.

But consistently achieving a flow state is more difficult than ever in our increasingly digital workplace. And employees’ ability to reach the flow state depends on far more than their personal work habits – IT also plays a critical role. 

What is the Flow State?

The concept of the flow state wasn’t created for the workplace; it dates all the way back to ancient traditions of meditation.

But the modern concept and definition of the flow state was coined in 1975 by the Hungarian-American psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He theorized that people were happiest when they achieved a state of flow, which he defined as a state of comprehensive concentration in a given task. It’s a great feeling, and in the work environment, it can lead to increased productivity, motivation, and even loyalty.

But in today’s world of hybrid and remote work environments, reaching this flow state is more challenging than ever. According to a Microsoft study, a knowledge worker switches windows an average of 373 times while completing a task. That’s a new window every 40 seconds! It doesn’t take a psychologist to know that isn’t an effective process for entering a flow state.  

But why should business leaders care? If employees are getting their work done, why should it matter whether or not they reach this particular psychological state? 

Why Flow State Matters at Work

The importance of the flow state at work lies in its connection to employee engagement, and in turn, the connection between employee engagement and business outcomes. Of course employee happiness is a desirable outcome in its own right — but it’s also true there’s a tangible link between employee happiness and the success of a business.

According to Gallup research, actively disengaged employees cost the US $483 to $605 billion per year in lost productivity. The numbers don’t lie – failing to invest in employee engagement can have an outsized negative impact on your business long term.

Looking beyond the numbers, Gallup reports that “employees who are engaged are more likely to stay with their organization, reducing overall turnover and the costs associated with it. They feel a stronger bond to their organization’s mission and purpose, making them more effective brand ambassadors. They build stronger relationships with customers, helping their company increase sales and profitability.” 

So it’s clear: keeping employees engaged with their work and with the company they work for is a key driver of retention, cost optimization, and profitability. 

Engaged employees, according to Gallup, are those who feel that they are able to do what they do best, every day, while at work. And that’s where the flow state comes into play. According to Csikszentmihalyi, the flow state occurs when we have the right meeting of skill and challenge. In other words, when we’re given a task that we have the skill to accomplish, but one still challenges us to give our maximum effort.

That is why the flow state matters at work. Because according to research from MIT, organizations that rank in the top quarter of employee experience achieve more than twice the innovation (51 percent to 24 percent),  more than double the customer satisfaction (32 percent to 14 percent), and 25 percent higher profits than organizations in the bottom quarter. 

So there is a clear business incentive to create opportunities for employees to find their flow state at work. Now the question remains: how? 

What role does IT play in employee engagement and the flow state?

As the workplace has grown more reliant on complex digital technologies, IT has a greater impact on the flow and efficiency of the workplace than they ever have before. According to a recent research report released by Nexthink, 98% of IT leaders think that their department plays a critical or important role in facilitating a successful workplace flow in their organization. 

When it comes to employee engagement and finding flow, employees need a frictionless digital environment work environment free of disruptions and distractions. And it’s up to IT to create that ideal digital work environment that encourages consistent flow.

1. Optimize digital collaboration tools.

Digital collaboration tools are the lifeblood of a hybrid work environment. But for many workers, these tools can seem to be in direct opposition to flow states. Surely all those notifications and constant incoming messages provide more distractions than they do motivation, right?

Yes and no. In order for employees to have the right environment for a flow state, they need all the right materials and context for the task at hand. And they need efficient channels to relay their progress and results to others and receive quick feedback. Otherwise, employees might be able to work efficiently on their own, but their state of flow will break down when they need to communicate with team members and across the organization.

IT teams need to have a clear picture of not only the performance of workers’ collaboration tools, but also the experiences employees have when using them. Do all employees have the latest versions of these tools? Are they using them to their full potential? Do they report that the collaboration tools they use are helpful, or distracting and confusing?

By gaining a clear view of digital collaboration tool performance across the enterprise, and combining that with employee sentiment, IT teams can iterate these platforms and ensure that they’re optimized for efficiency. From there, IT workers can educate employees about how to maximize flow when using these tools, including helpful tips about turning off notifications and other productivity-driving methods.

2. Adopt a personalized approach to IT service.

IT personas are not a new concept. But basic IT personas based on location or job function can be too limiting, especially in our hyper digital workplaces where it can sometimes feel like there are more solutions than problems.  

In order for IT to help all employees achieve consistent flow states, they need to be hyper-personalized in their approach to providing service and provisioning the right technology to the right workers. Creating dynamic personas based on work styles, resource requirements, technical proficiency, and other unique characteristics will help IT equip every employee with exactly what they need – which in turn will save the organization money by avoiding costs associated with over-provisioning and unused software licenses.

3. Prioritize ease-of-use and monitor adoption when deploying new software.

It may seem like an obvious step on the surface, but having intuitive, streamlined tools is crucial to creating the right environment for the flow state. A lack of digital dexterity is a major inhibitor of productivity in today’s workplace. Employees already have it hard enough, considering the amount of new technology they’re asked to adapt to every year. If that new technology is confusing to learn and difficult to use, it’ll do the exact opposite of enabling a state of flow. 

IT has the power to make or break an employee’s productivity when they architect and deploy new software. Fancy tools with hundreds of complex features might seem great on paper, but IT has far more success with adoption and employee satisfaction when they provide software that is straightforward, clear in its intended purpose, and easy to learn quickly.

Of course, deploying an efficient and smooth-running tool doesn’t mean IT’s work is done. They should also track adoption throughout every new deployment, identifying fast adopters as well as employees who are not engaging with a new tool they’ve been provided with. From there, IT can target slow adopters with educational content that helps them understand a specific service, tailor it to their unique needs, and leverage the service to become more satisfied and productive in their day-to-day work.

4. Take a proactive approach to incident resolution.

Digital disruptions are the flow state killer. Applications crashing, devices slow to boot up, and any other hiccup in an employee’s digital experience will instantly break them out of their flow state. And according to a study from UC Irvine, it can take an average of 23 minutes to recover from a distraction. In other words, a momentary technical issue can result in nearly a half-hour of lost productivity.

Employees will never achieve consistent productivity if they’re still expected to send in tickets and wait for IT service every time they have a minor problem. But what if IT teams could fix issues before they impact productivity? With the right digital employee experience tool, IT teams can have a real-time view of employee experience across the enterprise, identify unreported issues the moment they pop up, and push fixes to every employee device that has even the potential to experience these issues.

With an effective proactive IT strategy, a graphic designer doesn’t get torn from their flow state because Adobe crashed – because their IT team deployed a remote action to fix an issue with the application, all without the hyper-focused worker even knowing about it.

5. Leverage automation to clear space for genuine creativity.

AI is scary, we get it. Robots are going to take our jobs, and so on. But putting aside dystopian fears for a moment, what if IT teams embraced the parts of automation that only alleviate the boring parts of our jobs?  

Achieving a flow state is beneficial to any work, even menial tasks like performing data analysis or organizing sales reports. But if IT leverages automation solutions to take these repetitive tasks off of employees’ hands, then employees have more time to focus solely on the creative and innovative projects that they’re uniquely suited to complete. In other words: they won’t just be able to achieve a flow state, but they’ll also make the most effective use of the flow state once they’ve achieved it.

 IT: The Architects of Flow

Change in the workplace shows no signs of abating. We’re increasingly reliant on digital solutions to get all types of work done, no matter what industry we work in or responsibilities we have. To keep in pace with all this constant change, IT teams are forced to step into a new role, becoming the architects of flow in the digital workplace. 

Strategic outcomes that may have previously fallen to HR and other departments are now shared responsibilities with IT. Internal communication, identifying employee change advocates, and promoting employee engagement are intrinsically linked to the technology that makes these outcomes possible.

This means IT has the great responsibility to create an environment where employees can find their flow state, a key to being happy and engaged at work. And in turn, the work IT does to help employees will translate into business growth and success.

Want to learn more about this changing role of IT in the workplace? Download our latest research report: IT in the Evolving Workplace.