Team flow: how to make productivity contagious

It’s generally agreed upon that the employees who are the happiest and the most productive have one thing in common: they frequently achieve flow. Flow is when we are so focused and involved in our work, we lose track of time. Sometimes we even forget to take breaks—that’s how “in the zone” we are. Flow is when we’re accessing our best ideas, seeing creative solutions to problems, and getting a lot done. We’re probably also enjoying ourselves!

“Flow” was discovered by a Hungarian research psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who is the Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University. In his 1994 book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, he wrote, “the overwhelming proportion of optimal experiences are reported to occur within sequences of activities that are goal-directed and bound by rules—activities that require the investment of psychic energy… Often hours seem to pass by in minutes; in general, most people report that time seems to pass much faster.”

Flow is contagious

“Flow” is even more intriguing is when it becomes a group activity. The phrase “emotional contagion” is used to describe “catching” someone else’s mood. “Flow contagion” occurs when people are able to feed off of one another’s focus.

Csikszentmihalyi wrote, “Surgeons say that during a difficult operation they have the sensation that the entire operating team is a single organism, moved by the same purpose; they describe it as a ‘ballet’ in which the individual is subordinated to the group performance, and all involved share in a feeling of harmony and power.”

Talking about flow

Lou Leone, a leadership coach who frequently advises startup leaders, says that managers can have a conversation with their teams about what “flow” is, exactly. “By making everyone aware of what the ideal environment is for flow, teams are more likely to be able to experience it more often,” he says.

Caroline Webb, a former McKinsey and Company partner and the author of How to Have a Good Day, says it’s important to find the right language to effectively communicate the concept to your team. “For some, it may help to replace the word ‘flow’ with a more directly descriptive term like ‘deep work’ or ‘total focus,’” says Webb.

What’s also important, and channels the original research on flow conducted by Csikszentmihalyi, is that team members have engaging projects and activities on their plates that invite flow consciousness.

Says Webb, “Managers can encourage their colleagues to seek out activities that play to their personal strengths. First off, that might mean having a conversation with people about their real personal strengths, in companies where that’s not part of the regular dialogue. Then, they can encourage their colleagues to craft a new project to play to those talents.”

Alternately, says Webb, after having these conversations about the strengths and skills their team members most enjoy using, managers can encourage their teams to apply their strengths more fully and deliberately to work that’s already on their plates.

Creating a “flow contagion” strategy

Managers can encourage their teams to consider what systems each individual could put into place to help themselves get in the zone. Leone says that to invite flow, there could be “an individual routine that each member goes through at the same time to help create a state to foster flow.” The routine could be as simple as someone having his favorite coconut water on hand, or suiting up in her favorite power blazer (or hoodie).

Also, if one observes a routine when working to invite a state of flow, that coconut water or that blazer could start to serve as a “positive prime,” triggering the brain to enter a state of flow.

Managers should then help team members integrate their flow routines. “It can be very helpful to agree to a shared ‘zone’ for that deep work. I know that my book publisher designates Fridays as a no meeting zone to create more space for people to do deep work,” says Webb.

Webb recommends that managers set a schedule for their teams to try to get into the zone at the same time for a specific window at a certain time and day. “It sets a norm that it’s OK to put on your headphones, close the door and dive deep into something,” Webb says.

In the zone, together

While it’s commonly understood that someone wearing headphones doesn’t welcome interruption at that time, when team members are in “team flow,” communicating with others during deep work periods is okay.

“When a team is in flow, it should be easy for an individual who is in flow to break out, help another teammate, and then go right back into his or her individual flow. The flow is occurring both individually and at the team level,” says Leone.

The difference between an individual being in a state of flow and a team being in a state of flow is analogous to the difference between independence and interdependence. When a team experiences flow collectively, they’re able to feed off of one another’s energy. The advantage of the entire team aiming for periods of flow is that individuals who are in the zone aren’t threatened by distractions or others’ requests: everyone is in a co-active state of high productivity.

When teams optimize their time by moving into periods of high focus and productivity together, they end up working like a beautifully synchronized crew team. They probably move about as quickly, too.

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