The Scientific Theory Behind the Flow at Work

by Mark Williams on October 03, 2017

Flow at work is not a new concept, nor is the scientific theory behind it.

In the 1980s it became a hot topic as psychologists started to look at what is right with people, as opposed to what was wrong. ‘Positive Organisational Psychology’ (POP) emerged.

What is flow? In simple terms, the experience of flow is like 'being in the zone' in a sports sense.  It is the experience of intense concentration, where nothing else matters, there is no attention for anything outside of the zone, and we lose ourselves and time flies by.  We know that the human race can’t be in the zone the whole time: that would be exhausting, and long term it’s not productive.  We also know that how energised we feel at the end of the day correlates with the amount of time we have been in the flow.

What we’re doing at People First is to enable people to be in the zone as often as possible, but underpinning that is the wider and extremely important concept of total engagement.

The state of optimal experience, where people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter, hinges on three important factors: skills, challenges and enjoyment.  It is important that we are sufficiently challenged, but not to the point of sustained, long-term anxiety.  Equally, it is important that our skills are used so we are not bored.

Underpinning our skills and challenges is enjoyment.  Enjoyment enables us individually to reach the flow state or zone.

There are three elements to being in the flow:

Cognitive flow – absorption

Emotional flow – enjoyment

Motivational flow – interest

Motivational flow can be intrinsic or extrinsic.  If something has intrinsic interest, it is valuable or interesting because of its basic character and not because of its connection to other things.  If the motivational flow is extrinsic, the driving force behind the motivation is the hope or interest in gaining a reward from the participation.

Therefore, you either love what you are doing for the sake of it – it is your passion – or you do this job for some other reason which can be evaluated in a list of rewards.  We know that in terms of autonomy, if someone is intrinsically interested in something, we know we can give them a lot of autonomy.  If someone is extrinsically interested, they will be much more results orientated, and motivated by targets and not by autonomy.

The key to being in the flow is that it is personalised.  What motivates you, absorbs you and what you enjoy is different to what motivates me, absorbs me and what I enjoy.  It is only in the last four years that personalisation has been available to enterprise software.  And now positive organisational psychology is starting to infiltrate into real work.  Microsoft, Gallup, Ericsson, Patagonia and Toyota are all embracing it.

At People First, we are the first in the world to integrate positive organisational psychology and personalisation to form the basis of a system that enables flow.  Therefore, we are the first to design and build a system that truly puts people first.