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Work-Life Fulfillment And Happiness At Work With Dr. Tracy Brower

Are you thriving at work or simply surviving? We spend the majority of our adult lives at work. That's why it’s essential to have a career that’s not only financially secure but also makes us feel engaged, fulfilled, and purposeful. Today, J.R. Lowry sits down with Dr. Tracy Brower in an insightful conversation about work-life fulfillment and happiness at work. Dr. Brower is an author and the VP of Workplace Insights at Steelcase. Tune in as they tackle workplace design, productivity, work culture, choosing an organization that aligns with our values, and so much more. Tune in and learn how to thrive at work, manage your work-life boundaries, and achieve fulfillment.


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Work-Life Fulfillment And Happiness At Work With Dr. Tracy Brower

Author And Vice President Of Workplace Insights For Steelcase

My guest is Dr. Tracy Brower. She is the Vice President of Workplace Insights for Steelcase, and the author of two books, Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work and The Secrets to Happiness at Work. She is also a contributing writer for Forbes and Fast Company, and an advisor, council member or board member across a number of organizations spanning workplace and urban design, human resources, facilities management, industrial mathematics, and community support.

Prior to all of her current work, Tracy had roles at M&M Mars, Herman Miller, and Magna Donnelly. She has a BA in Communications, Business Literature, and English from Hope College, a Master's of Management and Organizational Culture from Aquinas College, and a PhD in Sociology from Michigan State University.

Tracy, welcome. It's good to have you on the show.

Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

Let's start with your current role. Tell our audience what you do as Steelcase's Vice President of Workplace Insights.

I always say I have the best job in the company. It's an amazing company. It's not perfect. No company is perfect, but it's a great place to work. I get to do research and then bring research to customers and influencers. Steelcase has a long history of doing amazing research on workers and the workplace. We have a group that does that. I get to do that as well. The most interesting part is how we bring that down to a level of pragmatism and application. What do we do about it in terms of designing great work experiences? That’s what I get to do. It’s the research, the communication about it, and then the articulation of how it gets applied.

You've done a lot of different things over the years. Your background includes HR and human-centric design, and then you got a PhD in Sociology. How are you able to bring all of that together in your day-to-day work?

For me, it's all about people. How do we think about how groups of people interact and behave? How do we think about how we create the best experiences for people? Interestingly, the furniture industry is a place where we bring all of that together in a very big picture in terms of thinking about human dynamics, behaviors, cultures, and how those get manifested in the cues provided by the physical space, our leadership, and our cultures. For me, people are the linking attribute of all of those areas of study and practice.

There's a ton going on given hybrid and what that means [in practical terms]. Steelcase is a huge player in this industry. What are the big trends in workplace design? How are they shaping what the company is doing?

This is the best time to be in this industry because people are thinking so consciously about why they work, what they do, with whom and for whom they work, where, when and how. One of the trends is this new awareness of work and this new valuing and prioritizing of how we work. That's an interesting part of it. Hybrid is very much here to stay. A lot of times, people are surprised by an office furniture manufacturer saying something like that. Hybrid is not a blip but a long-term trend.

What that does is it creates the opportunity for us to think about how we create places where people want to be together and what's the why of that question. Why would we come to the office? What are the reasons that we would work remotely? There are good reasons for both of those. At its best, hybrid is a both-and, where we can make some good choices about when we're together, the things that we do best face-to-face, and then those things that we can do best on a remote basis.

This is a big part of what people are struggling with, as I watch the people I work with go through this journey toward stable hybrid, whatever it ends up looking like. You have to think about it more. When you worked remotely, you got up every day and logged on. When you worked in the office before that, you commuted to work from wherever. You worked in an office, and you didn't have to think about it. Now, it requires more work to think about, "What am I more productive doing in the office? What am I more productive doing at home? How do I try and sway my team and the others that I work with to do things that balance against what I need?"

I think about that as friction. There's more of a conscious decision-making process. One of the things that I talk to customers about is that we can help people think about that. What are the criteria by which I would decide when I'm going to the office? What's my personal preference? What's my team's dynamic? When are we trying to be together in person? What kinds of work do I need to get done that day? It's a misnomer that we will do all of our focused work at home and all of our collaborative work in the office because work has more of a flow to it.

Not everybody can focus brilliantly at home, depending on what their home situation is, with distractions and the like. I do agree that there's more friction. Companies, leaders, and teammates can do a good job to set some guardrails. In some cases, it has been abandoned with autonomy, "Come when you want to come. Be here when you want to be here." That's a lot of friction, but if my team and your team work together regularly and we decide that on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, we're going to be in the office, that can be a helpful guardrail that removes some of that friction and helps us think about how we optimize where we're spending our time.

It's going to take time for everybody to figure that out for themselves, their teams, and within the context of whatever their company is expecting of them. As people have come back into a shared workspace, it has reignited the debate around open plans. This is what you do for a living. What are the pros and cons of open plans from what you've observed on more of a scientific basis as opposed to just the empirical subjective basis?

I love the word reignited. It reignited that controversy and all of the thinking about the open office. One of the keys is that the best open offices are not open all the time. The best open offices offer a variety of spaces so that I can do my focused work in an enclave. I can do my collaborative work in a team setting. I can do my socializing in a work cafe or get spaces where I can feel rejuvenated. I can get spaces where I can learn in a multitude of ways.

Multiple work modes need to be supported in the best offices. The best offices aren't only all open, but I know there is some wonderful science on the value of face-to-face. Lots of us can build our relationships and be effective with remote and technologically mitigated collaboration. That's great. It's all good there. When we're face-to-face, we tend to be more effective at generating ideas and working through ambiguity or solving problems.

When we're working on things that are more complex or problem-solving or speed-oriented, face-to-face tends to serve us best. We also are better at building trust in relationships face-to-face because we have more non-verbal communication that goes on between us. We tend to build trust through proximity and familiarity. We get to see each other through the ups and downs. We get to see each other in both tasks and relationship settings.

Not only is face-to-face better for building trust, but face-to-face tends to be better for building friendships as well to the extent that we might want friends at work. Face-to-face also tends to be better for innovation and creativity. It also tends to be better for our energy and getting energized by the people that we're with. There's a wonderful sociological concept called the bandwagon effect or emotional contagion. Contagion isn't the best word anymore, but those things have been scientifically demonstrated.

We tend to pick up energy from those around us. Productivity and engagement work this way. There's a spillover effect when people around us are productive and engaged. We tend to pick up on that as well. The performance also benefits. Face-to-face isn't the only way that we can work together. Open offices aren't the only way that we can work together, but when we have a variety of settings and when we are in person together, there are benefits to that.

We tend to pick up energy from those around us. Productivity and engagement work this way. There's literally a spillover effect when people around us are productive or engaged. Click To Tweet

[In my firm], over here in London, pretty much everybody sits on the floor in an open plan. There are a few people who didn't want to go to that model, probably fewer than 5 out of the whole population of 1,000 here. I'm sitting at an open desk for the first time in probably 30 years. It's an interesting experience. It's been a long time for me but it's great. You pick up much more of the vibe of how things are going than you do when you're sitting in the office.

You can tell the days when the team is flat and when they're energized. You see more of it firsthand than you would when you're sitting in an office even if the door of the office is open or even if you've got a glass window that allows you to look out from the office and see the floor. It has been good. I was surprised at how easy it was to adapt after all those years of being in an office.

You bring up such a good point. You learn a lot. You pick up a lot from other people around you even if you're overhearing a conversation of your teammate or you're overhearing something that someone is saying to a customer. You're learning about your job, the values, and the culture. You’re picking up on all of those cues. Another thing that you point to is choice as well.

If I'm forced to be in a certain place and I can't make choices about where I might move about the campus or move about the building for the work that I'm doing, that's probably less helpful. Especially when I can choose, "I've got this thing I've got to work on that's heavy concentration and heads down, I want to go to a place where I can do that more effectively," that choice is helpful for people.

Does Steelcase have the coolest office ever?

We have cool offices. I won't lie about that. We should because we have to be a showroom for customers. All of our offices are working offices. The way that we have designed for ourselves isn't always the way a customer needs it, but it is very cool that you can experience different elements of the environment. The other thing that we do well that is smart for customers is to curate the environment, update it regularly, and study what's working and what's not, "That Southwest corner is clicking. It's working so well but that Northeast area, not so much. Let's update that a little bit." Getting feedback from employees and having them feel like there's listening going on all the time is part of the success as well.

Getting feedback from employees and having them feel like there's listening going on all the time is part of success. Click To Tweet

You can influence your environment. It's like anything else. You have agency over your environment.

Mental health has been a big topic overall. How is it factoring into the way that you're thinking about workplace design?

This is so important. One of the challenges is that there are so many studies about how mental health has deteriorated globally. That is perfectly correlated with more distance from each other. One of the things that I've been studying is friendship and community. Our connections within the community have been reduced. We get a delivery to our house instead of talking to the person at the checkout or we order on an app instead of chatting with the barista.

Those superficial moments are important to our happiness. That has been demonstrated through research. Work is occupying an increasingly important role in society and for humans in terms of how we come together. The workplace to an extent is a place that supports friendship, connection, our choices, and us feeling empowered, and that helps us to feel valued as employees.

Those are all important aspects of workplace design. When the design invites us in and makes us want to be present, that is good for mental health because that's the place where we get support from each other. Introverts may need fewer connections or deeper connections compared to extroverts, but we all need them for our mental health. Work is an important place where we start to get that need.

You've written two books. The most recent one was called The Secrets to Happiness at Work. You delved into this topic of happiness in the workplace more generally than just the design of the office itself. Share some of the secrets that you cover in that book.

CSCL 42 | Workplace Happiness

One of them is purpose. When we have a clear sense of purpose, that's extraordinarily helpful to our sense of happiness. It doesn't have to be a purpose in terms of solving world peace or world hunger. It can be the thing that we do well that we contribute to our team or our family. Connections have a big neon light in terms of the link to happiness. When we're more connected, when we feel part of a community, and when we feel an obligation to others, that's a big part of happiness.

Another big one that I love to talk about that doesn't get as much press is learning. When we stretch, try something new, go out on a limb, and roll up our sleeves, that's very correlated with happiness. We all need the things that we can do easily without thinking so hard about them. We need parts of our day that are like that, but when we're able to stretch and grow, that's significantly correlated with learning. All of those things are part of the work experience. Why I'm working, how I matter, the extent to which I make friends at work or feel connected to colleagues at work, the extent to which work is an opportunity to grow my skills, advance my career, and learn something new - all of those are part of happiness at work.

You make the point that you have to own your happiness, that it ultimately comes back to you, the individual. You also described some myths in the book about things that keep people from taking responsibility for their own happiness. Can you talk a little bit about that and maybe provide a few examples?

This is so important. In our Western culture, we tend to believe that happiness means we should be all happy all the time. If it's not all bonbons and butterflies, somehow we're doing it wrong. In truth, happiness ebbs and flows. We can have up days and down days and still have an overall sense of joy and contentment. One of the myths is that we have to be happy all the time.

Another myth is that if you choose right, you will always be happy. If you choose the right job, then you will be happy 100% of the time, for example. All jobs have things that we like and things that we don't. Think about a Venn diagram. In what I love to do and what I have to do, more overlap will be better, but it's unrealistic to expect that you would always have perfect overlap.

The other myth that you referenced is the empowerment myth. We can create conditions for happiness. We don't have to wait around for everything to be right. Sometimes we tell ourselves stories, "When I get that next job, I'll be happy. When I get through this tough project, I'll be happy. When we finally get done working with this difficult customer or this difficult challenge with a team, then we'll be happy." We can create conditions for our happiness.

The more that we are empowered and take action, the more likely we are to be happy. The other thing that I would say is that frequently, we pursue happiness for its own sake. In reality, if we pursue the conditions for happiness, we're more likely to be happy than if we're trying to pursue happiness by itself as its own goal. Those are some myths that are top of mind.

You talked about choice. How important is choosing the right firm?

It's so important. We need to have that match to culture. Sometimes we might choose a culture or an organization that is not perfectly aligned with us, but we know we can have a tremendous amount of influence. That is a great choice. We need to have a certain amount of alignment, to begin with. If we join an organization that isn't aligned with our values at all, that won't bode well for our happiness. In that interview process and that selection process, we need to be listening for signals.

To what extent are people recognized? To what extent are customers part of the process? To what extent do we value the direction of the organization and its mission and leadership? To what extent does the organization offer opportunities for participation? To what extent will we be able to have influence within that organization? All of those are good signals to listen for, and for us to think about choosing an organization that's aligned with our values and one where we can bring something new and help the organization stretch as well.

Apart from those signals and cues, are there questions that you find particularly helpful for getting somebody past the corporate speak of, "This is a great firm," and down to the reality of what it's like to work there? How do you get at that in more of a questioning way during an interview?

I always like to ask questions that are unexpected in an interview. I always like to ask questions that are about the negative side. You're not looking for the negatives but you're looking for the learning through the negatives, "Tell me about the toughest day that you had at this organization. Tell me about a time when you stumbled or hit a landmine, and how your colleagues or your boss handled that. Tell me about a time when you felt like you knew what this organization was about. What was the significant event that happened?"

Another one that I like to ask is, "Tell me about a person in your organization that you feel embodies the culture of the organization. Maybe it's Helen. Tell me about Helen." A lot of times, the way that somebody describes that personality is very much the way that the culture is. Another good question to ask is, "Tell me about what gets rewarded in this organization. How do people get promoted and why?" That tells you something about the kinds of behaviors and values that the organization values. All of those can be interesting ways to get at the culture of the organization in a little bit different way than asking straight out.

Usually, when you ask a question straight out, you get, "It's a collaborative meritocracy."

People know the right answer.

That's true. You talk in the book about the fact that people should embrace both stretch and stress. How so?

Stress gets such a bad name all the time. There's a great concept called eustress. Interestingly, stress operates on a parabola curve, which is like a lowercase n. If you have very little stress, you will likely be fairly demotivated. There's not enough to get you going, or if you have ridiculous and crazy amounts of extreme stress, that's also super demotivating. At the top of that lowercase n is the ideal. You've got enough stress and challenge to keep you going and motivated.

There's a lovely concept called the 15% rule. That has been replicated in research over and over again. When you are most motivated, it's typical that you're failing about 15% of the time. If you fail less than 15% of the time, you might say to yourself, "I have this. I'm going to go for my next challenge." If you fail more than 15% of the time, you might say, "Maybe this one isn't for me. I'm going to find something that's a better fit."

When you fail that 15% of the time, that's that situation. You don't have it figured out. You're still in the game. You're rolling up your sleeves. You're still shooting the baskets even though you're not making them every time. What keeps you coming back is that little bit of stress or enough stress and enough challenge to motivate us.

People talk about that as being in a state of flow, although I've heard flow defined a bunch of different ways, or [they describe it as] the Goldilocks state. It's not too hard. It's not too easy. It's the right level of challenge.

One of the things that happens in flow that is interesting is that neurologically, you're so immersed in the performance that you're putting out. The part of your brain that worries about vigilance is reduced. You're less thinking about how you're performing or how you're being viewed. You're more in the moment of performing. That's partly what stress does. It channels your energy into, "How am I going to do it better? How am I going to solve this challenge or this problem?" That's part of what's going on.

I describe to people that there's good busy, bad busy, good stress, and bad stress. There's a healthy amount of it. If you're busy or stressed about the right things, it's a challenge. All of us to some degree like problem-solving. Otherwise, we probably wouldn't be doing crosswords, Wordle, Spelling Bee, and everything else that's out there to entertain our brains on a daily basis.

This is a great point too. You want your interests aligned with what your challenges are. If you give somebody a tough financial challenge who's not very analytical, that would not be so exciting, or if you give somebody a challenge of team dynamics, and they're not interested in social systems. There's that match of what are the things that are challenging for us, which may not necessarily be positively challenging for others. It's that alignment again.

Your earlier book was called Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work. Notably, you say you aren't a fan of the phrase work-life balance. You prefer to talk instead about work-life fulfillment. Tell us a little bit more about that.

CSCL 42 | Workplace Happiness

That book title is such a mouthful. The most important thing is that we think about navigating. We're not balancing because we're not trading off between work and life. Work gets a bad rap. I almost feel like there's an assault on work, "Less work is better. All work is bad. Quiet quitting is the ideal. Remove yourself and take as much vacation as you possibly can get away with," but in reality, work is part of a full life. Work is the way that we express our skills and talents. It's the way that we contribute to our community. It's the thing that can get us up in the morning because it's the reason that we want to exist, make a contribution, and express ourselves.

This idea of balancing isn't enough. We deserve more than that. We deserve fulfillment. We deserve for our work to be part of a full life. We deserve to be reminded of our value to others and our value in terms of how we express our skills and talents. That's why for me, it's more about fulfillment. It's more about navigating the demands that we have. It's more about the ebbs and flows of our life stages, and how life stage and work make a difference in terms of how we're able to juggle all of it.

To some degree, your point about there being an assault on work comes from the perspective that work is one. Life is one. One plus one is less than two when you add them together, or one plus one is only one. There's a complete zero-sum game to it all. I'd like to believe that there isn't such an absolute trade-off between what you do professionally and what you do personally.

I love your language of zero-sum. I love that equation idea because we want both. It's super interesting. There's research that when we're happier at work, we tend to be happier in our personal life. That isn't news. The other thing that's news to more people is that when you're happier outside of work, you tend to perceive that you're happier inside of work. You go off and do volunteer work, or you're with children, nieces or nephews. You enjoy time outside or exercising. Those enjoyable aspects of your personal life also impact your perceptions of your work. It's this bigger picture of the whole. We're looking at a whole experience of our life of which work is an important part.

Have you seen the Apple TV show Severance?

Yes. Isn't that interesting?

Apart from the dark and sinister plot aspect of it, there's the premise that you can come to work and completely forget about your personal life. You can go home and completely forget about your work life. That part is interesting but it goes against the whole idea of integration, giving you more than each of the two things by themselves.

That show is so interesting. It's almost like a sociological study of work and life. The thing I come away with from it is the level of emptiness. I haven't gotten super far [into the show]. Maybe there's more happening that you're aware of. In work, I feel like an important part of that is getting to know people. We talk about the big game last weekend, the holiday, and the things that we're challenged by with. That brings a fullness to work.

In my personal life, I talk about, "I learned this cool thing at work. I did this interesting research. I'm challenged with this problem. I would love your input on it, family members." There's a fullness that exists when you can bring work into life and life into work. I deeply believe that. Severance is such a great example of how different it would be if we didn't have that texture from the other parts of our life.

It's easier, particularly with technology, to be "always on" or integrated. How do you avoid some of the pitfalls of that? What are some practical tips that you provide?

This is hard, because I feel like we do a lot of comparison. It's that great quote, "Comparison is the thief of joy." In work life, we do a lot of that as well. You may prefer to have a more containerized view. You want to start at 8:00. You want to turn off at 5:00. You want to not turn back on again. Somebody else might prefer a pattern where they go to the soccer game at 2:00, and then turn back on a little bit later or they take Friday off, and then they're going to make up some stuff that they have to get done on Saturday morning because it works better for them.

The key is that we need to have more choices for what works for us and probably less judgment of ourselves and others. If I'm catching up on a Saturday morning, that's not necessarily a bad thing if I am not completely overloaded or a workaholic. I feel like some practical tips are to reflect and be intentional about what works for you, or to take your laptop into a different room when you don't want to be working. If it's sitting on the kitchen island and you're walking past it all the time, it's way too easy to [sit down and] turn it on. Another practical tip is to be extraordinarily present no matter who we're with. Put your device out of sight so that you're not distracted.

Another thing that we can do in a practical way when we're focusing on work is to make sure that we're setting an alarm for ourselves so we're taking adequate breaks. That helps our brain health and well-being. If we're working hard on something and we're in flow, that's a great thing. A mental break is a great thing as well. All of those things help us integrate into ways that work for us, and not let work become all-consuming. To me, integration means you're mixing it in the way that works best for you. It doesn't mean that work is overwhelming your life because that's not the ideal.

When focusing on work, make sure that you’re setting the alarm for yourself. Take adequate breaks because that helps your brain health and well-being. Click To Tweet

What advice would you give leaders who are thinking about how to help their teams with figuring out this work-life fulfillment equation?

First of all, leaders can do their best to find the right navigational strategies. Sometimes what leaders do is take on a lot of the pressure and tasks. They try to shield their team from those, but what leaders may not realize is the extent to which they're modeling for other people. Even if they don't mean to be role models, people tend to overemphasize leader behaviors and then seek to replicate those.

The more that leaders can set their boundaries and be transparent about them, the better. If a leader is going to take off early to go to yoga class and then turn back on, that's okay to share with the team so that the team knows that's behavior that works. Leaders can also be extraordinarily present and accessible. When people experience more empathy in their work experience, they tend to be more innovative, perform better, have a better sense of well-being, and all that good stuff.

Presence and accessibility are extraordinarily correlated with well-being, positive cultures, and great outcomes. Another thing that leaders can do is set very clear expectations and give people feedback. People want to know that you're paying attention. They want to be held accountable. Accountability and recognition are two sides of the same coin.

The other thing that I would say is that leaders can help team members build strong relationships with each other by having people collaborate on tasks, not just by having social activities together. When team members have better relationships together, that also creates a great work experience. It doesn't have to be all be between the leader and the team member. It can also be the leader helping the team develop strong relationships [among themselves]. All of those contribute to happiness and work-life fulfillment.

What should a company do at the corporate level?

When companies are extraordinarily clear and communicative, that's helpful. One of the things that's interesting is that the popularity of podcasts has gone crazy over the last couple of years. Some of the hypotheses are that we've all been craving to hear the human voice and craving to feel connected and communicated with. People crave certainty. Companies can't always give you certainty but if they can give you clarity, "Here's where we're going. Here's where we're not sure. Here are the questions we're asking. Here's what we're learning and how we're adapting to how the world is changing or the competitive environment is changing," that clarity is helpful.

Organizations can also be clear about direction and mission - that real clarity about where we're going and what our corporate purpose is. Organizations can make sure that they've got clear systems for people to participate so they feel heard. We're getting input both formally and informally through surveys, QR codes in the physical environment, and leaders who listen and give feedback.

Organizations can also be clear about how they handle policies and practices for hybrid work, where we work, and how we work. They're clear guardrails. Companies can also set in motion systems for learning and adaptability, like making sure that they're able to listen to the market and customers and stay in touch with what their competitors are doing so that they can be as adaptable as possible. Those are some things that would be helpful for organizations to proceed with.

We're all going through this entry into a new work world at the same time. Nobody is going to have all the answers. Nobody knows how the hybrid environment will settle in and who's going to win the battle of "I'm not coming back to the office" that's going on in a lot of places at the moment. We all have to be patient and wait to see how things unfold.

Push our patience button. We have a couple with whom we're friends. They have a son. They used to say, "Garrett, push your patience button." He was young. He would. It was adorable. I wish it worked that well for me. You're right. We need to be patient. We need to know that the way that we work is going to be emerging. We need to learn from each other.

The other thing is that we need to be also humble about what we don't already have figured out. None of us has been through this before. We can be confident. We can go forward with what we know we do pretty well. We need to stay super open and humble about, "This is what we don't have figured out." This is where we need to listen to employees, each other, and the best research on how we go forward from here.

I'm finding that at least with a certain part of the population I work with, that's a very frustrating situation for them because they want to be told what to do. almost so that it takes it out of their hands. They want the leadership team to have all of the answers and get them right the first time, which is unrealistic given the newness of it all.

That's such an important point. We can set expectations about that: do our absolute best with what we know, make decisions, be clear about those, and say explicitly, "These are the things we're still going to be studying. These are the things that may be changing.” How we set up our work environment might change. The hours of work that we expect in the office might change. The ways that we allocate technology solutions may change over time. We're going to be learning as we go. Therefore, we need to stay open.

It's like the headlights on your car. If you're making a three-hour drive, the headlights won't shine you all the way there but they can shine you 100 feet at a time or however far headlights shine. Companies and leaders can do that too. We can talk about, "Here's what we know now. Here's the direction that we're going. Here's what we know next." It's like the headlights on your car. There was a great business leader that used to say, "We need to be directionally accurate even if we don't get every single detail right in the short term." If we're directionally accurate, that can be helpful.

CSCL 42 | Workplace Happiness

Dr. Tracy Brower on the company's direction: We need to be directionally accurate even if we don't get every single detail right in the short term.


You've got to have regular enough course correction to make sure that being directionally accurate doesn't turn into overtime being very inaccurate.

Let's talk a little bit about your background. You started in HR. You've done a lot of different things since then. How did that progression unfold for you?

I like to reflect on that. The first boss I had was the best boss ever. He believed in me and my potential. He gave me lots of leeway. At the same time, he gave me lots of direction, clarity and accountability. That started to pave the way. I did what I was interested in. I started in HR. I was interested in training and development, so I went in that direction. We were starting up a consulting practice for customers, which was new and different, but it was still very much about educating and coaching customers.

Research became even more important in that process because customers wanted things that were evidence-based. I went in the direction of research. It was all about how we [could] create great experiences for people based on research on how we motivate and create work situations that work well for people. That brought me around to thinking about workplace vitality, applied research, consulting, and workplace insights. That path has been from starting with people, policies and practices that we support for people all the way to the research and insights that continue to support the bigger picture of work experience.

What have been some of your favorite career moments over the years?

My absolute favorite career moment is when [I was on this] most amazing team. Everybody had their role to play. We were taking risks, moving fast, and serving customers brilliantly. I will never forget that we had this team meeting. We were laughing together. Somebody in the meeting said, "We have to remember this moment because this moment is not going to last forever." It was special like, "I appreciate where you are and what's going on." That was a cool team moment. Part of it had to do with the risks that we were taking with customers and the extent to which we were able to deliver on some of the promises that we were making, which were putting us out there to a great extent.

Another fun moment has been redesigning the work process and the space on a project called Ampersand. It was not just the process but it was the process and culture and place. That was the reason for Ampersand. We were researching, meeting regularly, listening to employee voices, and going down some paths that were experimental. Some of them worked and some of them didn't. Those were great times because we had so many different people on the team whose voices were intersecting and insightful in terms of where we went next. We were learning, trying, and experimenting together. We were able to listen to feedback and course correct where we needed to.

You're involved in a ton of different things. How do you fit it all in? How do you manage that work-life fulfillment? I won't use the balance word. How do you manage that for yourself with all the different things that you have going on?

I'm pretty selective about how I spend my time.

I'm honored.

I'm honored to be with you. I appreciate it. I do what I love to do. I don't watch a lot of TV but I love to write, so I do my writing. My writing requires me to do a lot of research. Those end up going together and feeding each other. I spend lots of time talking to customers and sharing insights. I'm always learning, listening, and asking questions from them.

Their questions turn into, "This would be cool to write an article about, think more about, and do more research." Part of my work-life fulfillment and the way that I navigate all of it is that one thing feeds another thing. My conversations with customers feed my curiosity, which feeds where the articles will go, which feeds the research that I'll do. It all feeds into each other.

I love to walk and read. I listen to my Audible books while I'm walking. I love to spend time with my family. We go workout together as a way to spend time together. I feel like when you can combine some of the things that you love and when they feed each other, that gives you both dimensionality and efficiency. You get to do more cool things all at the same time.

It's when the whole becomes more than the sum of the parts. It's on a bigger scale than what we were talking about earlier which was work-life [at the highest level]. It's the different dimensions of work and the different dimensions of life and how they all feed together.

I love that. That's a great way to express it.

What are the strengths that you draw on across all of these different things? What are your particular strengths?

A strength of mine is curiosity. I like to learn. This is going to sound like an oxymoron, but I almost feel like a strength is my humility. Let me be confident about my humility. Learning from others, asking questions, and being curious about other people's perspectives is something that gets me excited. Learning new things gets me excited. That's a strength in terms of connecting and building relationships, and then a strength in terms of where that takes me, and what I get to advance in terms of my ideas based on that curiosity.

What have you worked over the years to develop? What are you working on developing now?

I've worked to develop so many things, a lot of times, I'm maybe more open. I could probably be a little bit more opinionated. I probably need to work on that.

I have never been accused of that.

I'm so glad you shared that. You're the person I can learn from on that. I can always learn better how to be more deliberate in my processes. I move pretty quickly through ideas. When I go deep, those are great opportunities to learn even more. It's me finding that balance between when I go deep and when I go broad, and how to make sure that the curiosity I have doesn't keep me running too fast to see the details. It's taking time to smell the roses or the flowers or whatever that expression is. If I'm running too fast, I see a field of beautiful colors when I'm passing by the flowers. I need to probably stop more often and slow down. I need to learn to meditate. That's what I need to do as well. It's all a theme.

Going deep is a great opportunity to learn even more. Click To Tweet

You talked earlier about being present. You can look at a field of flowers as you're racing by in the car on the highway. You see a sea of color, but to your point, you don't stop to slow down and look at individual flowers and the components or parts of those individual flowers, the space in between those flowers, and all of the things that get lost when you're rushing through.

Our son is in college. He was home for the weekend. I learned that he meditates regularly. I was like, "That's cool." All the coolest people meditate. I said, "Why do you meditate?" He said, "Life can get going pretty fast sometimes. It's smart to slow down." I thought, "This is wisdom from a twenty-year-old. That's great. I need that."

That's good. My kids are in their mid-twenties. The two younger ones got exposed to aspects of psychology and sociology in a much deeper way certainly than I did when I was growing up.

What do the next few years hold for you from a career perspective?

I'm the most boring person you will ever talk to because I like to do what I'm doing now. I hope I get to do more of it. I love the company I work for. I enjoy my job. I've got a great boss. I love my writing. I hope I get to continue to do more of the same, which sounds stagnant but I feel like it's more interesting every day. It's different every day. I hope that I get to keep that up.

You can continue to learn and grow without making a radical change.

It's all about the spider web versus the ladder in terms of where you go.

It's the squiggly career as some people like to call it.

I like that too.

Last question: Is there any advice you would give your younger self or other people in terms of how they should think about their careers?

I would give my younger self advice to worry less. I worried too much. I was more intense than I should have been in terms of trying to do my best, work hard, and hustle. I was very signed up for hustle culture. I would worry less and know that it's all going to work out. For others, remind yourself of your capabilities and your empowerment. It's that idea of don't wait for the conditions for happiness to be right. Create those, because I feel like we don't empower ourselves enough. Sometimes we don't give ourselves enough permission to do the big thing that we want to do. That's the advice I would give myself and others.

Thank you. This has been a great conversation. It has been good catching up and hearing more about what you do, the world of workplace design, and some of the things you covered in your two books. Thanks, Tracy, for doing this.

Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Take care. I would like to thank Tracy for joining me and spending some time discussing the world of workplace design, work-life fulfillment, happiness, and some of her own journey. If you'd like more regular insights, you can become a PathWise member. Basic membership is free. You can also sign up on the website for the PathWise newsletter, and follow PathWise on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. Thanks. Have a great day.


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Dr. Tracy Brower

CSCL 42 | Workplace HappinessDr. Tracy Brower is the Vice President of Workplace Insights for Steelcase and the author of two books, Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work and The Secrets to Happiness at Work. She is also a contributing writer for Forbes and Fast Company, and an advisor, council member, or board member across a number of organizations spanning workplace and urban design, HR, facilities management, industrial mathematics, and community support.

Prior to all of this work, Tracy had roles at M&M Mars, Herman Miller, and Magna Donnelly. She has a BA in Communications, Business Literature, and English from Hope College; a Master’s of Management and Organizational Culture from Aquinas College; and a PhD in Sociology from Michigan State University.


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