Ensuring employees’ happiness is picking up as a profession in France, but is it slowly becoming a manipulative strategy to generate more productivity?
PARIS — "Anything exciting to announce?"
In a small side-room next to a vast open space, seven Just Eat employees are sitting around Nathalie Forestier and looking at their laptops. Today's meeting is about the "lovers' party" the company is organizing for the following Thursday — Feb. 14. With less than a week to go to Valentine's Day, a few details still need to be worked out.
"We booked a manicurist and a barber from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.," says an employee.
"Very well. And what about decorations?" Forestier asks.
"We can order inflatable balloons and heart-shaped sticky notes," suggests another employee.
"Perfect," Forestier replies. "I want love everywhere."
Forestier is Chief Happiness Officer (CHO) at Just Eat (formerly Allo Resto), a Paris-based meals delivery company where she's already spent 12 years. She is responsible, as her official title (responsable du bonheur) suggests, for making sure employees are happy.
Lunches with colleagues, birthday parties, seminars, workshops… Nathalie has carte blanche "to promote cohesion between teams." And it's not just about internal events. Her job is "very diverse," the upbeat 40-year-old, dressed in jeans and a hoodie, explains. "It's less visible, but I also make sure that managerial practices are understood by all. I'm always listening and ready to defuse potential conflicts."
Born in the Silicon Valley in the early 2000s, the still-somewhat-novel CHO position has made a timid breakthrough in France over the past three or four years. While Boiron Laboratories were viewed as pioneers in "humanist management" as early as the 1980s, it was a 2015 documentary by Martin Meissonnier, entitled Happiness at Work, that launched the trend. After that, employee happiness became strategic.
It's great to be pampered, especially at work.
The number of CHOs is still modest in France — a few hundred at most, mainly women — but the profession has attracted large corporations such as Kiabi, Decathlon, Bouygues, Carrefour, and Publicis. "Contrary to popular belief, there are more CHOs in CAC 40 French stock market index companies than start-ups," says Olivier Toussaint, co-founder of the CHO Club, which brings together companies and professionals who are "receptive to the issue of humanist management."
But the "feel good" and benevolent image of CHOs is only part of it. There's another objective, which can be summarized in one formula: a happy employee is a productive employee. Gilles Raison, managing director of Just Eat in France, confirms this: "We are not a Club Med. We're here to create economic performance. But we are convinced that making our employees more invested requires happiness at work."
"She's like a mother to us'
Still, on this Valentine's Day, Just Eat's offices actually look like Club Med. The large relaxation room — in the middle of which stands an American kitchen with coffee pods and a self-serve spread, foosball and ping-pong tables — has been decorated for the occasion. Paper rose petals, inflatable balloons, heart-shaped sticky notes, nothing is missing.
One employee is riding a scooter. A small group is playing Mario Kart on a large TV. Others are playing cards on a couch. The atmosphere is relaxed: The average age of this small group of 100 employees is about 31. A little further away, the barber is beginning to cut, while the manicure workshop has just begun.
"It's great to be pampered, especially at work," says one employee.
"Nathalie? She's like a mother to us," says Eric, key account manager.
While the company's senior employee (at 60) admits that he is not the target audience for the events organized by the CHO, he insists that their role is essential. "There are human resources managers who are not doing their job properly, so if the CHO can improve HR, why not?" says Roberto, who has been manager for the last three years.
Concierge services, yoga classes, relaxation areas, sports tournaments, drinks, and birthday parties… everything is done to create bonds and make life easier for employees, sometimes to the point of caricature. "It's true that some news reports have hurt us," admits Sarah Baron, CHO at Oxiane, an IT services company. "We quickly fell into the cliché of foosball and organic smoothies bar. It's part of our job, but it's only a small part of it."
Amélie Motte, CHO of La Fabrique Spinoza think thank, admits: "If the CHO is reduced to being the nice drinks organizer, then their influence will be weak. The company must be sincere, it must not indulge in ‘happy washing"." Motte says there are several types of CHOs — of whom only a minority are truly involved in a company's deeper transformation.
When ensuring the happiness of employees takes the form of office parties — Photo: Split The Kipper
So, are CHOs mavericks of modern management or just smoke and mirrors? In recent months, they have been facing a wave of "happy bashing" brought by two books published in the summer of 2018: "Happycratie" and "La Comédie (in)humaine" (The (In)human Comedy). The authors denounce, among other things, an obligation to happiness and a new form of enslavement of the employees.
According to them, CHOs and happiness at work as a dogma are only a tool at the service of management to better control employees. "There is nothing benevolent about it. This is a pretext to increase profitability and reduce absenteeism," says Michel Guillemin, professor at the University of Lausanne. "I have no doubt that some CHOs are very good at their job, but their purpose is not always very ethical. It is difficult to distinguish companies with a real humanist purpose from those who are manipulative."
Blurring the line between professional and private life
Promoting happiness at and through work could also increase the risk of too much involvement, which can lead to burn-out. The cause: a blurring of the line between professional and private life. How can we refuse to do some extra work at home when our company does everything to ensure our happiness? How can we say no to a boss who is so generously thoughtful?
If a company offered me a better salary but no CHO, I wouldn't leave.
For Danièle Linhart, work sociologist and researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), happiness cannot be imposed as it relies on criteria outside of work (family, hobbies, activities, etc.). She even sees this intrusion into emotions as a way of compensating for the deterioration in work contents: "CHOs, benevolent HR directors, they are all here to ensure that employees can achieve the objectives imposed on them."
Rather than happiness — which is something very personal — it would be better to talk about well-being at work, "which is the responsibility of the company," say CHOs. "Employees are not easily fooled: We can install a foosball table or an organic canteen, if the working conditions are not good, it doesn't work. That is cheap happiness officer," says Motte.
A way to retain millennials
The profession also suffers from a lack of credibility, as there is no CHO diploma to validate specific knowledge in subjects such as management, psychology or ergonomics. There are only workshops, which usually last two or three days and are mainly aimed at people working in human resources who want to broaden their skills.
However, those "responsible for happiness' are convinced that well-being in the company is "a fundamental trend". "Quality of work life is a strategic topic for the next 30 years," says Olivier Toussaint from the CHO Club. The club wants to attract millennials (people born after 1980), who are demanding employees and are even ready to compete with other employers.
Millennials are considered more difficult to keep as employees, and they give as much, if not more, importance to their work environment as their salary, according to a study conducted in 2017 by the Viavoice polling firm. Cécile, who joined Just Eat's marketing department a few months ago, seems to have been won over — but not completely: "Going to work with a smile has become essential for me. If a company offered me a better salary but no CHO, I wouldn't leave."