Helping employees find their flow for improved productivity and happier teams

3 April 2024
Being “in the zone”. Noticing that time seems to have “flown by”. Feeling totally immersed in a task — engaged but not overloaded, stretched but not stressed — and experiencing deep pleasure as a result.

This optimal state of mind is what is called, since psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term in the 1970s, a “flow state”.

It’s a sensation widely associated with performers and athletes. But business leaders are increasingly aware of its potential in the workplace. Helping employees find their flow can have a profound effect on productivity, morale and innovation.

“Individuals who frequently experience the state of flow are more productive and derive greater satisfaction from their work,” as one McKinsey & Company investigation notes. What’s more, in a decade-long study by the firm, top executives reported being five times more productive when at their peak, or experiencing a state of flow. Meanwhile, a separate study carried out by the University of Sydney linked flow to a more than fourfold increase in creative problem solving.

There are echoes here of Timothy Gallwey’s 1974 book The Inner Game of Tennis, a pioneering study on the importance of mental relaxation and focus to athletic performance. But what’s going on in our brains and bodies during flow? And how do employers encourage more of it?

The science of flow

What Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced cheek-sent mee-high-yee) studied and first described is a kind of automatic or meditative state experienced while performing a task. We can think of it as moments when intense mental and physical stimulation are accompanied by a surprisingly relaxed mind and body. A flow state is characterised by:

  • effortless attention
  • concentration and control
  • unselfconsciousness
  • increased happiness or satisfaction
  • increased creativity

One theory suggests we experience greater flow or more automatic activity when abstract and self-aware thinking is temporarily switched off in the prefrontal cortex. Experiments in direct brain stimulation using electricity have explored how activity in different sections of the cortex might encourage flow.

Gaming and virtual environments are now major areas of focus for flow research, and it’s possible that machine learning and other technology will start to play a part in facilitating flow states. It’s easy to imagine how learning in a synthetic reality might prepare, say, a surgeon or member of the military to perform calmly and effectively during a crisis. Those applications will almost certainly shift to more everyday roles too.

States of flow in daily life

It’s important to emphasise that the origins of flow and how it operates are still imperfectly understood. We do know, however, that flow is a widely recorded phenomenon that affects how happy we are, how creative we can be, and how much we can achieve.

When we’re completely immersed, the flow state alters our perception of time and what’s possible, liberating us for optimal performance and a sense of deep satisfaction. As one sports psychologist puts it, flow is that “heightened sense of awareness and focus” where “actions seem effortless and there is an increased belief that your dreams or goals can become achievable and real.”

Flow is something we’ve probably all experienced at some point. But chances are most of us must think back to childhood to remember days featuring this kind of pleasurable engagement. The fact is, most grown-ups experience flow primarily when playing a sport or computer games or engaging in other leisure activities, not when at the office. But what if an organisation actively promoted flow in its workforce?

Promoting flow in the workplace

For an organisation looking to promote flow among its workers, it’s important to distinguish between simple employee engagement or satisfaction and real flow. Being in the zone doesn’t feel like hard work. It’s a state of effortless attention, concentration and control, where the activity itself feels like the reward, not simply a means to an end. We feel unselfconscious, as the line between doing something and our awareness of what we’re doing gets blurred.

To arrive at a true flow state, certain conditions are necessary. Employers can help create these conditions, and promote employee flow, in part by taking the following steps.

  • To achieve flow, employees must find the right balance between stretching themselves and stressing out. Some knowledge or expertise is necessary to perform any work effectively, but if a task feels far beyond one’s capabilities, an employee will become anxious and likely underperform. On the other hand, employees need to feel pushed, or to have a sense of urgency, or they’ll get bored. Employers should strive to create a work environment in which employees feel challenged but competent. This may include implementing rotational programs for employees who want to explore new positions within the organisation, providing resources for professional development, and taking similar steps.
  • There’s a reason flow makes a lot of sense in the context of sports and other physical activities. Knowing the task (such as scoring a goal or reciting a musical piece) and getting clear, immediate feedback (such as miskicks or wrong notes) are important factors to achieving and maintaining flow. To promote flow at work, employers should make tasks and course-correcting tangible and clear. Implementing simple, clear goalsetting and performance review processes is one important way to help employees achieve flow.
  • While it’s critical to set clear goals, it’s also important for organisations to set realistic ones. Few employees will achieve flow when they’re confronted by and worried about monumental tasks. Contrary to widespread belief, which tends to favour the idea of radical change and disruption, most achievements are realised through steady, gradual steps. Elite performers in virtually any area, from music to sports to business, become elite through practice and repetition — a concept that’s often referred to as the 10,000-hour rule. For organisations, this often means setting a series of relatively small goals in favour of a limited number of grand ones. This is not the same thing as setting easy or meaningless targets. Goals should challenge employees while being realistic and fostering a sense of possibility.
  • Interruption and distraction are the enemies of flow. Even short shifts in attention come with a mental switching cost as employees must refocus, making it harder for them to become and stay immersed. Much of our current work environment — from emails to direct messages to meetings and calls — creates distractions for workers that can impede productivity and diminish the quality of outputs. Here as elsewhere, employers should help their employees strike a balance. While roles and related tasks within a single organisation can differ greatly, employee productivity and quality work can be enhanced by developing policies that promote short, focused meetings, and that don’t demand immediate responses to emails and direct messages in many situations. Some organisations schedule weeks in which internal meetings are prohibited to free their employees to focus on important projects and in general promote a distraction-free work environment. Leadership can also suggest strategies such as setting aside certain times of the day to answer emails, rather than insisting employees read and respond to every incoming message immediately.
  • Flow is easier to achieve if we can associate the task in front of us with some kind of enjoyment or emotional meaning. Depending on the work involved, promoting this kind of enjoyment or emotional meaning can be difficult for an employer, particularly when workers must engage in tactical, day-to-day work. Whatever the situation, though, employers can imbue meaning to virtually any task by implementing policies and practices that recognise and reward jobs well done. Celebrating team milestones is also important to fostering enjoyment and emotional involvement. To use another sports analogy, all winning teams celebrate their victories, and of course those celebrations are more lavish if they involve championships. These kinds of celebrations are often lost in the working world, where employees are expected to move on to the next project with little or no recognition.
  • We usually can’t achieve flow when we’re trying hard to do so. The situation is common in sports, where slumping athletes are said to be “pressing too hard” and are encouraged to relax and “let the game come to them”. In short, it might seem counterintuitive, but striving for a flow state is unlikely to lead to one. You’ll probably become too aware of your own mood, too self-conscious as a result, or too discouraged when the feeling you’re after doesn’t materialise. Employers looking to promote flow in their workforce should remember this and create a culture that avoids micromanagement and where possible encourages a certain amount of freedom to work in ways, and at speeds, that suit individual employees. And while deadlines are critical in many industries and simply can’t be ignored or diminished in certain situations, there are also many cases where leaders should emphasise quality over speed and encourage employees to slow down and think about new ways of addressing longstanding challenges.

The above steps are far from comprehensive and are meant to suggest directions rather than a definitive strategy. It’s also worth noting that multinational organisations will have to account for different regional and country-specific cultural assumptions when trying to implement a corporate culture that promotes flow. Multinational organisations must account for cultural (and regulatory) differences across jurisdictions in virtually any situation, but when establishing company culture, it’s particularly important to involve stakeholders across regions to ensure that any concerns can be voiced and that widespread approval is achieved.

Above all, leaders should not lose sight of the fact that the policies and actions that help establish an organisation’s culture are enormously important to its success. Practices promoting flow can positively affect an organisation’s workforce engagement, the quality of its deliverables, its customer service and more.


Vistra not only promotes flow for our employees, we create progress without friction for our clients. Find out how Vistra can help your organisation find your flow anywhere in the world.