How TradeMe created a happier, more productive workplace

Yesterday I blogged about Dan Pink’s TED talk “The Puzzle of Motivation“. Tonight I attended an event where David Mole shared how TradeMe applied Dan’s work to create a happier, more motivated workplace.

David started by recapping some of the key learnings from Dan Pink:

  1. Extrinsic motivators like financial rewards can actually harm creativity
  2. Rewards narrow your focus, which is good for manual labour, less so when work requires creative problem solving
  3.  It is more effective to focus on intrinsic motivators – autonomy, mastery, purpose
  4. The best way to get people to do something, is make them want to do it

At TradeMe they believe in hiring good people and then getting out of their way. Creating an environment where these people can do their best work. David challenged us to think of a time at work we’ve felt “flow”, which he explained as: 

“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to it’s limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” ~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi theorised that flow was what happened between anxiety and boredom. When the challenges in life exceed our skill level we get anxious. To get out of the anxiety zone we simply increase our skills. When our skill level exceeds the challenges in life we get bored. To get out of the boredom zone we simply increase our challenges.

When our skill level and challenges meet we enter the creative zone where time vanishes, we forget to eat, and ideas and productivity flow effortlessly.

anxiety-boredom graph

Csikszentmihalyi’s diagram of Flow (Source: Conflict Mediation Coach)

David went onto to explain how Dan Pink’s work and this idea of flow helped TradeMe create a happier and more motivating workplace.

Firstly TradeMe started by measuring happiness so that they could see what affect subsequent initiatives had. While measuring ‘happiness’ may invoke skepticism and mood rings, David explained their pragmatic approach to emotional tracking. Easy ways include simple survey tools like Slido and Niko Niko. At TradeMe they implemented their own HIP (happiness, innovation, performance) survey. David shared the questions that they asked employees:


Once they knew what the baseline of happiness was, TradeMe set about improving it. David shared some results showing happiness had indeed improved and then shared what did work and what didn’t. The focus was heavily on creating an environment that encouraged a change in behaviour.

10 things that worked

Trade Me’s head of communications and community, Paul Ford tests the company’s slide.

Trade Me’s head of communications and community, Paul Ford tests the company’s slide.

1. Creating a fun work environment

TradeMe is well known for their office design from their multi level slides to their caravan meeting room they’re known about town as the New Zealand Google. David also shared the practical advantages of these creative office gimmicks. The slide actually made teams feel closer across floors because visiting each other was more fun.

2. Games & Simulations 

Giving teams a chance to learn even when deadlines are tight.

3. Self selecting teams

TradeMe used a technique called “squadification” that allows people to choose what team they’d like to work on based on the purpose of the teams

4. Pick your own Agile ingredients

By letting teams choose which Agile techniques that they would implement encouraged them to learn more about the function of these tools and stop treating them like unnecessary ceremonies

5. Book club

A monthly catch up to discuss an assigned book and stimulate discussion and debates

6. Give feedback “on the field”

Referencing the All Blacks, David explained that waiting until the “changing room” is often too late because you can’t change anything based on the feedback. TradeMe looked for ways to encourage feedback throughout projects rather than just at the end.

7. Field trips and guests 

Going out to see how other companies are working to gather ideas, this included a trip to Stockholm to visit Spotify!

8. Regular all company “open mike” meetings 
9. Expand your mind time

Giving people a small block of time each week to do something outside work that expanded their thinking like visiting a gallery or simply going for a walk

10. Learning a new skill

Learning something small can remind you of the fun of learning again. At TradeMe new hires learn how to make the perfect flat white from a professional barista.

Things that failed…

1. False autonomy

Telling people that they could decide but then taking but control if things got off track. You can’t afford to go part way when you give people autonomy. False autonomy can be more harmful than limited autonomy.

2. Dictating dates

Imposing deadlines on teams made them resentful and also narrowed their focus toward the date not the result desired. This can lead to shortcuts, technical debt and undermines autonomy.

3. Naps in the office

While the team that trialled this reported positive results it had the unexpected side effect of pissing off others who weren’t sleeping!

4. Open ideas meeting with CEO

The ideas presented were broad in size and topic plus the CEO had to deny requests right there and then. They moved towards other methods of suggesting ideas which allowed voting to bubble up the most desired ones.

5. Whiskey for breakfast

This was a little tongue in cheek but it actually happened and it was deemed a poor idea in reflection…

It was great to hear how TradeMe has improved their happiness and motivation but it was just as valuable to hear what didn’t work. It’s not often you hear such honesty from a presenter!

Do any of the things TradeMe found worked sound like ideas you could use in your workplace?


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