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The Globe and Mail

The ticket to happiness at work? Tea time

Are you happy in your cubicle over there? Yes, you, the one who's probably surfing for holiday rentals in Tuscany.

Don't feel you have to answer. Your response may indict you as a non-joiner. Which would be very bad indeed in the current trend of happy workplace culture. Besides, it's very likely your employer is pondering this question this very moment, as you sip your lousy cup of coffee someone brewed in the cupboard space that passes as a kitchen down Hall B.

Not because the CEO's heart has grown a little wider in his midlife phase and he's started to elevate your daily well-being to a top priority. He's thinking about profit. And experts are all atwitter about the link between happiness and productivity as though they've just discovered how to boil an egg.

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Happy people are more focused, more capable and more motivated, they will tell you.

Personally, I've found that I'm often most productive when I'm deeply unhappy - like following my divorce, when I had nothing else to occupy my life, and when I was miserable in my marriage. My work always satisfied me, and even made me feel good when he didn't. It was better than the sex, frankly.

But now that a happy work culture is all the rage, there are strategies to enhance it; consultants who make a living telling companies how to create it. Some CEOs, like Tony Hsieh of Zappos, an online shoe and clothing retailer, make it their priority. The innovative Internet marketer and author of Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose, set out 10 core values, such as "be humble," "create fun and a little weirdness", "pursue growth and learning" and "deliver WOW through service".

At Zappos headquarters in Las Vegas, managers are encouraged to goof off with employees. Some of the bathrooms feature "urine colour" charts - presumably as a contribution to the required weirdness vibe. Interviews are often held over vodka shots. They screen for humility by secretly checking to see how a prospective employee treated the driver of the Zappos shuttle that picks up out-of-town candidates at the airport.

Zappos ranks No. 15 in Fortune magazine's 2010 survey of the top 100 companies to work for. Mr. Hsieh, who sold the company to Amazon in 2009 for a stock and cash deal worth $1.2-billion but still runs it independently, has called his interest in contented corporate culture a "social experiment."

He believes in tracking employees' relationships with each other - the number and the strength of them. When employees log on to their computers, they're asked to look at a picture of a random fellow worker and report how well they know that person. "My hope is that we can have more employees who plan to be close friends," Mr. Hsieh, a Harvard graduate, told a magazine.

Big ick was my reaction. Who wants people designing friendships for them? Does it mean we have to somehow engineer family-like values in the workplace as a way to encourage loyalty?

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The solution to having contented employees is far simpler, and it can be as basic as a cup of tea.

Years ago, when I was working in London, every day at 4 p.m. a "tea lady" would roll a cart through the halls, offering the afternoon refreshment. It was a welcome break and a chance to gather and chat.

Sure, it may have been part of an arcane post-imperial system that thought the world's problems, not to mention workplace frustrations, could all be eased with a spot of tea. But it was a useful ritual, a sign of civility and kinship. There's something to be said for basic human sustenance and the encouragement of common conviviality. Remember Barack Obama's Beer Summit, convened at the White House to ease racial tension between a black Harvard scholar and a white police officer?

"In the last few decades, companies have concentrated too much on employees' technical skills," says Rick Foster, co-author of How We Choose to be Happy and a management consultant for companies such as General Electric and Mercedes Benz. "The training that companies need is on kinship."

It's astonishing that we have to teach basic humanity in the workplace.

"What we're serving up is an emotional or behavioural tea trolley," Mr. Foster explains with a chuckle. "A lot of companies think civility means withholding, not saying anything, making nice. But it's not about that. It's about being truly nice, which means being authentic and saying what's on your mind in an honest and accountable way."

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How about we just roll out a tea trolley as a start? Better yet, how about lunch?

"Food is love, and in the workplace there isn't a lot of love around," offers Laurie David, a film director and producer, author of The Family Dinner and, perhaps most notoriously, the ex of TV funnyman Larry David. "It's the ultimate bonding tool; the great equalizer. It's what humanity is built on."

Ms. David cites Googlepex, Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., where a delicious lunch is provided free to employees. (Zappos also serves a free lunch, though it's reportedly less elaborate.)

"Everybody eats together," Ms. David says of Google. "They come together in a way that wouldn't otherwise happen. They laugh. They tell stories. They get to know a little about each other's family lives. And it's good for productivity," she adds. "When you eat a healthy meal, and Google is providing it, you don't fall asleep at 4 p.m."

The workplace has become an overanalyzed and mythologized social phenomenon. As Globe and Mail columnist Barbara Moses wrote last week, many people just don't feel "passion" - that holy grail of modern work life - for their work. They simply want the experience to be pleasant.

A cup of tea. Civility. A good meal. A boss who really listens. You're smiling at the thought, aren't you?

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