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Fidelity invests in worker delight

The buttoned-down investment firm is encouraging employees to have a little fun.

justin renteria for the boston globe

OF ALL THE WORDS one might come up with to describe work — challenging, rewarding, well paid (or not) — here’s one that might not immediately spring to mind: joyful.

Joy. It smacks of something to strive for on a yoga mat or on vacation, but not from the cubicle, factory floor, or construction site where many of us spend at least five days a week.

Yet the pursuit of joy turns out to be a concept that preoccupies a certain slice of the innovation world. And it has not escaped notice at hard-charging institutions such as Fidelity Investments and the Harvard Business School.

In June, Boston-based Fidelity paired up with the nonprofit Design Museum Boston’s Center for Workplace Innovation for a 2½-hour morning session called Project Joy. They held the event at Fidelity’s 245 Summer Street headquarters and invited some 40 participants, from the worlds of finance to real estate to tech. The question at hand was How might you design delight into work?

“What if we bring tremendous joy to work?” says Suzanne Hamill, head of design thinking at Fidelity. “What if we just raise the bar and say joy is possible at work?”


Before you keel over laughing in a Kentucky coal mine or a Kansas City call center, consider the timing of Fidelity’s push into so-called design thinking. Hamill says it was right after the financial crisis.

“The economy was falling apart,’’ Hamill says. “We really needed to figure out: How are we going to better serve our customers? How are we going to reinvent ourselves?”

Design thinking requires collaboration and usually revolves around solving problems creatively. At Fidelity, for instance, what could the company do to address a big issue like student loan debt? The firm’s high-tech Fidelity Labs group is testing an online tool to help customers efficiently pay off school loans. The company has also introduced student loan payment benefits for its employees.


So back to the joy part. Part of that is fun or play, such as cornhole games or beer outings. It can also be touchy-feely, in the form of sharing personal stories with co-workers, Hamill says. But in the broadest sense, work satisfaction is about being given the leeway to be creative, to use one’s talents and skills, and to solve problems, according to people who study the field.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor at Harvard Business School, calls these key elements the three M’s of motivation — mastery, membership, and meaning.

First, “people want challenging work in which they get to grow and learn,’’ says Kanter, who has written on joy. “That’s very important in the tech world,” among other sectors, she says. Second, they want to feel they’re part of a community and that co-workers know them for who they are.

“It isn’t that everybody’s actually having loving lunches every day,’’ Kanter jokes, but that individuality is respected. Finally, happiness at work is about finding meaning and feeling that you’re contributing to the world in some way.

Perhaps surprisingly, money is a distant fourth on Kanter’s joy spectrum. Pay has to be fair, she says, “but it’s not a daily motivator. People don’t go to work every day saying, ‘I’m going to work for an increment of shareholder value today.’ ’’

All of this may seem like a luxury, the sort of conversation that happens only at the top of the market, when there’s extra money to spend. That may well be. But there also seems to be an element of trying to make workplaces more attractive, to entice talent and appeal to millennials.


In an unusual turn, Fidelity chief executive Abigail Johnson specifically mentioned in this year’s annual report efforts to improve the employee experience at the investment giant.

“It was a notable year for improvements to the Fidelity associate experience, but we still have work to do across the company on talent acquisition and talent mobility,’’ she wrote. In one example, she noted Fidelity had focused on “new technology solutions, redesigned work spaces, workplace flexibility, and more.”

That might be as close as it gets to a nod to joy, from one of the most powerful executives in US finance.

Beth Healy is a Boston Globe staff writer. She can be reached at beth.healy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @HealyBeth.