Tan Chade-Meng may have been employee number 107 at tech giant Google, but it was not his engineering prowess that changed the way Silicon Valley companies valued personal growth and employee happiness. Rather, it was the vast paradigm shift triggered by his internally-run mindfulness course “Search Inside Yourself” that earned him the formal title of “Jolly Good Fellow”.
The 45-year-old Singaporean has since retired from the company, but the curriculum he’s implemented remains Google’s most subscribed to this day. “I have often been blamed-slash-credited with spreading mindfulness in the corporate world,” Tan, known to his friends as Meng, told The Peak. Tan was in town to promote his new book, Joy on Demand, a field guide to finding happiness within.
Two Sides To A Coin
But how important is happiness to companies? We quizzed Tan on the what impact happiness might have on Singapore’s corporate world.
“Happy employees are good for business,” Tan said. In Joy on Demand, the numbers are clear – happiness raises sales by 37 per cent, productivity by 31 per cent and accuracy of tasks by 19 per cent.
“Happy employees are good for business.”
– Tan Chade-Meng
Besides the figures, the economy today also leans in favour of happiness, as solving most problems now require creativity and self-motivation. “The best way to be successful for your company is intrinsic motivation”, the Hwa Chong Institution graduate told us.
Caveats abound, though. Tan put forth the bold statement that happiness has the most impact when a company relies on creative fuel and revenue per employee is high. In the case of Google, this could mean “roughly a million dollars per head per year.” Traditional businesses that don’t rake in such statospheric earnings would see less returns per dollar spent on ensuring happiness (which at Google includes the now-famous free gourmet food for all staff members).
The trickle-down to customers can also turn a company’s fortunes. One boss who utilised circulating happiness as a strategy is entrepreneur and CEO Tony Hsieh of online shoe and clothing store Zappos, who ran his business as a “happiness delivery system”.
“The world Hsieh envisioned for himself was employees delivering happiness to the customers,” Tan said, “and he delivered happiness to his employees.” Zappos has since been acquired by electronic commerce site Amazon in a deal worth US$1.2 billion (S$1.7 billion).
Overall, Tan said that companies that can afford to do so should work to keep their employees happy. In Singapore’s case, the tech or finance industries are particularly compatible with this strategy – especially in tech firms, where constant innovation is a must.
“In a tech company, if you don’t innovate, someone else will,” laughed Tan.
Heavy Workloads Not The Way to Go
Another related metric discussed was employee workload. Overloading employees may be strangely counter-intuitive, said Tan, as sufficient idle time allows greater room for innovation.
He raised the example of American computer programmer and Google employee Paul Buchheit, who was disgruntled with poor e-mail functionality and had the freedom of time to create a search function. This spark of innovation eventually resulted in Gmail, now the world’s most widely used e-mail platform.
Given the same conditions, Tan, who studied Computer Engineering and graduated from Nanyang Technological University in 1994 before completing his Masters in the University of California, believed someone else could have created the search function first in the fast-paced tech world, but it came down to the freedom that Buchheit had at that point in time.
Failure? No Problem
“Happiness has a three-day effect – people tend to be creative for three days after one day of happiness,” said Tan. It also indirectly makes one resilient to failure: creativity leads to innovation of ideas and to be innovative, one needs to fail.
PHOTOS: As Google’s Jolly Good Fellow, he had been the first to greet famous guests to Google Headquarters. Here are just some of the industry titans, stars and leaders who posed for the “Meng photo-op” at Google.
Innovative people, Tan said, rarely start out with easy success. There is no better example than the world’s most prolific creative hub Silicon Valley, where failure is seen as a “badge of honour”.
“If you’ve started a company and failed, everyone claims to know you,” he said with a laugh. The ability to fail is a reason for Google’s success and contrasts with “the Singapore mentality” of failure being a black mark or a “face-losing” incident.
To become the next Silicon Valley, that mindset has to change, and it is a deep-rooted way of thinking that will take generations to change.
Singapore’s Pursuit of Happiness
Despite the country’s fluctuating standings in the happiness meter, general consensus is that Singapore is a rich yet unhappy nation. Tan explains that wealth does not equate to happiness: people may be “happy” after escaping from poverty but in truth, it is merely a reduction of their misery.
“Singapore is in a unique situation because we are not a poor nation,” he said, “We don’t have the misery of poverty, but we have factors that make us unhappy.”
According to the ‘happiness guru’, the factors come down the high cost of living in Singapore – namely, property prices. News outlets reported an increase of more than 60 percent in private home prices after the global financial crisis, peaking three years ago.
Cooling measures have since been introduced, but Singapore remained the fourth most expensive city in the world for expatriates in the Mercer Cost of Living Survey 2016.
“The problem with expensive housing is that it affects every aspect of life,” said Google’s former Head of Personal Growth. Almost every issue can be traced back to high cost of rental or property, as disposable income is vastly limited by mortgages. Issues like work stress and constant worry about children’s education are secondary products of that root cause.
Nearly a year after retiring from his company of 15 years, the 45-year-old has moved on to different pastures. Tan had been focusing on his philanthropic work at One Billion Acts of Peace, a non-profit organisation helmed by 13 Nobel Peace Prize winners and publicity for Joy on Demand. He still helms the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institution, which brings the course in Google to the public.
Following up, Tan is also looking into the idea of a ‘zencubator’ – a tech-incubator, co-working space and meditation monastery all rolled into one space for entrepreneurs to work creatively. Its location depends on where interest lies – “As it happens, all the cities start with the letter ‘S’,” Tan said, “San Francisco, Sunnyvale, Santa Cruz, San Jose and of course, Singapore.”
On a more personal note, with his fame as a champion of happiness, we were curious to know – what are his pet peeves? While he lamented the lack of Singapore hawker fare such as chee kueh and chicken rice in the US, Tan also expressed discouragement over US presidential candidate Donald Trump, believing him to be “openly racist and bigoted”.
“The fact that Trump has so many supporters gives me the feeling that maybe there is no hope. They appear to have fear and apathy, while some of them are just evil and the fact that fear, apathy and evil are so prevalent bothers me.”