The fuss about fun

Culture
22 July, 2019

Is fun at office the key to success and happiness? Or is it a distraction that gets in the way of work?

Across our regions, our teams have been working hard to navigate the challenges and deliver on their objectives for the year. Several team members that I have met recently mentioned that they are feeling the pressure, given the current situation.

As leaders, currently, fun is likely not top of mind for most of you. However, this is a topic that I feel we need to reflect more deeply on – even at this juncture.

To start with, should work be fun?

Interesting question, isn’t it? On one hand, fun is an essential ingredient of great companies; on the other, many people believe that it’s unnecessary – even undesirable – at the workplace.

Advocates of workplace fun suggest that it boosts creativity, loyalty and productivity, whereas detractors say that “fun” is usually a superficial replacement for more important elements at a company.

So, this week, my message explores the idea of fun at work: is it worth cultivating, or a counterproductive waste of time and resources? And what exactly does “fun” look like in an office anyway?

Fun can be an asset

The conventional view is that fun and work are incompatible – if you’re enjoying yourself, you’re probably wasting time. Accordingly, some managers don’t approve of laughter or light-hearted moments at the office, seeing them as an unwelcome distraction from job-related tasks. This belief definitely feels inaccurate and outdated. Work doesn’t have to consist of boring drudgery in order to produce results. In fact, modern research proves that people are more creative and productive in pleasant environments. The more relaxed you are around your colleagues, the more comfortable you feel sharing radical ideas, giving honest feedback and working together on projects. So, having fun while at work is an excellent route to increasing individual productivity as well as strengthening a collaborative team culture. 

Mini-breaks in which team members share a funny story or play a quick game together are also a good way to maintain optimum energy levels through the day. Remember, it’s not the number of hours spent at the desk that determine output – it’s the quality of those hours. A few minutes of downtime with colleagues can renew energy as well as motivation. So, next time you see your team members having a laugh together, don’t shut it down – join in with a joke of your own instead and then go back to work. I guarantee you’ll feel refreshed and ready to take on the rest of your day.

When enjoyment is strategically wired into a company’s DNA, it can also drive profitability and retention. Take online retailer Zappos, where fun is serious business. The company positions itself as unconventional and aims to “inject fun and humour into daily work” – a strategy that seems to have worked wonderfully for them.

But fun isn’t enough

Convinced by the importance of fun, some companies have introduced Fun Committees or even a Chief Fun Officer, whose responsibility it is to create a sense of enjoyment and social community at work. The problem arises when fun starts being used as a stand-in for other, more important values at the workplace. While enjoyment is strongly linked with employee satisfaction and productivity, it isn’t enough to make a company great by itself. Putting fun right at the top of the priority list is short-sighted and counterproductive. In his article, Work shouldn’t always be fun. It’s work., Jeff Smith elaborates:

Sometimes parts of work are fun, and promoting fun work-related or after-hours activities is an important part of building a strong company culture. But fun shouldn’t be the main ingredient. 

So what’s the problem with companies that try to be fun above all else? Employees eventually jump ship to pursue long-term goals at companies with more meaningful values if-and, more often, when-work stops being fun. Setting the expectation that work can be a never-ending party is unsustainable and misleading.

It’s true that some jobs look like endless fun from the outside. But no job is fun all the time. Even actors and video-game testers will tell you that their work is tough, frustrating and – yes – often quite uneventful! In the above article, Smith highlights two key components that matter more than fun in the long term:

1. Show genuine care

An organisation can demonstrate concern for the well-being of employees in a number of meaningful ways – from offering flexible working hours, to empowering people to take key decisions.

2. Foster growth

Managers must take the time to learn their team members’ unique strengths and help them plan their career within the organisation. Without an idea of the road ahead, talented employees tend to leave for greener pastures.

To these, I would add two more suggestions:

3. Make work meaningful

As leaders, we must enable our teams to do fulfilling work as far as possible. Which tasks give your team members the most joy, and how can you support them? If there’s a project your team is really passionate about, can you make it happen? These are questions we must ask ourselves on a regular basis.

4. Say thank you

Organisations that appreciate their employees significantly outperform those that don’t. Make it a point to recognise the contributions and achievements of your team members.

If an organisation lacks the above, then fun is simply a Band-Aid designed to hide deep deficiencies within the culture. No amount of laughter and games can replace the satisfaction and loyalty created by genuine care, thoughtful career growth, rewarding work and appreciation. In True Story: Your Job Doesn’t Always Have to Be Fun, Alyse Kalish says:

Your job can and should be a lot of things—fulfilling, energizing, rewarding, challenging—but it doesn’t always have to be fun. And you shouldn’t expect it to be. This isn’t to say that you won’t (or shouldn’t) be happy in your career, or that you won’t have exciting moments…. My point is that your role isn’t necessarily meant to be a 24/7 enjoyable experience—that’s why you get a paycheck for doing it. Your job will never (and isn’t meant to!) inspire the same sense of glee [as] riding a roller coaster…. And think about it: If riding roller coasters was your day job, wouldn’t it eventually become less fun? 

Do we need to redefine “fun at work”?

There is a common misconception that fun has to mean “haha” jokes, boisterous games and bright colours. In fact, this is a very extrovert-driven understanding of fun, which only caters to a certain kind of personality. Another definition of fun, originating from tech startups, involves foosball tables, bean bags and well-stocked pantries. While a thoughtful recreation room is a welcome addition to any office, I think that this, too, is a very narrow definition of fun.

Enjoyment at work can spring from a variety of sources – from the ways in which people interact with one another (like casual banter, inside jokes, spontaneous high-fives), to the manner in which collaboration is approached (like free-flowing brainstorms, walking meetings in the park). Fun can also be quiet and unassuming, be it sharing anecdotes from the weekend over a cup of tea or listening to a song together.

As leaders, it’s important for us to understand that everyone doesn’t enjoy themselves in the same way. The objective should be to create an environment in which all types of fun are welcomed (as long as they are appropriate, of course!). At Godrej, we value bringing our “whole selves” to work. That means creating a space where self-expression and creativity are celebrated, rather than squashed. I believe this could play an integral role in bringing more fun into our workplace.

Intentional efforts to create fun can backfire

Structured, mandated fun is a tricky business. While some employees thrive on competitions, games and social events, others find them tedious and time-consuming. Well-meaning HR departments and managers may fill up the calendar with such events, but when fun is made compulsory it usually ends up putting employees off – even those who are genuinely interested in the activities being organised. Frequent functions outside of work hours make matters even worse since many people prefer to spend their precious leisure time with loved ones or doing their own thing.

Rather than setting up a series of enforced events, it’s better for leaders to take a more organic approach to enjoyment, creating an environment that welcomes fun in small ways, on a daily basis. The occasional work function or offsite is a good idea, but we shouldn’t overdo it to the point where people start dreading the arrival of yet another “invite” in their inbox.

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