fun and the workplace

by Bernie DeKoven on February 3, 2011

I was interviewed by Jenna Schnuer for One+ magazine, a publication of Meeting Planners International. The interview is scheduled to be published this month. I’ll let you know when it’s online. In the mean time, here is the whole of the interview (only part of it will be included in the article.)

Q: Overall, what’s your take on the current view of “fun” in the workplace? It seems like fun was a huge part of companies during the Internet boom but now? Maybe not so much? Did the recession take the push for fun at work out of the game? Do we need it more now because times are more challenging?

A: We always need fun – in the workplace, in the meeting place, by the fireplace… (actually, any place you can think of). But in the workplace, the absence of fun is more telling, more, shall we say, costly. In the not-so-good times, it’s not so easy to have the kind of fun we have in the very good times. Hard to invest in a spiral sliding board – especially right after you’ve had to downsize again. So a different kind of fun is needed.

As things have slowed down for so many of us, there’s a kind of fun whose value and benefits becomes ever vivid, the slower things get. This fun is the fun of having a job, at all. In a sad way, it’s a good thing, because it points us to something even more sustaining. It’s what I call “the fun of work.”

From time to time, at any time, really, work can actually and honestly feel something very much like fun. When you are working well. When you are engaged, involved, challenged, interested. When what you are doing becomes so interesting to you that you lose track of time, that you stop thinking about all those crazy things you think about when you’re bored and worried, and find yourself thinking totally and completely about the job at hand. This may not be fun of the haha kind. But it is fun, genuine fun, deep fun.

We all know people who find fun working. Sometimes it’s a janitor or secretary, sometimes a foreman or manager. We all know times at work when we are actually having fun working. Like when we’re part of a really good meeting, and everyone’s really listening to each other, and everyone who has something to contribute has a real contribution to make.

So to make work more fun, we need to follow those people, and make note of those times. Those are our guides. They can show us the way.

Q: What are the basic benefits of fun in the workplace? How does it help create bonds between employees? Does it help with customer loyalty? Any other ways it can benefit the bottom line?

When we are having fun together, especially when we are having fun working together, we are taking part in a mutually supportive relationship. Whether we are making a plan or getting a room ready for a meeting, if we are doing it together, and having fun, we feel together, individually and collectively. We are at our best, together. We even look nicer, together. We listen to each other more closely, less critically, and we listen to ourselves more closely, less critically. We increase each other’s productivity, confidence, abilities. We increase our team’s productivity, confidence, abilities. We increase our company’s productivity, confidence, abilities. And when we extend that relationship to our customers, when we have fun, together, with our customers, we all become more successful. Because we enjoy the relationship we have created. We enjoy working with each other. We enjoy the things we do together and the way we do them together. We succeed more often. And when we don’t succeed as much as we had hoped to succeed, we just get a little closer to each other so we can figure out how to make the game better, more fun.

Q: What’s the best way to try and work fun into a company that, perhaps, hasn’t used it as a tool to bond employees? Does it have to come from the executives? Or can the fun begin at the bottom (or middle) of the ranks?

The most fun place to work is a place where fun is recognized, shared, supported. Anyone can find fun. But for the company itself to be fun, it has to come from everywhere. The top level has to not only recognize fun, but has to have fun.

But, regardless of what the top level is doing, anyone, really, can have fun.

In a book called Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes one person in particular, a worker, who was having what could only be called “fun.”

“Years ago my students and I studied a factory where railroad cars were assembled. The main workplace was a huge, dirty hangar where one could hardly hear a word because of the constant noise. Most of the welders who worked there hated their jobs, and were constantly watching the clock in anticipation of quitting time. As soon as they were out of the factory they hurried to the neighborhood saloons, or took a drive across the state line for more lively action.

“Except for one of them. The exception was Joe, a barely literate man in his early sixties, who had trained himself to understand and to fix every piece of equipment in the factory, from cranes to computer monitors. He loved to take on machinery that didn’t work, figure out what was wrong with it, and set it right again. At home, he and his wife built a large rock garden on two empty lots next to their house, and in it he built misty fountains that made rainbows – even at night. The hundred or so welders who worked at the same plant respected Joe, even though they couldn’t quite make him out. They asked his help whenever there was any problem. Many claimed that without Joe the factory might as well close.

“Throughout the years I have met many CEOs of major companies, powerful politicians, and several dozen Nobel Prize-winners – eminent people who in many ways led excellent lives, but none that was better than Joe’s.

Q: Can a push for fun backfire in the workplace? What kinds of businesses shouldn’t consider it?

Everyone should be thinking about, talking about, sharing the fun of work. Any push for fun that doesn’t take the fun of work itself into account will, eventually, ultimately, backfire, regardless of the kind of business. You can hold parties every week, have toys in every meeting room, start each day with a game, and if there isn’t a shared recognition of the fun of work, those parties and toys and games will do little more than underscore how unrewarding, dull, draining work has become.

Q: How can you put fun to work to bring a room full of people who don’t necessarily know each other together? Are there any tips for meeting or conference planners who want to add a little oomph into their events?

What’s the fun of being in a room with a bunch of people who don’t know each other? There’s a kind of freedom there. It’s not work. It’s not like you have to perform. And, when given the freedom, there are opportunities to learn from each other, to find like minds, to connect, to create relationships, to play, even. So, whatever you can do to help people take advantage of all those possibilities is exactly what you should be doing. Informality is better than formality. A buffet is more fun than a banquet. A bunch of learning centers is more fun than a lecture. Give them things to do together. Lots of things. Different things. Think kindergarten.


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