Workplace fun is serious business

Our quality of life would be better if we let our hair down once in a while - not just at the Christmas party.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2017
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Down to business

At Sodexo’s recent Quality of Life conference, there was a fascinating and indeed enjoyable discussion about how companies can boost employee engagement, in so doing improving company performance and quality of life for all involved.

Tata Consultancy’s Ritu Anand zeroed in on creating a sense of purpose. For Sodexo’s Mia Mends, the key was good relationships: employees ‘want to be validated; they care about being recognised, about learning, and they want to be heard.’ Uber’s Francis Frei, meanwhile, talked about the foundation of trust, which ‘requires authenticity, logic and empathy.’

All of these are of course vitally important. But there was one word that was absent, a word that’s central to how engaged we feel but that’s rarely used in the same sentence as work: fun.

Now, work might bring us a sense of achievement, camaraderie and a place in the world, but few would describe it as fun. Fun is going to the pub with your friends, playing with your kids, hiking in Patagonia, reading a good book - whatever floats your boat. But it’s not, surely, a long Saturday night in the office, crunching through a spreadsheet. Is it?

The main reason work can’t always be fun is that it’s compulsory and contingent – you have to do it or you starve – bringing all the stresses that come from feeling out of control. Good managers spend a lot of time trying to mitigate this, in exactly the ways the speakers at the Quality of Life conference discussed.

Yet many of us will say that we do often enjoy the actual tasks of our job, the environment we do it in or the company of the people we do it with – and that this enjoyment greatly contributes to our sense of engagement with our work.

That raises an interesting question for employers. If indeed they care about employee engagement and quality of life, shouldn’t they therefore be trying to make the workplace and the work itself more fun?

The pre-ghost Scrooges out there may grumble that work is simply not supposed to be fun. It’s serious business and if you’re laughing and joking, then you aren’t being serious. And there is some truth to that. We’ve all been in offices where the people opposite you don’t seem to do anything at all except talk about the football (loudly) and engage in (meaningless, distracting) ‘banter’. It’s not good for anyone’s quality of life if the company folds because no one does any work.

But it’s just as bad at the other extreme, where the nine-to-five (or eight-to-six, or nine-to-nine, depending on your situation) is a joyless ordeal, where non-work conversations are strictly verboten and laughter invokes a disciplinary. How can anyone feel engaged in that environment? That surely is the road to expensive staff turnover and sickness absences, and the untold value of lost creativity.

As with many things, it’s about finding a healthy balance between the two. This doesn’t take magic beans, just good management. An acceptable level of fun is rarely defined when companies speak of their corporate culture (there are rare exceptions like Admiral, which has a ‘Ministry of Fun’), but it’s constantly role-modelled. You can see from the senior leadership how long it’s okay to spend chatting in the kitchen (five minutes is fine; an hour probably not) or how far non-work conversation or jokes at your desk are okay.

It may not always be an easy balance to strike, as one person’s fun is another’s distraction, and we all enjoy different environments. But if leaders are able to show that it’s possible to be both professional and a human being, with all that entails, then our collective quality of life can rise even as the job gets done better than before. Now there’s something to get you out of bed in the morning.  

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