How leaders can create fun in the workplace
01 November 2019
By David Allen
In January 2018, Florida based firm Carnival Cruise Line received a lot of attention from the news media when it announced NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O'Neal as its first Chief Fun Officer.
It may seem like an amusing appointment, but when it comes to fun in the workplace there is a serious point to be made. As many firms have discovered, and management research shows, building a corporate culture that fosters fun can create considerable benefits for organisations, from reduced staff turnover to greater employee engagement.
Extracting these benefits is not simple, though. Merely buying a ping pong table for the break room or organising an occasional outing is unlikely to unlock fun's full potential. What one person deems fun, another may consider a chore. And, in a world of work where freelancing and the gig economy are on the rise, is there really time for fun?
That is why, with the help of colleagues John W. Michel, of Loyola University, and Michael Tews, of Penn State University, I have devised a framework that allows organisations to focus on fun more effectively.
It has long been recognised that all work and no play is likely to lead to less productive, dissatisfied workers. There was no time for fun in the early-1900s stopwatch driven world of scientific management and the efficiency movement.
Fortunately for the world's workforces, in the 1930s management researchers such as Elton Mayo and Mary Parker Follett noted that aspects of human nature, such as relationships, were important motivating factors. It was a radical departure from Henry Ford's assertion that "men work for two reasons. One is for wages, and one is for fear of losing their jobs".
As organisations acknowledged that people have similar needs and emotions at work as in their non-working lives, the notion of enjoyment in a corporate setting became more acceptable. Yet, it has still taken a technological revolution to move the discussion beyond the obligatory company day out, intermittent birthday celebration, or occasional team socialising opportunity.
The script for the workplace as a fun environment was rewritten by numerous Silicon Valley start-ups during the dot-com boom, and epitomised by search firm Google's office perks that have encompassed, variously: music and art studios, mini-golf courses, ping pong tables, foosball, climbing walls and even nap pods.
Besides making working lives more enjoyable, there is strong evidence that fun in the workplace packs a powerful punch in terms of organisational benefits. And in this context 'fun the workplace' is specifically defined as: features of the work environment that are playful or social or humorous and that trigger positive feelings of enjoyment or amusement.
My earlier research, for example, looking at the restaurant industry, an environment with more than 60 per cent employee turnover annually, showed that workers who socialised more in the workplace and who evaluated their co-workers and the workplace as more fun were less likely to leave.
Beyond staff turnover reduction, fun in the workplace can foster more positive attitudes, help teams become more cohesive, and help people deal with or recover from stressful work experiences while also developing stronger relationships. It can also help improve employee engagement scores. Google regularly features at or towards the top of the 'best company to work for' lists, for example.
So how can firms create a suitably pro-fun culture and environment, with the appropriate activities, in order to capture these benefits? One important lesson for managers is that fun in the workplace is highly subjective. Some employees might look forward to meeting their co-workers for happy hour, viewing it as a chance to have fun and build camaraderie and team spirit. For others, however, the thought might fill them with dread.
That is why managers must consider how people evaluate or appraise an activity ostensibly intended to be fun before, during and after an activity. The result of each appraisal will shape a person's overall evaluation of a particular activity. Taken together they can be considered a type of fun feedback loop.
What are the ingredients to create fun at work?
Fortunately for managers, we have identified a range of factors across four dimensions - supportive practices for fun, characteristics of fun in the workplace, characteristics of the job, and person-specific - that affect the way people appraise fun events. These can be viewed as organisational levers worth paying attention to in order to leverage fun in the workplace.
For example, the more voluntary an activity, the more likely it is people will appraise it as fun and will enjoy participating. But that means truly voluntarily, as opposed to an activity that is technically voluntary, but where people still feel pressure to engage in some way.
Our work also shows that workers are likely to value fun in the workplace more highly if managers and leaders are supportive of fun. In simple terms, it is the difference between a manager who, as everyone runs to the break room to have birthday cake, signals 'great, let's all go and celebrate and then we will get back to work', and one that mutters "here we go again, people are going to get distracted and we will lose 30 minutes of work time".
The type of activity makes a difference. Our studies suggest events involving food, celebrations of personal milestones, and workplace outings are best received.
The more mainstream (less eccentric) and aligned with an employee's personal interests the better. Avoid events where people risk making a fool of themselves in front of their co-workers. Pressure of work is also a factor. Employees with a heavy workload may view fun events as obstacles in their schedule.
Personality traits are important. Optimistic people with a positive approach to life are more likely to treat fun activities favourably. Similarly, it helps if the people involved in fun activities like each other and share similar values.
Organisations that have a strong culture of fun and believe in the benefits of person-organisational fit are more likely to deliberately seek out, attract, select, and retain employees who share fun as a common value. Those employees are more likely to have a positive perspective on fun events.
Given these factors there are a number of things managers can do to improve the chances of making fun activities a success.
As organic fun is more effective than manufactured fun, it makes sense for managers to create an environment where employees initiate and organise various fun activities as much as possible, as opposed to managers and leaders driving it top-down.
Companies can design physical spaces that are conducive to socialising and interaction in the workplace (yes, even on work time). They can also use onboarding and newcomer orientation as an opportunity to show that the organisation is open to fun and wants to foster those types of interaction. It might be worthwhile allowing an employee to specifically champion fun in the workplace and take a lead on those activities.
In an age of digital disruption of business models, as many firms are struggling to find their place in reconfigured value ecosystems, attracting and retaining talent is paramount.
Millennials and Generation Z are the leaders, managers and workers of the coming decades. They are characterised by a willingness to blur the boundaries between work and non-work and a desire to be their authentic selves in their working lives. They are also mobile and restless.
When it comes to the competition for talent and building great teams with engaged workforces, those organisations that provide an environment in which employees are able to have some fun and enjoyment are likely to have the last laugh.
Michel, J. W., Tews, M. J. and Allen, D. G. (2019) "Fun in the workplace : a review and expanded theoretical perspective", Human Resource Management Review, 29, 1, 98-110.
Tews, M. J., Michel, J. W. and Allen, D. G. (2014) "Fun and friends : the impact of workplace fun and constituent attachment on turnover in a hospitality context", Human Relations, 67, 8, 923-946.
David Allen is WBS Distinguished Research Environment Professor at Warwick Business School and Distinguished Professor of Management at the University of Memphis.
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