Why you should have fun in the workplace…

I was recently asked by my Swedish Publishers – Soderpalm Publishing, to write an article for a book which was published to raise funds for charity. It is titled ‘Why it’s important to have fun at work’

It’s in my usual ‘slightly off the wall’ style of writing and I believe you will enjoy it and maybe want to think about the content and how it’s applicable to you and your work place. It may even revolutionize your attitude to work. Here it is in its’ entirety so a rather longer newsletter than usual.

The concept of having fun at work as opposed to taking everything very seriously is a relatively new one in today’s world. So when I was asked to write about ‘The importance of having fun at work’ , the first thing I did was to check the dictionary definition of the words ‘seriously’, ‘fun’ and ‘work’ and to see what they really meant – or rather what other more scholarly people thought they meant.  What I found were numerous different meanings and interpretations and, on the face of it, quite contradictory in many cases. For example:

Two definitions of ‘taking things seriously’:

  1. ‘In a way that is bad or dangerous enough to make you worried’
  2. ‘In a way that shows you think something is important’

Two definitions of ‘fun’:

  1. ‘Enjoyment from an activity that is not important’
  2. ‘A source of enjoyment, amusement or pleasure’

Two definitions of ‘work’:

  1. ‘To spend time achieving something, especially when it involves a lot of effort’
  2. ‘To have a job, usually one you are paid to do’

So from those different meanings we could create two very different scenarios:

‘Things are seriously difficult right now; bad and dangerous enough that I should be really worried. It’s so important to get this right that I cannot possibly think about having fun while I’m doing this and to achieve what we need is going to take a lot of effort.’

  1. ‘This is really important and I am going to get a lot of enjoyment and pleasure out of this challenge. I may even find it amusing when I have figured out how easy it was to achieve and I’m really grateful for being in the position of being paid to do this.

In my opinion, like everything else in life – how we choose to see things is how they will be and my own ten word sentence, consisting of just two letter words, sums this up most succinctly:

‘If it is to be, it is up to me’. 

There are many companies that have bought into the concept of ‘making work more fun’, and in many cases it backfires on them badly. A columnist for The Economist’   recently commented that “as soon as fun becomes part of a corporate strategy to make employees more creative and productive, it ceases to be fun and often becomes the opposite — at best an empty shell and at worst a tiresome imposition.” But the trend continues. For example, a dominant American IT company, has a “Chief Fun Officer.”  A large American Bank has a “Wow!” department that dispatches costume-clad teams to “surprise and delight” successful workers. Red Bull, a drinks firm, has installed a slide in its London office. But does all this really work? Is it necessary? Does this way of trying to create fun in the work place irritate and distract as many if not more people than it stimulates?

To illustrate my point that ‘if it is to be, it is up to me’, I am going to tell you about two people I have the privilege of coaching on behalf of a large IT company. They are  Joseph and John (their names have been changed for confidentiality), both sales managers with identical positions and responsibilities, both running teams of eight salespeople and who also sell as part of their role.

Joseph is a family man with a lovely wife and two young children and Joseph is a real fun guy – from Friday evening until Monday morning.  Yes, from Friday evening when he gets home from work Joseph blots out of his mind anything to do with work. Joseph is fun to be with. He smiles a lot, he laughs a lot, he jokes, he plays tricks on his wife and children and he plays games with them. They have a fun family life. In the evenings when they go out with friends , Joseph is the life and soul of the party. Everyone loves to be around Joseph. He is just such fun to be with.

But on Monday at six in the morning when his alarm wakes him, Joseph becomes a very different person indeed.

The process of mental change starts when he first wakes. His thoughts are that it is Monday morning and he has to get to the office as quickly as possible. He needs to hurry because he is worried that there may be a lot of traffic on the road and he doesn’t want to be late for work. He starts to think about all the things he has on his ‘to do list ’ for the day and is concerned that he may not have the time to deal with everything. He is aware he has a meeting with his sales director that afternoon  to discuss his teams’ rather poor sales figures for the previous week and a meeting with his team before that to gain an understanding of what has gone wrong and what he is going to do to improve their performance this week. He is worried about both of those meetings and worried about everything else he has to achieve that day and he’s not even out of bed yet!

When he gets out of bed, he showers and shaves. As he is looking in the bathroom mirror, the frown lines on his forehead that vanished on Friday evening have reappeared. His face takes on the composure of worry and he practices his ‘corporate smile’ and his ‘corporate look of concern’. He has put on his ‘corporate mask’ and now starts to play over and over in his mind what he is going to say to his sales team in the morning meeting.

Joseph usually skips breakfast because the knot in his stomach takes away any pleasure he might get from eating. He worries about all manner of things on his drive to work and normally arrives at least three quarters of an hour early because he is worried about being late. He worries throughout the day and skips lunch most days.  Joseph’s management style is strict, serious and focused around making certain he achieves his sales targets by driving his team harder to meet their sales targets. He worries about how his meetings with clients that day will work out and if he has forgotten to prepare for anything that might come up unexpectedly in those meetings. And he worries about how his team has performed that day and puts in calls to them all at the end of the day to check their sales figures. When his day is done he worries about the next day when he drives home from work and through most of the evening before he escapes into sleep. To cut a long story short, because I am sure you get the picture, this goes on every day, for five days a week.

When I asked Joseph what his ultimate goals were, he immediately responded that it was to keep his job, progress up the corporate ladder as far as he could go and to retire at age sixty on a comfortable pension and not have to worry about work any more.

I am happy for Joseph that at least he manages to switch off on Friday evening and enjoys his weekend. I also wonder if he really does switch off and if the fun person he is at weekends is just ‘a mask’. If that is the case, then Joseph may worry himself into ill health and not even make it to retirement.

I’m slowly getting through to Joseph that although life is a serious business, it’s not to be taken too seriously. I believe Joseph was brought up in a school which taught him that if he worked really hard, nine or ten hours a day, five days a week, and took things very seriously, he would end up as the boss. What they did not teach him at that school was that if he adopted this philosophy, when he became the boss he would be working even harder, possibly for eleven or twelve hours a day, six or seven days a week and have even more to worry about. Joseph is slowly changing his attitude but the process is far from easy for him; not because the process of change is difficult but because he is resisting it.

Now let me tell you about John and to be really clear, John’s responsibilities are identical to Joseph’s and his sales figures are only a little better than Joseph’s. He just has a really different attitude to work and life and works a lot less hours.

John is also a family man with a lovely wife and two young children. The fundamental difference is that John enjoys every moment of every day.  He things work is fun. He wakes at six every morning and goes for a brisk morning jog. On his return, he showers, shaves and when he looks in the mirror he smiles and his face lights up. He is looking forward to the day with eager anticipation.

John has a healthy breakfast, says goodbye to his family and leaves for work knowing that his route will get him there in more or less the same time every day. On the way to work he listens to motivating CDs and always learns something new or gets a reminder of something he had maybe forgotten and is inspired to put into practice that day. By the time he arrives at work, just a few minutes before his due time, he is eager and excited to get into action.

John’s management style is based on helping his team to achieve their goals. He knows what each of his teams’ personal life goals are and sees it as his role to help them achieve those. He knows that if he helps them to achieve what they want, he will get what he wants. When he is coaching his team, he adopts a ‘fun’ strategy. John  knows that when you can make learning a fun experience, that people learn a lot faster. He has adopted an expression I taught him and there is a large notice board on his office wall with words ‘When you’re laughing, you’re learning’ written boldly across the top.

John smiles a lot, encourages those around him to step out of their comfort zones. He praises before criticizing and he is warm, friendly, positive and leads by example. Of course he has challenges to deal with, just as Joseph does, but his attitude to dealing with those challenges does not come from worry or fear. He rises to those challenges and enjoys them knowing he has almost always been able to deal with anything that has come up in the past and will be able to deal with most anything that comes up in the future.

John always has a light lunch with a client or one of his team and when John leaves work at the end of every day, he congratulates himself for what he and his team have achieved. He stops off at the gym for his daily one hour exercise session and then heads for home and has a thoroughly enjoyable evening. His evenings are just as enjoyable as his weekends.

When it comes to a corporate strategy of making work more fun, I have to ask myself if Joseph would find himself any more cheerful if he had to have a one hour meeting with the Chief Fun Officer once a week. Would he be any more relaxed if he had to take a slide down from his office to the main reception area instead of taking the stairs or the elevator? Or would he be worried about creasing his suit? Would he be more effective managing his sales team if a person dressed as a clown danced into the room and congratulated him on his sales figures during a team coaching session? I do not think so.

What about John? How would he be affected by those strategies? My guess is that he would take them in the spirit in which they were intended, but it would not make any difference to his performance, his motivation and the enjoyment and satisfaction he gets from his work. John is what he is because of how he thinks and what he focuses upon.

To further illustrate my point, here are the top five reasons I have heard from people as to why they cannot have fun at work. My comments are in brackets below each point.

1. Our business is a very serious business and must be taken very seriously.

(That is not to say that you cannot enjoy and have fun dealing with something that is serious and important)

2. Everyone else in the company takes things very seriously and I do not want to be seen to be not taking things seriously.

(If everyone else saw that you were achieving great things and still enjoying yourself and having fun, might they want to change their attitude?)

3. The management won’t allow us to have fun.

(Do you seriously think the management do not want you to enjoy your work?)

4. We have too much work to do, there is no time for fun.

(Might you get the work done faster if you were enjoying it and having some fun at the same time?)

5. The public or customers would think we are not doing our jobs properly.

(I am a customer too and I would far sooner deal with someone who understands the importance of my questions and will enjoy dealing with them to my satisfaction rather than someone who sounds busy and unhappy.)

Now here are the five main reasons that companies believe having fun at work is so crucial and, for avoidance of doubt, I do not believe these require a corporate strategy to achieve.

1. It enhances communication and builds social bonds that encourage people to help each other.

2. It makes people want to perform well at work and be a contributing member of their team.

3. It energises people so they are healthier and have more energy.

4. It stimulates creative thinking which helps people be more resourceful with challenges.

5. It encourages staff build rapport amongst themselves and with customers and clients.

So do you want to have fun at work? Why would you not? If you do, then do not rely on the company to create that environment for you. We can all, every single one of us, contribute to making work more fun and enjoyable. It makes no difference whatsoever what our position in the company. Everyone, whether we are a car park attendant, a janitor, a clerk, a salesperson, a manager, a director or a chief executive can have an impact on our working environment and make it more fun for ourselves  and for everyone around us. True leaders lead by example and true leaders do not need titles to lead. You make it happen.

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