They Who Laugh, Last!
October, 1999
Paul E. McGhee, PhD

The Importance of Making Work Fun

"Some days you're the windshield, and some days you're the bug."

We noted in last month's They Who Laugh, Last that many companies around the country have in recent years changed their views about the value of humor in the workplace. This shift has also occurred for the broader notion that work should be fun. It wasn’t very long ago that virtually every company in the country drew a sharp distinction between the notion of work and play. If you had fun, or were found joking, laughing, or showing a "playful attitude" on the job, it was assumed that you were goofing off, unprofessional, immature, and not taking your work seriously. Over the past two decades, however, as the pace of change in the way business is done has escalated around the world, companies have thrown out many of their old assumptions about how businesses should be run.

John Naisbitt noted in his 1985 book, Reinventing the Corporation, that "Many business people have mourned the death of the work ethic in America. But few of us have applauded the logic of the new value taking its place: ‘work should be fun.’ That outrageous assertion is the value that fuels the most productive people and companies in this country."

In the decade and a half since this was written, a steadily increasing number of CEOs have become convinced that fun boosts the bottom line, and should take its proper place in corporate culture. According to Joel Slutzky, CEO of Odetics, Inc., a company that makes spacecraft flight recorders and robots, "every company should strive for this fun, loose environment. You can’t get too uptight."1 Slutzky is constantly on the lookout for ways to generate new forms of fun. He says that "(i)ntermixing fun in the environment has a very positive effect, because it causes a degree of [i.e., more] interaction that you wouldn’t normally get."

Many companies now include fun among their core values, including AES Corporation, in Arlington, Virginia. At a recent conference on business ethics, AES CEO and President Dennis Bakke stated that "We regard our people as creative, thinking, capable, trustworthy, responsible, unique, and, yes, fallible. Building an organization that takes these assumptions seriously is extremely difficult and often leads to unorthodox and controversial approaches."2 He provides a fun working environment to bring out these positive qualities in his employees, even though efforts occasionally backfire.

Bill Dahlberg, CEO of Southern Company, an electric power company in Georgia, leaves no doubt in employees’ minds about his commitment to the value of fun and humor. He works out of an office stocked with toys, which serve as a reminder to him and others to find ways to lighten up and make work fun.3]

At the end of a job interview, the HR person asked the young MBA fresh out of MIT, "And what starting salary were you looking for?"

The candidate said, "In the neighborhood of $125,000 a year, depending on the benefits package."

The HR person said, "Well, what would you say to a package of 5 weeks vacation, 14 paid holidays, full medical and dental, company matching retirement fund to 50% of salary, and a company car leased every 2 years--say a red Corvette?"

The MBA sat up straight and said, "Wow!! Are you kidding?"

"Certainly," said the HR person, "but you started it."

Some companies have taken extreme positions on the importance of fun on the job. According to the CEO of Rosenbluth International, Hal Rosenbluth, it is "almost inhumane if companies create a climate where people can’t naturally have fun . . . Our role and responsibility as leaders and associates is to create a place where people can enjoy themselves. I know our company is doing well when I walk around and hear people laughing."4

This stands in sharp contrast to the memo sent around to employees of one division of a major corporation after the president of the division heard laughter coming from a couple of offices as he walked down the hall. The memo said:

"Henceforth, there will be no laughter of smiling allowed in this building during working hours. Laughing distracts fellow employees. And if you're smiling, you're not thinking about your work.

Hopefully, you've never seen a memo like this. It serves as a reminder, however, that you must always be sensitive to when any form of humor or laughter is and is not appropriate. Most managers are now aware of the distinction between taking your work and yourself seriously. As stress levels on the job continue to mount, it's good to keep in mind that "They who laugh, last."

References

1. LaBarre, P. Lighten up! Blurring the line between fun and work not only humanizes organizations, but strengthens the bottom line. Industry Week, Feb. 5, 1996, p. 53.

2. LaBarre, 1996, p. 54.

3. McKenna, J.F. April foolin’. Managing Office Technology, April, 1997, p. 10.

4. LaBarre, 1996.


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