They Who Laugh, Last!
February, 2000
Paul E. McGhee, PhD

Ideas for Building Fun into Your Work Setting

Work vs. Prison

In prison, you spend most of your time in an 8 x 10 cell.

At work, you spend most of your time in a 6 x 8 cubicle.

In prison, the reward for good behavior is time off.

At work, the reward for good behavior is more work.

Once you've become convinced that making work fun makes your work more enjoyable while, boosting your ability to perform at peak levels and provide quality service under increasingly demanding work conditions, how do you go about introducing elements of fun into your work setting? The February - April columns of this newsletter will be used to give you some specific ideas for building more humor and fun into your workplace.

Each company has its own unique cultural considerations which influence what will and will not work, so it's up to you to make your own best guess about how to go about lightening up your work environment. Whatever approach you adopt, remember to always sustain your usual standards for competence and professionalism, even when you're having fun.

5 Ways of Making Work Fun

1) Hire competent employees who already value fun and have a sense of humor.

If you begin with employees who already have humor and fun as part of their personality and style, they will automatically bring these qualities to their job. They will already have the skills you want to nurture throughout the organization. A core of people with strong humor skills is one of the most important keys to helping other employees build up these skills.

2) Be sure humor and fun are modeled by top management.

No plan to change the corporate culture can work unless it is supported and modeled by top levels of management. Most employees assume that humor and fun on the job will be viewed negatively; so they need clear evidence that this is not the case. If they fail to see evidence of a lighter attitude in top management, they will be very cautious about using their sense of humor on the job--no matter how many fun activities are set up by the company. They will assume that their chances of getting ahead are better if they’re always serious. Sean Greenwood, a full-time humor coordinator for Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream in the mid-1990s, noted that "If your management doesn’t support it, it’s tough to go out and have fun at work."

A special meeting designed to emphasize this new organizational value generally handles any doubts employees have. This meeting should also offer guidelines for the limits of humor and fun; i.e., when and how much humor or fun is and is not appropriate. It may even be built into your company’s philosophy or value statement.

3) Establish a Fun Committee.

Every company has its own unique culture, and fun activities that work in one setting might not work in another. Establishing a fun committee not only helps assure that fun activities and events will actually be created; it assures that they will be appropriate for your company. This committee should rotate to keep ideas fresh and sustain ongoing commitment to fun on the job.

4) Provide challenging work.

Fun on the job does not have to take the form of humor or silliness. Simply having challenging work is an important source of fun for many employees. While people often feel too overwhelmed by their workload to experience this form of fun, the drive for mastery of a challenging task remains a powerful source of fun for managers to tap into.

5) Encourage spontaneity on the job.

Spontaneity is central to play and fun. While a judgment must always be made about when any form of fun or humor is and is not appropriate, don’t let this restraint kill your capacity for spontaneity. An employee once told me that he was traveling with his boss by car to another city for a meeting. They stopped mid-morning at a rest stop near a beautiful lake and pine trees and walked about and had a Coke from a machine. As they got back into the car, he noticed a day-planner opened up to that day. At 10 a.m., he saw "Stop and relax for 15 minutes."

Chances are that this man’s boss had not internalized the notion of fun and enjoyment of his work. Fun and relaxation are simply one more item on a busy schedule. A similar approach is evident in the director of a large department of a company who actually stated in a meeting, "If you have anything funny to contribute, please save it until the end of the meeting." It wasn‘t that she thought it was inappropriate or disruptive; she just did everything by the book, and liked to keep to a tight schedule. If you want to improve your sense of humor, and get humor working for you on the job, you can’t use a schedule for adopting a playful attitude. You need to be open to the spontaneity of the moment--even though you may not be able to act on your playful mood, because it is inappropriate at the moment.

[Adapted from Health, Healing and the Amuse System: Humor as Survival Training, 3rd ed. Available April, 1999.]

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