Leveraging Playfulness By Jared Shelly for Human Resource Executive Online
Adding fun to the workplace may increase retention and productivity. HR leaders should ensure that fun events are linked to corporate achievements -- and make sure the humor is not hurtful in any way.
Imagine that the clock strikes 3 p.m. and, rather than employees looking weary and reluctantly trudging along until the end of their work day, they excitedly blast their favorite music, jump on their desks and boogie down. Five minutes later, they go back to work laughing and refreshed.
At some companies, workers who exhibit such behavior would be met with some strange looks, or even worse, a pink slip. At Microsoft, however, such attempts at fun in the office are not shunned, but encouraged, according to Adrian Gostick, co-author of The Levity Effect: Why It Pays to Lighten Up, a new book about adding enjoyment to employment.
"It gives them the energy to go a few more hours and finish out the day," says Gostick, who previously wrote two New York Times bestsellers on business issues. In researching the new book with fellow author Scott Christopher, they traveled the country observing employees trying to liven things up around the workplace.
Whether it's the roller-hockey games at Google, employees zipping around on scooters at Lego America or the paper airplane flying at Thiokol, the authors found that adding a little levity to the office can go a long way toward pleasing employees.
Of Fortune's100 Best Companies to Work For list in 2007, 81 percent of surveyed employees say they work in a "fun environment," compared to 62 percent of employees whose companies applied but did not make the list, according to the book.
A fun work environment can also help retain employees. In a survey of 1,000 working adults conducted specifically for the book, employees who rate their manager's sense of humor as "above average" rate the likelihood that they will be on the job a year from now at just under 90 percent.
Employees who rated their manager's sense of humor as "average" or "below average," rate their chances of staying at 77.5 percent.
Diane Swanson, a professor of management at Kansas State University's College of Business, says that fun activities can create bonds among employees and foster a climate of trust and solidarity.
"Instead of people sitting solemnly around and not connecting, these kinds of things can help to connect people and create bonds around a focal point of interest," says Swanson.
The "Zap Rule"
When Tim Fernandez at Yamaha runs a sales meeting, he is sure to adhere to the "Zap Rule" ¿ adding an element of fun into meetings and conferences to give the attendees a reason to "sit up and pay attention," according to the book. To add his "zap," Fernandez shows photos of employees along with a photo of a celebrity they might resemble and includes the title "Separated at Birth?"
While it may be fun, it may actually boost productivity.
"We find in research that when they're laughing, they're listening," says Gostick. "Minds are open, blood is flowing and they are very susceptible to sales message after that."
For HR leaders who want to create a workplace that's more fun, the best time to start is after a significant achievement.
"Don't just have an ice cream social, or all the sudden it's Karaoke Day with the CEO singing in the lunch room," says the author. "Instead, link fun to work. Celebrate the big new contract or record quarterly earnings."
Paul Sanchez, worldwide partner at Mercer, a New York-based employee benefit and consulting company, says that if HR executives want to create a less-serious atmosphere ¿ and aren't all that outgoing themselves ¿ they could start by embracing that wise-cracking employee who perhaps throws in the occasional joke at the meeting.
"The manager can support that individual and laugh along with rest of the employees when that individual says something funny," says Sanchez. "It's a great team-building exercise."
Adding levity to the workplace can even work for companies in industries that are no laughing matter, according to Gostick, who adds that Southwest Airlines has been stressing fun on the job for years.
"Over the last 30 years, it has been one of the most profitable companies in the world, in one of the most serious businesses in the world," he says.
But can office humor go over the line?
Yes, says Sanchez, who says that he thinks the line should be drawn when employees are laughing at ¿ not with ¿ another worker.
"Having humor which is at the expense of another employee a seemingly thoughtless practical joke or making fun of an individual ¿ that's not humor and it has no place in the workplace. It can't be done at the cost of a person's dignity," says Sanchez. "It isn't a wide-open 12th-grade exercise."