HUMAN RESOURCES : Fun at Work – Fad or Serious Business?

When most people think of having fun at work, they think of fun ‘activities’. Perhaps table tennis table in the lunch room, crazy hat day organised by HR, or the annual Christmas festivity. However, evidence suggests that rather than viewing ‘fun at work’ as as mere add on to good business, it makes better business sense to integrate ‘fun at work’ successfully into workplace operations and culture.
Research conducted into corporate culture in the early 1980s argued that the success of many blue chip US corporations was largely due to the intermix of work and play. As result, the appropriate use of fun, play and humour came to be promoted in managerial literature as resource that could be used positively to energise and motivate employees, increase employee well-being and contribute to economic performance. These strategies were adopted by number of businesses in the US, the UK, and Australia.
The idea that fun at work is good for employees, has recently been embraced by the positive psychology movement. Positive psychology is the scientific study of ‘what goes right in life’. Dr Rachel Morrison is psychologist and lecturer in the AUT School of Business. She says the benefits of positive psychology include “examining the causes and effects of happiness” which will hopefully lead to better understanding of the role of positive emotions in the workplace.
It could be said that traditionally psychologists have been more interested “to delve into dysfunction and craziness than functioning wellness,” Morrison says. Focusing on those workplaces that are happy and functioning well might therefore provide welcome insight. She says the move away from the historical “what is wrong?” approach means people begin to look at how things work when hope and joy are present in workplace. Companies might then presumably seek to replicate these conditions.
Pat Armistead is one particularly vocal and good humoured commentator who works hard to spread the positive psychology message in New Zealand. Armistead has fashioned herself into New Zealand’s premier “joyologist” and her goal is to use positive psychology to empower people to shift negative perceptions and create new opportunities.
Originally from Australia, she has observed shift amongst New Zealand employees over the 10 years she has been in this country. While “they have always wanted it” she says, employees are now demanding more fun at work and have finally caught up with their Australian counterparts in this regard. “Initially I thought there was not much difference between humour here and Australia,” Armistead says.
“However, in terms of embracing fun at work, my experience has been that Australians have always embraced fun and just love ‘larrikin’ and will celebrate that contribution. It is harsh country and has relished and thrived on outlandish humour. I found it much more tempered here,” she says.
She herself has been told on occasions “if you want to get on here you had better tone it down bit”. Needless to say she did not. Armistead is delighted to see that more New Zealanders are having the courage to make fun and positive contribution to the work environment, adding that people are now “experiencing for themselves the way in which fun contributes to individual and team productivity”.
One key piece of research evidence certainly backs up Armistead’s argument that New Zealand employees appreciate fun at work. The Unlimited/JRA NZ Best Places to Work (BPTW) survey has been conducted annually since 2000, and now has more than 22,000 respondents. John Robertson, managing director of JRA, explains that from day one of the survey fun has been powerful driver of engagement, showing up consistently in the top five key workplace drivers.
By employee engagement, JRA means those “workplace features that drive greater discretionary effort, willingness to recommend their organisation as great place to work, high levels of commitment to the organisation, and high levels of job satisfaction”.
So what do managers typically think of ‘fun at work’ and how do they respond to statistics like those published by JRA? Armistead says there is still belief amongst many that if you are having good time at work, you must not really be working. “The other day I met lady who works in real estate agency and who is quite fun, vibrant person. She said she is always in trouble.”
Armistead does however feel that employers are becoming “more worried about relationships and fostering these and seeing employees do well”. They are also more concerned about uniting teams, and it is “once you’ve got that ‘relationality’ and an environment of trust” that you can have some banter.
Robertson of JRA says that when managers see the results of the BPTW survey, they are often surprised that ‘fun at work’ is such significant driver. However, they needn’t be. “You know if you walk into one of those places where it is enjoyable to work,” he says. People are happy and engaged. “It is not necessarily that people are rolling around laughing, but there is certain atmosphere there.”
Senior consultant at JRA, Leighton Abbot is responsible for the roll out of the BPTW survey in New Zealand and the main client contact with the organisations who participate. He believes that management are taking the ‘fun at work’ driver bit more seriously these days. “The talent war is well and truly bedded in,” he says. “Retention is becoming more of problem.” Employers are looking for solutions. “Our research has shown by far that if you want to build better workplace, you need to understand the link between happy people and them going the extra mile to make the business succeed.”
Integrating fun into the workplace is not straightforward however. Robertson explains that fun at work cannot be viewed in isolation from other workplace factors. He says that “when we tell companies that fun has come up as powerful driver for their staff, they often ask us ‘does that mean we have to introduce fun activities?’. We say, not necessarily.”
Robertson says that he was once giving an address to group of Master’s students in Public Administration and put on the board the drivers for employees which included ‘fun place to work’. “They were horrified, saying ‘we are not allowed to do that in government’. Perhaps it was relic of the Christine Rankin days when you hire an airline and fly people off to the Gold Coast!” he says. However, introducing more fun at work “all depends on what fun means to you and your staff. Often it doesn’t have to cost lot of money.”
Abbot says the assumption that fun at work is just about fun activities perpetuates myth that all you have to do is introduce the childhood notion of fun and it will be better place to work. On the contrary, he says, it is necessary to take more holistic approach, in order to get lasting and fund­amental change.
BPTW survey results suggest that fun at work has more to do with sense of belonging than fun activities per se. Robertson says that it is “often strong sense of community” that characterises great place to work, and that the way that sense of common purpose is generated is by bringing groups of people together and having fun. This might include shared lunches or morning or afternoon tea as it is these times when people have bit of fun together which reinforce sense of belonging and togetherness.
Armistead says that people’s need for fun can only be cultivated in an atmosphere of warmth and safety. “People will not engage in humour and allow the vulnerability that goes with that if it is not high trust environment,” she says.
So how does an organisation create an environment where fun might flourish? Abbot says that introducing more fun at work is two-step process. The first being to eliminate workplace frustrations that might stop people having fun at work; the second is to add in elements that generate fun at work. Neither step is straightforward.
In regard to workplace frustrations, Abbot s

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