Making work fun

Piers Bishop · June 29, 2016

I just received an email asking “Could Ping Pong, ice cream or space hoppers help you to improve key HR issues such as productivity, wellbeing, engagement and absence management?”

The General Manager at my grandfather’s factory would have choked on his tea reading that, and checked the diary to see if it was April the first; ‘fun at the office’ was a contradiction in terms in those days.

Fast-forward to 2016 and Fun At The Office is a no-brainer – if every other hi-tech company in your city has a pool table you are going to look pretty silly without one. But can it be true that making work fun improves productivity, engagement, etc? And fun and games aside, what does actually make people want to go to work?

At WeThrive we think this is one of the most interesting questions in the world – because if you can answer it most of your problems pretty much disappear at a stroke, as motivation, engagement, sickness and retention difficulties are really just symptoms of colleagues not really wanting to be there in the first place.

So is ‘fun’ one of the reasons people go to work? It should be, according to the email, which was promoting the ‘It Pays To Play’ paper from Bright HR and Robertson Cooper. This report asserts that a happy, healthy and high-performing workforce depends on two things:

  1. giving staff the opportunity to experience more positive emotions than negative ones
  2. making sure that people feel connected to, and interested in, the things they do at work

On the face of it the first idea, that people should ‘connect work with positive emotions’ leads straight towards ‘fun’, as positive emotions make people more happy, and happy people are generally productive and loyal with higher levels of wellbeing.

Following this logic we need to make people happier at work, by force if necessary(!), and introducing more fun would be a good way to do this. So what constitutes fun at work? Staff questioned for the report equated it with things like ‘dress down Friday’, office parties, a pool table … (long list follows with, at the bottom of the league, karaoke, swingball and a knitting club. Hey, it takes all sorts!)

It’s very good to see Bright HR sponsoring this work, by the way; employee engagement strategy is led by HR in most companies, and if you can improve engagement while making work more fun, that looks like a double whammy. However, taking nothing away from the idea that work can be fun (whatever the General Manager would have thought) I’d like to point out that the less glamorous recommendation (2) is at least as important.

This is because however much time you expect your staff to be enjoying themselves in the karaoke bar or doing their knitting, most companies will still prefer that staff spend a great deal of their working time doing some actual work. So, while one key to productivity may be fun, we suggest that you might also want to look at the implications of the other point – that people should feel connected to, and interested in, the things they do at work.

One way of finding out what people like about work is to ask them – something we do regularly in our own approach. It is remarkable how consistent the results are – people recall things like working with people they got on with and had a common purpose with, being stretched and supported, being in a social group that worked well, doing things that were interesting and useful, and so on.

Very rarely does anyone mention money, and even in companies that have a pool table I haven’t heard anyone mention it as a reason to go to work. After all, there is one in the pub.

We also suggest that there are risks in the pool table approach to motivation. The first is that enhancing employee benefits is becoming an arms race, with companies competing to provide more exotic forms of massage and better quality organic yoghurt in the snack bar. What’s more, the result is often temporary, with companies reporting that the pool table is heavily used at first but in time interest dwindles. Then you have to add a new shiny thing to amuse the staff, and so on, fuelling an addictive cycle that produces a short-term effect (novelty effect in human performance terms) but has nothing to do with work. At its worst, it’s even possible that adding some fun into the working day will point up the contrast between the fun bits and the normal working conditions, making staff even more aware of what is wrong in the rest of the day – the important “Worky” bit…

In strategic terms, though, the bigger problem is that you risk taking your eye off the real task of management, which is to create circumstances in which people can enjoy their work – because if they enjoy their work they will turn up on time and you won’t need the pool table. (You might still want one, but that’s a better place to be overall…)

Now, I am not a killjoy. Honest. I do not propose a glum, stoical approach to work. Quite the opposite, our mission is to help people enjoy work as much as possible, and to get a great deal of positive emotion from it. But in our experience the real gold is to be found in that second recommendation I quoted from It Pays to Play: “Making sure that people feel connected to, and interested in, the things they do at work”.

I say this because these very feelings of connection and curiosity are a core part of the list your team will come up with if you ask them what it was like to be in the best work they ever had. So all you need to do is find out what the differences are between that ideal state and the way life is for your team now, and work on how to make the deficiencies better.

I should declare an interest: our own software, WeThrive, makes this exercise simple and quick, getting to the core of communication, training, social and emotional needs and pointing your managers straight to the areas where they should be holding conversations. In many instances, we’ll even give the managers the answers to the “So what do I do now to make things better?” And no, it doesn’t say “Buy a pool table…”

This might not sound as glamorous as installing rowing machines, Karaoke sessions and a knitting circle, but it is the right thing to do. It will address the core problem rather than offering light relief, and it will say to your staff that you understand what they are experiencing and are working to make it better.