Work and fun are often thought of as being at complete opposite ends of a spectrum. And understandably so — how much fun could anyone have stacking shelves, inputting numbers into spreadsheets or jumping between uninspiring video calls all day?
Some organisations will recognise this (or at least certain managers within an organisation might) and understand something needs to be done to help maintain employee motivation throughout the day. The common solution?
Enforced fun at specified times
What this usually entails is a manager or group of managers deciding that something ‘fun’ needs to happen. They then come up with an idea and turn this into something tangible, before telling their employees to get involved in whatever the ‘fun’ thing is, on the day or time decreed by management.
Let me give you a couple of small examples from my own experience.
Building a chair — a flat-pack chair was delivered to the office and it was decided by a senior manager that teams would take it in turn putting this chair together, partly for ‘team-building’ and partly to break up the day with a fun activity. What ended up happening was one or two people from each team building a chair, while everyone else stood around and watched.
Those actively involved in assembling the parts generally reported that it seemed a pointless exercise and would not have necessarily called it fun, and those observing just wanted it to be over so they could get back to doing work!
Team song — this was definitely not something that I personally considered fun. The idea from the senior manager was to take one of their favourite songs (which nearly everyone in the team hadn’t heard of), change some of the words to match the organisational lingo and then everyone in the team had to learn the words and sing it during team meetings.
Whilst I’m sure a couple of people found it fun, the overwhelming response from colleagues after the first time was: “I hope we never have to do that again”.
Thankfully, we didn’t.
There are countless more examples of how employees are expected to have fun at work that will likely follow a similar pattern. When you stop and look at what is actually happening, it becomes quite clear why these attempts at motivating humans are destined to be ineffective:
Not everyone’s idea of fun is the same
An assumption is usually made by person who came up with the idea or activity that if they would find it fun, so would everyone else. As you can imagine when this is not the case in reality, the experience other people have is not quite what was intended.
It sounds simple but is so often not considered or realised. As every human is unique, so too are our perceptions of fun and what brings us joy differs from person to person.
Humans on the receiving end are not involved in any way
Linked to the previous point, if an individual or small group of individuals are the only ones involved in doing the brainstorming or development of the ‘fun’ activity, chances are that they would not actually be incorporating what their colleagues actually think or feel are fun things to do.
Taking part is mandated
As well as a potentially not-so-fun activity being arranged, people tend to be forced to take part. Not doing so could put someone at risk of being perceived as a ‘negative’ member of the team, spoiling the fun or even worse, management not empathising with them if the individual is unhappy for any reason even with something fun being provided, as the activity would supposedly have given them the happiness boost they needed.
Just to emphasise a point — taking away someone’s ability to make their own choice should not be taken lightly, particularly if they had no input into the matter or any input was disregarded without justification.
You are scheduled to have fun at 10:30am on Tuesday 12th Jan
How likely is it that we are going to be in the right mood or a particular frame of mind at a set time to actually want to do something fun? There are so many factors that could impact on this, not least workload, and actually trying to have fun could result in more stress if you know what will be waiting for you after the event (i.e. a backlog of queries/issues/tasks).
Having fun is only allowed temporarily
If the fun activity is scheduled, the experience and any benefit derived from it is also only going to last for a limited amount of time before, during and after the event. If these activities are also a rare occurrence in the grand scheme of things (e.g. 10 minutes on a ping-pong table at lunch during an 8+ hour day), how much motivation are we really going to have for the rest of the time at work?
No matter how well intended the idea of having fun at work might be, trying to force humans to do something they may not like or want to take part in, for a brief period at a time that is not of their choosing, is not going to have the desired outcome.
So what is the alternative?
The idea that humans stop playing when they reach adulthood and become boring, emotionless corporate machines is folly. Equally the thought that play should be restricted to children is harmful. Although the playful activities we do or take part in may change over time, the desire to be playful never leaves our DNA.
And so rather than having occasional isolated incidences of trying to impose fun on people, what if humans in organisations were to be given agency to play as and when we needed to throughout the working day, in a way that is best for us? The result would be a true sense of fun for each individual, right when they need it.
We could also go one step further — direct integration of play with the work we do. This is about fulfilling the duties of a role in an organisation in a different way, not just enabling fun to be had whilst physically present in a workplace, but also when actually ‘doing the job’.
Here are some very basic examples of what could be enabled quickly and easily based on personal experience:
Playing catch — if a discussion between colleagues is needed, the typical approach would be to schedule a meeting and sit in a box room to talk it through in a very formal manner. Instead, the individuals could opt to get together somewhere other than a meeting room (including outside) and throw a ball to one another as the discussion takes place.
As simple as it sounds, just the act of throwing the ball in a more unusual spot can make the whole experience more fun. It can help make the interaction feel less formal and make it easier to think more creatively or bounce thoughts off one another. Those involved are also likely to walk away from the conversation feeling more invigorated than they may have been after a formal meeting affair.
Friendly competition — for the competitive humans who are directly working together or doing similar work, setting up a friendly competition could be fun. As an example, back in the days of stacking shelves in a supermarket, a colleague and I decided we would see who could empty the most cages (the tall ‘trolleys’ that products get delivered in) in a shift. It ended up becoming a regular occurrence and between us we were able to achieve in three hours what would normally take three or more colleagues eight hours to do.
As well as making a fairly mundane task fun, the benefit for the retailer was a big increase in productivity at no additional cost!
When it comes to integrating play at work, there are a few principles to consider:
Think play, not fun
As mentioned earlier, not everyone’s idea of fun is the same and therefore a one size fits all won’t work. Additionally when we think fun, we often think of very specific things that we already do outside of work which may not be appropriate or even possible in a workplace!
By focusing on play, it can help take us back to our childhoods with all the amazing, creative and innovative things we used to do, and suddenly this opens up a whole new dimension of ways to get the fun feeling at work.
Agency for humans
Limiting who decides what play should look like in an organisation to a select few managers or taking a top down approach in trying to force people to be playful will end up limiting the possibilities and cause disengagement.
Instead, trust and authority should be devolved so everyone is empowered to make their own choice about if and how they want to play in a way that works for them. Like with many aspects of play, some simple rules may still be required to minimise disruption and ensure peoples safety (don’t kick a football around where there’s forklifts operating!).
Play all day
It is rare that we know in advance what date or time a particular task will be done or if we will go through a scenario where play could be beneficial and therefore introduced. Moving away from scheduling fun and allowing play to become an organic part of work throughout each day is essential to reap the rewards.
If people understand, appreciate and are committed to doing their part in a team without letting others down, they won’t take the biscuit and not deliver any work outputs. If performance does drop, there is clearly some more fundamental issues within the organisation that need addressing…
Integrating play in workplaces requires a significant mindset shift, no doubt about it. If you want it to be part of the culture, not everyone might get on-board with the concept and that’s ok. Speak to those individuals and see how their needs could be accommodated — they might just need their own space to work which could be at their home in a post-pandemic world.
If organisations are to become more human-centric, we have to acknowledge that play is a part of who we are and cannot be simply switched off indefinitely when we enter an workplace. Embrace it, own it and go play!