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A huge fish flies through the air. A middle-aged woman, somewhat nervously, requests a salmon. More fish fly. As do jokes and lively banter. A crowd looks on, growing larger by the minute.
It’s just another (pre-COVID) day at the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle, Washington.
Tourist attraction? Sure. But also the site of one of the first case studies on workplace fun.
You may not have devoted a lot of thought to fun at work. For many of us, fun just sort of happens at work. Even in the virtual world. Someone makes a joke, even a bad one — it is a small offering that others often gratefully respond to. And build on.
Fun isn’t consciously thought about or practiced. And this is good! We don’t want to live in a world where the fun police go from meeting to meeting, making sure employees are having fun. That doesn’t sound fun…
However, in the last 2 decades or so, we have seen more companies making greater efforts to market themselves as fun, social places to work. You see the word “fun” popping up in job postings, marketing materials, and perhaps most telling, in lists of company values or behaviors.
This is happening because organizations recognize that most people want to enjoy their day to day. Many want to have opportunities to let loose, recharge from their work, and get to know their co-workers on a more personal level – all benefits of fun.
So why should companies and leaders care about fun, and how can they foster a culture that incorporates fun?
The benefits of fun at work
Let’s go back to the example we started with – what is the connection between workplace fun and fish? It’s a weird connection. How can handling smelly, slimy fish all day possibly be fun? It turns out, the workers made it fun by turning the entire market into a spectator event. When a customer places an order, the workers throw huge fish back and forth, yell out jokes and banter with each other, and generally have a good time. These antics draw huge audiences and lead to many more sales. If you’ve ever been to this fish market, you would see it first-hand. This story reminds us that fun can be integrated into many different work environments.
How have we seen fun positively impact work, in non-fish examples? Well first and foremost, we have seen fun used as an enticing way to attract top talent, especially younger candidates who want to work in a tight-knit, social environment. In my own research a few years ago, I discovered that the word “humor” showed up in over 12,000 U.S.-based job postings listed on Indeed.com. This is striking — companies are highlighting humor and fun as a major selling point.
Second, because fun is inherently social, it increases social connections at work. Because people seek fun, those office events and celebrations bring people together. They can create and reinforce relationships between people who may not directly work together. And when people come together in a spirit of fun, they interact differently, which relates to a third benefit.
Third, fun has been shown to boost creativity. In a business setting, new ideas and breakthroughs may come through the increased social connection that fun events can provide. But on a more foundational level, many of the most important innovations come not when people are deeply immersed in their work, but rather when they are engaged in a playful activity. In his book Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, author Steven Johnson provides examples of some of the world’s most important innovations coming from a place of play. Fun sparks creativity and innovation because it takes us out of the throes of our work and allows us space to create.
Last, workplace fun can act as a recovery mechanism when times are tough. Professionals working in truly difficult professions like nurses and EMTs are notorious for bonding with their co-workers through humor – oftentimes dark humor. The ability to take a step back and process difficult events by having fun with others can keep employees engaged and refreshed.
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How can you use workplace fun?
What can you do to create and foster fun as a leader or employee at your company? The research is pretty clear. First, trust is the single most important factor when incorporating fun. Letting loose and having fun at work has some inherent risk to it, as traditionally work and play were viewed as opposites. However, if your team trusts one another and the team leader, they will feel safe to have fun at work. So before jumping into fun, make sure you’ve established a solid foundation of trust.
Second, you’ll want to consider how your co-workers will interpret and perceive fun at work. Some people may think levity on the job is inappropriate. Others may have a different idea of what is fun or not and what level of fun is appropriate. While “fun” can be a good workplace value, consider whether it is being activated in ways that are actually fun and inclusive for everyone.
For example, if certain teams are left running operations while others focus on “fun,” the costs (of disengagement or burnout in a few) will quickly outweigh the benefits. You will want to take that into account when trying to inject some fun into your workplace. A simple check-in question of “What does fun mean to you and how do you like to have fun at work?” can go a long way in understanding what your team likes.
Last, be consistent and true to the company’s values. For each organization, a spirit of fun might translate into day-to-day practices, norms, or events differently. For example, at BetterUp we value Zest and Playfulness (and reinforce some specific ways it shows up in our approach to work and the ways we interact). We believe that great ideas come from health and happiness. So it is not out of the ordinary for us to incorporate some fun or goofiness into our everyday meetings to spice things up, but it also means being intellectually playful and curious in our approach. If your company has more traditional values or the subject matter of a meeting does not call for fun, read the room and don’t try to bring it into play. That doesn’t mean there is no room for fun, but it might need to come in a different format.
Above all else, if it is a value, be consistent in “valuing” it and make clear what fun does and does not mean relative to different aspects of the business. It always helps to have a broader cultural element or stated value to point to when bringing fun into work, or else it may seem like a “check the box” activity to your people.
BetterUp Behavioral Scientist