Business Should Be More Fun
By Jeffrey Baumgartner
One of the biggest problems with business today is that it is not much fun. This leads to problems like: stress, burnout, lack of creative thinking, lack of innovation, high turnover and poor relationships to name but a few.
Some years ago, I was dating a principle scientist in a major pharmaceutical company. She was - and still is - involved in research that is making a positive difference to the world. One day she said to me, "You know, I love my job, but I often hate going to work." That remark surprised me and stuck with me, especially when a few weeks later, a good friend who was a corporate training director said the same thing.
For both of them, the core of their jobs was something to love: creating diagnostic tools for serious diseases and organising training programmes across multiple European offices. They loved that bit. But they hated the commute,, pointless meetings, indecisive managers, lack of recognition and having to do increasingly more administrative tasks as a result of cutbacks in administrative staff.
And they are lucky because they love their jobs, at least in part. Many people merely tolerate their jobs and others hate their work. I know of a handful of people who are now taking time off from work owing to burnout and coaches who help such people report a thriving business these days. In large part, this is happening because few workplaces are fun.
Fun Is Essential for Creativity
Fun is not only essential for reducing stress and making work more enjoyable. It is also essential for creativity which, in turn, is essential for innovation. Most truly creative people will tell you that play is critical for creativity. Playfulness puts the mind into a relaxed state, permits crazier thinking and allows intellectual experimentation. Business people trying to be creative, but failing tend to try and capture ideas or generate ideas. Artists, comedians, novelists and scientist tend to play with ideas. Captured ideas soon whither away and die. Ideas that are played with grow and grow.
You may be thinking: business is not meant to be fun; it is meant to be businesslike. Indeed, the word "businesslike" implies being bereft of emotion, feelings or fun. You may also think that if business becomes too much fun, not enough business will get done as staff spend the day telling jokes, playing and dancing. But fun does not need to impede productivity. Indeed, it can increase the quality of productivity. If people enjoy their work, they pay more attention to it, and take greater pride in it. The results are inevitably going to be better than a disliked task hastily performed by a bored and stressed out employee.
How to Have Fun
So, what can businesses do in order to be more fun? Several things!
One of the best things a business can do is to introduce more play into the workplace. Play can come in all kinds of forms. Role-play is great for training, analysing people problems, testing ideas and more. In my workshops where I have incorporated role-play to test ideas, there have always been loads of insights following the role-plays and these insights enabled the teams to improve their ideas considerably.
Some years ago, at the Imagination Club, I co-facilitated with a dance teacher an experimental workshop in which groups used the language of dance, and no words, to act out problems. The workshop was surprisingly successful and some of the participants had deep insights into problems and this enabled them to better solve those problems.
Play can also include games that may be used for training, testing knowledge and following processes. Imagine if you replaced a written processes with a board-game of the process that people could play as they follow the process. That would be much more fun!
Try turning your next brainstorm problem statement into a game! Instead of asking, "In what ways might we improve our product?" set up two or more teams and give them a collection of cardboard, paper, Styrofoam, tape, glue string and other craft materials and ask each team to create the next generation product and present it in a mock television advertisement.
Friendly rivalry can also be playful, provided it remains friendly. I recommend pitting teams, rather than individuals, against each other. A team balances out the strengths and weaknesses of the individual members and discourages the kind of corporate politics that can happen when individuals are pitted against each other.
To keep the competition friendly, have fun rewards for winners. Trophies, fruit baskets and T-shirts are examples of fun rewards. Big rewards make rivalry less fun and too serious.
Open plan offices are miserable places and being miserable is not fun! Workplaces in which people have their own offices or share with just one or two others are much more fun, lead to greater productivity and result in better relationships between colleagues. If you have an open plan office, you should change it immediately. Go ahead. I'll wait...
Finished? No? Well, if you cannot change your office layout from open plan to individual offices, there are a few things you can do to make the work environment more tolerable (and tolerability is the first step towards fun). Create private spaces where people can work without distractions and allow people to work from home or other external places where they are more comfortable. But, really, the best thing you can do is to change your office from open plan to small office spaces. But at least one reckoning, doing so is cheaper than running an open plan office.
Once you have improved your individual working spaces, create lots of little places for people to meet up and have informal meetings. Sofas and armchairs tucked into alcoves and corners are great for this. Then, in each of those spaces, put some fun things, such as toys; paper and crayons; whiteboards on the walls; or wooden building blocks. Many companies have created innovation rooms which are essentially fun meeting rooms in which tables are removed; meeting room chairs have been replaced with beanbags, big pillows and comfy sofas; there is a good coffee machine; and there is lots of paper, pencils, pens and that kind of thing. Such spaces are fun and great for holding all kinds of meetings -- not just innovative ones. Indeed, why not turn all of your meeting rooms into innovation rooms? When people relax, get comfortable and get playful, they also get more creative, more open to new ideas and more receptive.
Work is, of course, work and by its nature is a different kind of fun than play. Nevertheless, when people do jobs that: are sufficiently challenging to be stimulating, without being overwhelming; are meaningful; and they take pride in, their jobs can be fun. When their managers coach them rather than micromanage them and recognise their accomplishment, people can enjoy their work.
I recall my first ever job after university, which was teaching the English language in Lisbon. Leaving the institute after work one day, a heard a young man, in a beginner's class, showing off what he'd learned to his friends. And I realised that in a small way, I had helped make his life a little better and that my work was enriching the linguistic knowledge of a couple hundred Portuguese people. No work I have done since then has ever given me the feeling of giving like teaching did. And I have spoken to people who work in schools, in non-profits and other organisations that help people improve themselves in one way or another and they feel the same way. Indeed, this feeling is often why they work in jobs that pay much less than similar work in a for-profit company. And, such work, aside from feeling meaningful, was fun. It made me feel good about myself as a professional and it motivated me to be a better teacher.
Are there ways you can make your company's work more meaningful? Sometimes, reframing what you do from running a business to help customers solve particular problems can make work seem more meaningful and less money-based.
I also recall the feeling of giving out my business card after I had set up my first company. This was in the early 90s in Bangkok, a time and place where business cards were exchanged much more than they are now in Europe and North America. It felt really, really good to give people that card that represented my company. Going to meetings with an employee or two who also handed out name cards with my company name on them felt even better! I took real pride in my company and pride in what I did. It felt good. It was fun.
Later, when I left the pollution of Bangkok to raise my son in Belgium, I did a contract with the European Commission and then worked for a rather dismal company that liked to make its employees feel small. I always felt slightly embarrassed to hand out name cards for those organisations. I did not take pride working at either place, although I did my best at both. Neither organisation was fun.
Having spoken to others, I have found I am not alone in these feelings. People who feel they do meaningful work enjoy their work more and are more likely to find it fun than people whose work seems to serve no purpose beyond helping their employer earn a profit. Likewise, people who take pride in their jobs, their positions and their companies tend to enjoy their work more, feel more confident about what they do and have more fun.
Do the people in your organisation take pride in the organisation? Do you? If not, why not? Unfortunately, unless you are the CEO, how people feel about their employer can be hard to change. It starts with top down communication, changing top management's attitudes and how employees are treated. Nevertheless, small changes can make a difference. Giving people job titles that they feel good about can make a massive difference. Letting people define their own jobs within the context of their responsibilities can make people feel in control of their work and that translates to greater pride and more fun.
But Not Too Much Work
Employees are working way too much these days, especially in America. Aspiring managers are advised to be the first in the office and the last to leave. Many people are afraid to be the first to go home at the end of the day for fear it will make them look less devoted. Other people work late because they have too much work to do in the normal working week and need to stay extra hours. When employees leave their offices, they are still expected to take phone calls and respond to emails which, in a multinational, might come at any time night or day.
As a manager, you might think this is great. The more you squeeze out of each employee, the fewer employees you need to pay. But, overwork leads to stress. Overwork is not fun. Overwork kills creativity. Moreover, overwork is bad for productivity.
In short, overwork is not good for your organisation or your employees. So, encourage your employees to go home, to go out and to have a life. Kick people out of their offices by 19h unless they have a very, very good reason to be there. Prohibit company email and mobile phones outside working hours -- unless it is an emergency.
Require that people take all of their holiday time and encourage people to do stuff that relaxes them when they are away.
When people have time and meaningful lives outside the office, they clear their heads regularly, are well rested and are healthier than workaholics who spend their waking hours at work. People who take real time off from work have more fun at work and bring new ideas and new thinking to work.
The Simple Solution
If your company is struggling to innovate; if creativity is lacking; if employees are demotivated or, worse, suffering from burnout, the solution is relatively simple: make your organisation more fun!