Making fun of work

With people working ever-longer hours, the distinction
between work and home lives is becoming more than a little blurred. That’s why,
if you want to keep talented staff, it’s important for them not only to enjoy
what they do, but even to have some fun at work, says Liz Simpson

Like
many enlightened executives, Isabel Maxwell operates an open-door policy.
However, a lot of the time her employees are not asking about the business but
whether they can borrow her mini scooter.

As
president of Commtouch, a leading B2B provider of e-mail and messaging
services, 50-something Maxwell can frequently be seen zooming along the
corridors of the company’s Silicon Valley offices on board her trendy Razor
scooter wearing snakeskin trousers. She believes passionately about the
personal and professional benefits of having fun at work, a concept that’s
becoming increasingly acknowledged as an important factor in the war for
talent.

According
to Professor Gail Tom of the College of Business Administration at Cal State
Sacramento, encouraging fun and friendly workplaces is a trend, not a fad, and
provides the right environment in which to encourage and retain talented
people. It also encourages innovation and productivity.

"Soft
issues like company culture and staff attitudes are hard to quantify but do
have an indirect impact on how successfully the business performs," states
Tom.

Marilyn
Stiborek, recruiting manager at Commtouch, agrees: "I see this in the
employee referral process. Over 50% of our new hires are referred to us by
existing employees, involving cost savings that contribute to the bottom line.

"Because
our staff enjoy working here so much, they sell the job to their friends and
employee turnover is low. All our senior management are like Isabel –
high-energy and approachable. Staff remain loyal because they know they will be
treated well."

Offering
regular, fun, company-wide events plays an important role in reinforcing the
cultural diversity for which this international company prides itself.

Adds
Stiborek: "We have our annual party in January instead of at Christmas or
Chanukah and at last year’s party we were entertained by a belly dancer with
snakes. Our COO wore a kilt and everyone was encouraged to celebrate their
cultural differences rather than feel that these are merely tolerated.

"And
one Friday afternoon we held a golf tournament on the second floor after we’d
all had a really hard week. We already knew that lots of employees played golf
because of the enquiries we’d had about using the golf ranges close to our
offices. One of the key factors to bear in mind when introducing this concept
into your workplace is that you cannot force fun on people. It has to reflect
what they like to do and be in keeping with their personalities."

Stiborek
feels it’s often more challenging for older, larger, traditionally managed
companies to instigate a fun-at-work policy than it is for the younger
dot-coms.

"That’s
not to say it’s impossible," she adds. "It’s just that more effort
needs to be made because the existing culture may be a barrier. Such companies
need to take a step back, really evaluate what kind of organisation they want
to be, and identify the sorts of personalities that are in alignment with that.
Then it’s easier to focus on the kinds of activities people would enjoy."

According
to Professor Tom, enjoying one’s work is becoming a priority because of long
working hours and subsequent blending of work and home life. The Internet
search engine company Yahoo! encourages employees to decorate their work
stations in their own style, and many have become indistinguishable from
college dormitories. One of the founders even has a laundry basket of T-shirts
outside his office, a relic from earlier round-the-clock working when sleeping
on the office futon was a regular occurrence and that way at least he’d have a
clean top to wear the next day.

Yahoo!’s
senior director of marketing commerce, Grant Winfrey, recently visited the
company’s North Sydney offices and found that while his Australian counterparts
had their own interpretation of company humour, there was one striking
similarity.

"Our
fun comes mostly from knowing that what we are doing is significant, that our
work is meaningful and has had a big impact on people’s lives over the past 3-5
years. The same passion for ideas and belief in the value of each employee’s
contribution is what drives a fun-loving company – regardless of where it is or
what industry it’s in. The wacky furniture, colourful walls and crazily named
conference rooms are just window dressing. Having fun at work means being
serious about the business while not taking yourself too seriously."

While
the emphasis on fun at work may be more prevalent and sophisticated in the US
and UK, it’s growing as a motivational tool in countries that share a tendency
towards long working hours and a merging of work and home life.

Explains
Ronnie Zahair, VP of HR at Commtouch’s offices in Israel: "The work ethic
in Israel is such that the workplace becomes an extension of the family.
Employees working very long hours need to be compensated well. While salary,
stock options and a company car can increase motivation and commitment,
material things are not the only crucial factors that keep employees happy and
satisfied. Our aim is to strengthen the personal as well as the professional
environment, so we go out of our way to arrange activities and events where
friends and family are invited."

His
colleague in Latin America, company president Jorge Doctorovich, points out
important national differences: "Argentinians tend to segregate work and
home life and are fairly serious and formal in the workplace. Brazilians are
more fun-loving generally and even when it’s not part of their company culture
they’ll extend their relationships with work colleagues outside of office
hours."

According
to Doctorovich, the music gives it away: "While Brazilian music is happy
and lively, Argentinian tunes tend to be sad and melancholic."

The
message is clear. It’s not enough to place football tables in the rest rooms
and believe your organisation offers "fun at work". Like an
orchestra, the best performances come from those who enjoy and find meaning and
purpose in what they are playing.

Instilling
fun feelings

Did
you know that 5 April is Fun at Work Day? Creating awareness of the importance
of bringing a playful attitude to work was the brainchild of US motivational
speaker and business consultant, Matt Weinstein. In 1996, he challenged
companies in the US to experience for themselves the benefits to creativity,
team-building and productivity of encouraging fun at work. Weinstein is author
of Managing to Have Fun and runs a Californian training company called
Playfair. Some of his favourite initiatives include:


The plan by Cable & Wireless Optus in Sydney, Australia, to name floors in
their building after staff members, putting up a plaque near the regular floor
directory with the employee’s photo, details of where they sit and what job
they do.


How Sprint headquarters in Kansas City, US, changed Fun Day to Beach Day. A
truck-load of sand was deposited in the car park and live music, sunglasses and
flower garlands were provided so employees could feel that being at work was
like being on vacation.


To celebrate their 10th anniversary, the president of Cape Town manufacturers
Migra Textiles took all the employees to a nearby shopping mall where they were
given one hour to spend a sum of company money on at least five different
items. The rules were that anything bought had to be for the personal benefit
of the individual (ie no presents for anyone else) and any money unspent after
one hour was handed back.

Case
history: Happy Computers

Given
his strong beliefs that people work best when they feel good about themselves
and that learning should be fun, it’s not surprising that Henry Stewart named
his award-winning IT training company "Happy Computers". And his
focus on ensuring the company is a fun place to work has certainly paid off.
Happy’s client retention rate over the past five years has been between 92 and
100%. Company turnover grows at 35% a year despite no sales staff and very
little advertising, and staff turnover (from a pool of 40) is a low 2.5%,
saving the business, Stewart estimates, £50,000 (US$75,000) annually in
recruitment and induction costs.

The
office environment has a caf‚ atmosphere with brightly coloured couches and
vibrant artwork on the walls. Staff enjoy ice-cream breaks each afternoon, have
a weekly in-house massage and play pool during quite periods. But all of this,
says Stewart, is peripheral to the notion of what fun at work is really about.

"I’m
reluctant to define what is meant by fun at work because every company should
ask their people what would make working life more enjoyable for them. For me
it’s about creating a great place to work and offering jobs that are truly
satisfying," explains Stewart.

"For
many people what would make their jobs more pleasurable would be removing the
barriers – technical, hierarchical and cultural – that prevent them from doing
their jobs well. That’s why at Happy Computers staff choose their own job
titles, write their own job descriptions and decide on their own routes to
achieve what they want. Our framework is to set the principles, agree the
targets, provide the support to achieve them and ensure constant direct
feedback."

Stewart
adds that the ability to create workplaces where people feel good about what
they are doing is a clear competitive advantage in today’s market place. 

"Facilitate
that and the fun follows easily. However, if you try and graft ‘fun’ on to a
tense and rigid workplace culture, it’ll backfire."

Comments are closed.