Laura Johnson on the importance of having fun at work
Dress down Friday, a work choir, desk massages, a communal pool table, a five-a-side league - they’re all just a bit of office fun, right? Throwaway actions that will shunt your company up a few places in the annual ‘we’re a really cool place to work’ rankings. Such frivolity is nothing of any great strategic importance. Or is it? Maybe, just maybe, we’re all guilty of undervaluing the role of play in the workplace. We all know that having fun makes us happier and healthier (no shocks there) but now research is showing it could make us more productive at work too.
The ‘It Pays to Play’ report by people management software company BrightHR and business psychology firm, Robertson Cooper, uncovered a convincing correlation between productivity and play. The survey of 2,000 employees from across the UK revealed having fun at work results in employees working longer and harder, and being less likely to take sick leave. In fact, delving into the work habits of those questioned revealed 62% of those that took no sick days in the last three months recounted having some kind of fun in the workplace, compared to 38% of those who hadn’t.
The problem is however hard you try, some jobs just aren’t that much fun. Although creating roles that get people excited about their contribution to your business is a sure-fire way to get the best out of your workforce, it’s not always realistic. Instead set the bar lower and consider how you can help your teams experience more positive than negative emotions during a day at work. This is where the little things mentioned in the opening line of this post come into their own.
But, before you bolt off to write a new rulebook to accompany a corporate wide commitment to smart casual on a Friday, hang on a minute. Most people hate being cajoled into doing something they are made to feel obliged to enjoy. While blanket initiatives have a place, on the whole fun stuff at work tends to be more effective when initiated by staff rather than enforced by those who also happen to occupy the board. Fun doesn't have to be organised by you but you need to empower your people to feel they can bring a bit of spontaneous playfulness into your workplace.
This, however, may require a reshuffling of your office culture. In most workplaces, work and fun simply aren’t words that sit comfortably together in the same sentence. In fact, it feels like we’ve been genetically pre-programmed to believe they’re completely incompatible. Instead, stress and a general feeling of malaise are frequently accepted as inevitable by-products of our daily graft and we instinctively tolerate these feelings as a necessary evil of the nine to five. So, is making this culture shift worth the effort? Yes, because enduring a working day fuelled by negative emotions isn’t exactly the stuff high performing teams thrive on. And the effects are showing.
An international comparison of productivity across the seven largest developed economies in the world revealed Britain’s output levels are dwindling at a disappointing 21% lower than the average for the other G7 nations. Statistics suggest the recession is a major cause of this. Whilst UK productivity was booming prior to 2007, since the onset of the economic downturn, our output has consistently followed a downward trend. There’s nothing like the word ‘redundancy’ or the prospect of a ‘restructure’ to prompt people to work longer hours than they want to. As a result, the bad habit of presenteeism is now deeply ingrained into corporate culture. But as we gradually become more confident about uttering the word recovery in relation to the economy, we should start tackling our tardy productivity by injecting a bit of enjoyment into our working days.
It’s not just the economy that will help with driving this culture change. TheBrightHR report suggests the steady influx of the Millennials into the workforce is making it inevitable. Whereas previous generations consider laughter at work to detract from the important focus of getting a job done, those born between 1980 and 2000 expect their daily working lives to offer up an opportunity for a generous dose of smiles. So now, as these fun-loving not so youngsters rise up the ranks and start to occupy the leadership ranks, the case for ramping up the fun factor is gaining momentum. Whatever the baby boomers think.