Is Fun No Longer Fun When It's Corporate Fun?

from the can-work-be-fun? dept

I remember, years ago, when I was taking an organizational behavior class in college, being surprised to learn of a series of studies that suggested that happy workers were not more productive workers. The whole area of study seemed a bit questionable to me, as there were so many other variables that could play into such things, such as the type of work and what kind of “happiness” we were talking about. Also, I could see where, perhaps, in certain jobs, “happy” workers might not be any more productive than unhappy workers, but that the happy workers might be more loyal and have less turnover, which could be quite valuable as well.

Either way, I still tend to think that a happy workforce is something worth striving for — but not everyone thinks so. The Economist recently had an article mocking companies (mainly tech companies) for trying to keep their workers happy, suggesting that once happiness became “corporate,” it no longer really functions to make workers happy:

This cult of fun is driven by three of the most popular management fads of the moment: empowerment, engagement and creativity. Many companies pride themselves on devolving power to front-line workers. But surveys show that only 20% of workers are “fully engaged with their job”. Even fewer are creative. Managers hope that “fun” will magically make workers more engaged and creative. But the problem is that as soon as fun becomes part of a corporate strategy it ceases to be fun and becomes its opposite–at best an empty shell and at worst a tiresome imposition.

While I think it’s true that in many cases, corporate policies designed to make sure employees “have fun,” can be an “empty shell” or “a tiresome imposition,” I don’t think it’s necessarily true in all cases. I think it really does depend on the company, the culture, the people and the “fun.” The writer of the Economist piece mocks some of Zappos’ ideas for fun as being to coercive:

The most unpleasant thing about the fashion for fun is that it is mixed with a large dose of coercion. Companies such as Zappos don’t merely celebrate wackiness. They more or less require it. Compulsory fun is nearly always cringe-making.

But is that true? Again, plenty of weak attempts at forcing fun on people can backfire, but if you look at what Zappos and some other companies do it’s not about “coercive” fun, so much as it’s about setting up the overall environment such that people just have fun. This is a key difference, which the Economist piece ignores. Yes, I think mandated moments of fun can be lame and do the reverse of the desired impact, but setting up an overall culture that embraces fun can absolutely work. I think it’s one of the reasons why Zappos has had success in paying new employees to quit early on, as it gets rid of those who don’t fit with the culture. And, those who stick around appear to be having legitimate fun as a part of their job, not because they suddenly had to go “do fun now,” as the article implies.

It appears the real confusion by the author is in thinking that fun and work cannot mix — and it appears that’s because whoever it is (which, of course is hidden thanks to the Economists’ no bylines policy) seems to think of “fun” solely in a rather antiquated manner. Fun, according to the author, is smoking, drinking and sex at work — and if you can’t do those things, it’s just not fun at all:

While imposing ersatz fun on their employees, companies are battling against the real thing. Many force smokers to huddle outside like furtive criminals. Few allow their employees to drink at lunch time, let alone earlier in the day. A regiment of busybodies–from lawyers to human-resources functionaries–is waging war on office romance, particularly between people of different ranks.

Of course, some of us have no interest in doing any of those things at work, and actually prefer an environment where we get along with our coworkers in ways that actually do seem like modern fun, rather than some stereotypical fun from the 1950s. Oh, and as for the research about happy employees being good for companies? It seems those old studies I looked at in college are now being refuted by new studies.

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Companies: twitter, zappos

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Comments on “Is Fun No Longer Fun When It's Corporate Fun?”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Happy/Productive workers

The happy-productive workers debate has been at the core of Industrial/Organizational Psychology research for almost 100 years. This is often discussed of as the “Holy Grail” of I/O Psych research.

Study after study after study continues to show the same thing: happiness and productivity are related, but only minimally. Yes, there are situations that can increase the link between these two constructs, and there are several covariates that predict both (e.g., social support at work, autonomy on your job, etc), but the fact is that they just aren’t that related. The definitive meta-analysis on this topic (in case you don’t know, a meta-analysis is a quantitative review of the literature that accounts for the differences between studies) shows a correlation of only .30 ( — this is the upper bound of the relationship between happiness and productivity.

Designerfx (profile) says:

the answer is simple

the guy who wrote about fun being bad, is basically an antisocial individual.

Fun at work = more productive, more fun, more creative. It also goes hand in hand with people speaking their mind. Fun places also tend to attract more people.

Here’s an easy example: of a fun company: google. Everyone wants to work there, not just because it’s successful but because it’s FUN.

I agree that lots of companies try to make things fun and fail, but that’s because it’s just not fun at that point.

MrWilson says:

Re: the answer is simple

The answer isn’t so simple because there isn’t one principle that covers every company. Depending on the atmosphere of the workplace and the product or service the company provides, it can go either way.

Employees having too much fun can be a downside for productivity. This wasn’t corporate-mandated fun, but an example I’ve encountered: apparently a particular Starbucks barista enjoyed singing to customers and some would request it. The people in line in front of me did. So while she starts singing (terribly), I’m waiting for the already-served customers to quit encouraging her because I want my damn overpriced candy coffee and to get to work on time.

interval (profile) says:

Hot Topic

Years ago I tried to go for an IT position at their corp. headquarters. I’m not exactly a strait-lased button collar type, but let me tell you; these people were looking for goths who happened to know something about programming. I was asked to wait for their hiring manager in a room (more like a “chamber”) that sported a coffin as a coffee table. I took one look at the guy who was to interview and knew this wouldn’t go well. And it didn’t. Whatever, it was their show. But I never quite understood the wisdom of hiring some one based on their loos after that, and in turn, got an excellent lesson in racism. I found a much better position anyway.

Berenerd (profile) says:

Ben and Jerry's..

when I worked for a large computer company I used to go into the offices (and the warehouse floors) of several B&J places in the north east. They allow pets, and kids (one place had a playground inside) and every friday they had some ethnic food place catering for lunch free to employees and contractors (I got invited a few times). Even when something bad happened in the company, even layoffs, people seemed happy to be working there. Those who got laid off got to come in on Fridays for the lunch until they were off unemployment (assuming they had gotten a job)

Mike C. (profile) says:

Happy, but only sometimes fun.

I’m currently very happy with my job, but I’m definitely not always having fun. Of the jobs I’ve had so far in my life, my current is probably the one I been the happiest. Mostly this is because senior management does a decent job of making the employee feel respected. We are given freedom to do our accomplish our tasks in ways that work best for us as long as the end result fits with everyone else’s work (programming).

In addition to freedom for day to day tasks, the company seems to go above and beyond to make life outside of work easier (good medical/insurance plans, nice retirement planning/benefits, generous time off allowance). When they have to do something “unfair” (say a wage freeze), they make sure it’s equally unfair for all (including the CEO) while explaining in as much detail as asked for WHY the decision was made. Not bad for a company with thousands of employees.

In the end, it not only makes me happy to stay even when the days occasionally get long and difficult, but makes me willing to recommend open positions to friends who need something better. I feel respected as a person and coworker instead of just a “wage slave”.

ChronoFish (profile) says:

Forced fun vs Fun culture

I think the article missed the boat.

Trying to throw Google under the bus doesn’t work. They have “fun” because the culture is “Work hard, play hard” – and their workers are “always on” – even when they’re off.

On the flip side, few would fault IBM or any number of other more traditional companies for their “less fun” atmosphere. Clearly what works for Google is really working for Google. Likewise what works for IBM really work for IBM.

The culture at Google enjoys the flexibility and quirky perks. The culture at IBM loves the structure.

A successful law firm probably doesn’t have a lot “fun” – but the money is probably close to liquid.

The engineer working at Google would probably be willing to work at Google for less money.

The only problem is finding out that YOU don’t fit into your company culture. In which case the “forced” fun is gawd awful – or the money you get paid seems to be lacking.


out_of_the_blue says:

The Soviet Union overturns this notion.

Regardless of all else, just look at the sheer fact that the Soviet Union changed from a nearly medieval monarchy in 1917 in 30 years to be a world power rivaling the “free” US. That’s primary proof that “happy” workers aren’t necessary. The implications, for those who mistakenly associate industrial output with political freedom, are alarming. Police states *do* work, on their own terms, for the few in control. That’s why a “laissez-faire”, let corporations grow without limit, attitude leads only to slavery.

@Flyfish: such exercises are calculated to break down resistance. I’m sure some here don’t believe that methods of social control are known — or would work on even *you* — but they are purposefully devised and *do* work on enough that the few rebels don’t matter. Managers want dumb slaves, not intelligent help. So if you can get someone to go along with a little “harmless” fun, you attain a degree of control that makes them more malleable next time. The military does this, obviously to weed out those with brains or will. Without a long process of breaking will and taboos, it’s difficult to get reasonable people to kill in cold blood.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: The Soviet Union overturns this notion.

“Regardless of all else, just look at the sheer fact that the Soviet Union changed from a nearly medieval monarchy in 1917 in 30 years to be a world power rivaling the “free” US.”

Yes, it’s amazing the kind of productive output you can get from people when you point a gun at their heads. Or when they are so wretched that working 30 hours a day (they do overtime) and getting some bread crumbs in return is still better than working 30 hours a day and dying of starvation.

When survival is at stake, that is often enough motivation to get people to work in inhuman conditions. But a modern society shouldn’t strive for a job culture where you work just to stay alive, I think. Even though, in some parts of the world, that is still the primary motivating factor.

“So if you can get someone to go along with a little “harmless” fun, you attain a degree of control that makes them more malleable next time. The military does this, obviously to weed out those with brains or will. Without a long process of breaking will and taboos, it’s difficult to get reasonable people to kill in cold blood.”

I think you give managers too much credit. They are often dumb enough to actually believe those stupid little exercises actually improve morale and increase productivity. Ever read Dilbert? Yeah, been there. Most of it is actually surprisingly close to reality (unfortunately).

In the military you actually want dumb grunts, and the exercises are actually designed to crush your spirit and free will. They are trained to obey, not think for themselves (there is nothing worse than a soldier that can ask “Why?”, because, often, there is no good answer, or at least, there is no answer that wouldn’t crush the spirit of any sane person).

But you can actually get people to “kill” other people in more subtle ways, without breaking them or manipulating them. Ever heard of the Milgram experiment?

Bruce Ediger (profile) says:

Corporate Policies

Mike writes:

in many cases, corporate policies designed to make sure employees “have fun,” can be an “empty shell” or “a tiresome imposition,”

Couldn’t this theorem be gemeralized, Professor?

in many cases, corporate policies designed to make sure Category of People Y possess “behaviorally-stated attribute X” can be an “empty shell” or “a tiresome imposition,”

Why, yes, yes it can be truthfully generalized in such a fashion. Corporate Policy in general makes everthing it touches Suck Pretty Hard. We’re not entirely sure why this happens, but we know that it does in almost all cases.

Greevar (profile) says:

Why does it have to be "fun"?

I think fun is too fine of a term to apply to this issue. Like the RSA video on motivation posted here a while back, that which makes workers happy isn’t necessarily “fun”, but autonomy does make the work enjoyable. What I think is needed to have “happy” and productive workers is modeling the workplace to cultivate people’s desire for self-actualization.

When you’ve met their lower, more basic needs, they can only be further motivated by giving them purpose beyond coming to work and doing their job. I guess that would be giving them a goal that matters to them and gives them a feeling of accomplishment when they meet that goal.

Marc L. Grubb (profile) says:

It's about culture and motivation

I agree that The Economist misses the point. While I do agree that fun cannot be mandated, The Economist does not differentiate between an imposed “strategy” and a corporate environment where an enjoyable workplace is a core value. I discussed this in greater detail last week at my blog:

Tom Wozniak (profile) says:

Re: It's about culture and motivation

Good point Marc! I was thinking much the same thing after reading the article. I have worked for companies that really were fun places to work. They didn’t really mandate fun activities, it was just that we had activities that were actually fun (beach volleyball, catered lunches, Fat Tire on tap, etc.). On the flip side, I have worked at companies that tried to bring in a culture of “fun” to the workplace that honestly wasn’t fun to begin with. It pretty much always failed, because it was perceived as forced fun rather than just a natural part of the business by employees.

If a company is built with a certain fun vibe as a key piece of it’s personality, then I think it can work very well. But, trying to instill that quality in an already existing company is very tricky.

Bradley Stewart (profile) says:

She Just Dreaded

organized fun. I once worked for a medium sized business. I just loved my boss. Once every year the company would drag all the managers off together to another city for “Organized Fun”. She never liked what they did on these getting to know you get togethers It’s just one of those things that she felt that she had to do so people would think of her as a team player and it just happened once a year. Remember there is a reason that they call it work and not fun.

Amelia (user link) says:

You are spot on when you point out the key difference in “making employees have fun” and “just having fun.”

Having fun is hardwired into the DNA of folks in the Zappos Family, and they hire people who like to have fun.

Zappos Insights does culture training, and a core thing we teach is that your culture may not be fun, but it can still work and it is your culture. Ours just happens to be fun.

Also, having fun is inherent in doing a job you love; making sure you have people who love what they do will also make sure they have fun.

If anyone wants to see the culture of fun in action, you can come for a tour!

jsf (profile) says:

The Fun Things Only Works If You Like Working

One thing that very seldom gets brought into the discussion about having fun at work and happy employees being a good thing, is the fact that this only works with people that like working. There are plenty of people that don’t like working at all, regardless of the job or workplace.

Personally I can’t think of a single occupation that I would actually enjoy and have fun doing as a job. There are plenty of things that I like to do, but you can’t really make a job out of doing them. As hobbies they are great because you can put things down and walk away any time you like. You can’t do that with a job.

Are there workplaces with happy employees having fun doing their job? Sure there probably are some. But I would bet not every single employee at all these places are having fun and such places are the exception, not the rule.

derek says:

I get it entirely

The issue here isn’t simply does a happy workforce make for a more productive one? We can all draw our individual conclusions on this one. There is no one correct answer.

The question posed here is simply, if fun is corporate sponsored does it then cease to be fun? The answer is yes. Corporate sponsored wackiness is one of the biggest clich?s there is. “Oh we’re all a bit mad here” etc. Everyone is “mad” in exaclty the same way. This type of behaviour is akin to a stepford wives scenario. “We all like to work hard and play hard – as a team”. Simply not being of a mind to indulge in such corporate togetherness does not make one anti-social. He could have lots of friends and like socialising with THEM. What’s wrong if someone likes to simply get their head down and deliver what they have been paid to go? If this happens the terms of contract have been fullfilled. Feeling obliged to join in office in-jokes, perceived “wackiness” doesn’t empower one at all, it puts one in servitude. “Hey team lets all be mad today – subtext – I’ll decide what form this collective madness will take. I’ll get it all signed off by HR and then we can start being “bonkers” together!

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