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Should Work be Fun?

Updated on April 12, 2010

As a brick mason helper during a high school summer, one of my duties was erecting and disassembling scaffolding. One particularly hot July day, we were tearing down “triple bucks”. From 24 feet up, the plywood and planking, heavy with excess mortar and brick chips, impacted the ground below with a resounding crash. A co-worker, A.J., thought it would be funny to let out a blood-curdling scream with every impact. This continued for several minutes, until finally our foreman, Jim had had enough and called A.J. out. “Ah Jim, you’re no fun”, A.J. pouted. “You’re not here to have fun”, Jim retorted gruffly, “you’re here to work”.

And, Jim was right. We were there to work. But, in a sense A.J. was also right. He wasn’t hurting anyone, his antics didn’t slow our efforts, and the few passers-by in the area got a chuckle out of his shenanigans. It then occurred to me: Isn’t it okay to have fun at work?

Some years later, I hesitantly accepted a job in retail sales. There would typically be four or five of us on the floor at any given time, and during slow periods, we did a lot of “goofing off”. I would later remark that I had never had so much fun and made so little money as I did at this job. At some point, news that we were having “too much fun” migrated up the management chain, and we were all admonished to stop cutting up and “look busy” even if there were no customers, and no stocking or tidying up to do. Overnight, morale began to plummet and the revolving door began to spin. Within a few weeks, over half the sales force quit. They weren’t making much money, and they were no longer having fun.

Some businesses will make a genuine effort to make their workplace fun. They’ll have friendly competitions between teams, or host company picnics or other group outings. And while their intentions are typically good, these activities only go so far.

Management is often hesitant to allow any levity in the workplace for fear that productivity will suffer. And, left unchecked, it probably would. I’m not suggesting the company bring in a three-ring circus for the employee‘s amusement, but there is ample middle ground to consider. The workday shouldn’t have to be absolute drudgery.

Ask the employees what they consider fun

Instead of assuming everyone is up for yet another company picnic or “Family Fun Day”, ask your employees what they’d like to do to. If they feel you’re sincere in your request, they won’t be shy about letting you know.

Re-evaluate your policies

Are people being disciplined for innocuous deeds, such as chatting a little too much, or occasionally pulling up a web page that isn‘t work related? Does sharing a (politically correct and non-offensive) joke automatically bar someone from advancement?

Bend the rules from time to time

It goes without saying that injecting a little jocularity into an otherwise mundane workday can alleviate stress and make the employees feel less like little cogs in the big machine. As long as productivity isn’t taking a hit, feel free to look the other way on occasion.

In today’s economy, many workers are painfully aware that their job could disappear overnight. And most are reacting by working harder, and longer hours to increase their perceived odds of being retained in the event of a workforce reduction. But the downside is that many are burning out or bottoming out prematurely. They’re not robots; they’re flesh-and-blood human beings and they can only tolerate so much before they begin to crack.

Finally, did you hear the one about the mule and the near-sighted bumblebee?


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