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End the Fun?

Company-sponsored "fun" events may undercut short-term productivity, but at least one expert says they can more than make up for that by gaining a level of emotional commitment from employees.

Monday, January 6, 2014
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At the North Texas Food Bank's sprawling warehouse facility in Dallas, it's fairly common to witness employees of locally based technology firms, financial-services providers and other companies cheering each other on as they work feverishly together to fill backpacks and containers with food destined for the needy in the greater Dallas/Fort Worth area.

It's part of the NTFB's ServingU program, in which teams of employees from local companies spend half a day competing with one another to see who can meet their goal the fastest, learning to work better as a team and serving their hungry neighbors in the process.

Most of the participants have a lot of fun as well, says Colleen Brinkman, who coordinates the ServingU program.

"They break into groups, come up with crazy names for their respective teams and then there's a lot of laughter and joking as they're doing their work -- but they're serious, too, because they're very intent on meeting their goals and beating the other teams," she says.

So-called "fun" programs designed to boost morale in the workplace and encourage employees to bond with one another have been getting some criticism lately. A study released in November by Penn State found that fast-food managers who sponsored fun activities found they cut into employee productivity. Meanwhile, a rancorous essay in the New York Times published on December 11 titled "Are We Having Fun Yet?" took dead aim at what it referred to as the "Fun at Work movement."

The author, Oliver Burkeman, acidly described morale-boosting activities such as buying donuts for employees or hanging movie posters in the workplace with employees' faces replacing the real movie stars as "shudderingly reminiscent of David Brent, Ricky Gervais's wince-inducing character from the British version of The Office, or the owner of the nuclear power plant in The Simpsons, who distracts attention from the risks of lethal meltdowns by holding Funny Hat Days."

Company-sponsored fun activities, wrote Burkeman, may only end up making people more miserable, " . . . reaffirming one of the oldest observations about happiness: When you try too hard to obtain it, you're almost guaranteed to fail."

The essay hovered near the top of the Times' most-emailed list for days and attracted hundreds of comments from readers, the overwhelming majority of them agreeing with Burkeman.

But what about that sacred "discretionary effort" that morale-boosting programs can inspire from employees?

"Investing in fun sounds soft, but it helps people go the extra mile for their teammates," says Lee J. Colan, co-founder of The L Group, a Dallas-based management-consulting firm.

"Even contrarians, if you offer them the opportunity to be part of a team, they're all over it," he says. "That feeling of connectedness is a basic human need."

Contrarians are just as necessary to the workplace as cheerleaders, says Colan, and their preferences also need to be respected. They should not be made to feel ostracized or penalized should they choose to opt out, he says.

Then there's the matter of different generations in the workplace, says management consultant Adrian Gostick, co-author of The Carrot Principle and The Orange Revolution.

"Young employees are far more likely to want to bond with one another after work than older employees, particularly those with families," says Gostick. An after-work bowling party will probably be more popular with the Gen Y crowd than the X'ers and boomers, so ensure employees understand that participation is optional, he says.

Gostick also took issue with the Penn State study, noting the small survey sample (195 people) and that the study also documented higher morale and better retention rates at the workplaces that sponsored fun activities.

Gostick considers himself a firm believer in the importance of having fun at work.

"We all need to work in an environment that is open, relaxed and honest, and where leaders don't take themselves so seriously," he says. "All of that goes a long way."

An analysis he undertook (along with his business partner, Chester Elton) of the Great Places to Work Institute's database found that 80 percent of employees who worked at those organizations described their workplace as fun. Yet, it's easy to misapply these findings and wind up with events that feel forced and artificial to employees, says Gostick.

"A lot of times, leaders will come across a finding like that and say, ‘We've got to make our workplace more fun -- hey, let's hold an ice-cream social!' " says Gostick.

A good rule of thumb is to not only refrain from making participation in morale-building events mandatory, he says, but also to try tying the events to specific work-related milestones, such as the completion of a project or a profitable quarter.

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"When you do that, it becomes more a part of the business and is less likely to be perceived as a distraction by your more serious-minded employees," says Gostick.

Fun events may -- in the short term, at any rate -- undercut productivity, but they can more than make up for that by gaining a level of emotional commitment from employees, says Colan.

"The emotional commitment is all about connections -- feeling connected to something larger than oneself, being on a winning team, feeling connected to the people around me," he says. "Fun activities can get to that need for connectedness to the people among us, to understanding the person behind the employee or boss."

Such activities don't have to be "frou-frou stuff" either, says Colan. "A lot of people are more community-service oriented -- rather than bowling competitions and so forth, I'm seeing a growing trend of events that are outwardly focused."

He cites the NTFB's ServingU program as a prime example.

ServingU was launched in 2007 with Dallas-based Southwest Airlines as its first customer, says Brinkmann. The program can accommodate as many as 150 employees, who work a half-day shift sorting and processing food items at the NTFB's warehouse, she says. Companies are charged a fee based on the number of participating employees.

The teams are coached and supervised by a NTFB facilitator, who conducts safety briefings and team-building exercises before and after shifts, says Brinkmann. The program has proved popular among local employers because it allows employees and managers to address work-related problems in a non-threatening atmosphere, she says.

"The teams will practice working together for 45 minutes, then go back to the meeting room to discuss what worked and what didn't," she says. "If problems arose, the facilitator will get the team to focus on where and why the bottlenecks occurred and how to prevent them, whether it's reassigning people to different roles, better communication or making sure people have the right tools."

Once the adjustments are made, the teams end up meeting their production goals nine out of 10 times, says Brinkmann.

Afterward, the teams gather for a celebratory lunch and to go over lessons learned, she says.

"They're usually pumped up and sweating and really excited," says Brinkmann. "They often think they're simply there to perform a service and never expected it to turn out to be so much fun."

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