I nearly made this the last of my workplace myths series but couldn’t decide which was the more prevailing myth. On the one hand, the prevalence of ping pong tables in office foyers suggests a contemporary expectation that work should be fun. On the other hand, I’ve met many a manager (often in finance, interestingly) who believes that, unless people are staring at a spreadsheet in total silence, they’re not really working. So who’s right? Well let’s start at the beginning:
What do we mean by ‘fun’?
I think what people are generally referring to is enjoying themselves at work with others, perhaps in a lively way. So this doesn’t include the quiet satisfaction of writing a good report or ticking everything off your to do list. Fun is a social thing.
Hush hush, whisper who dares
Let’s start with those managers who try to enforce silent concentration. They have a point, of course. If your job involves focused thought, then constant chatter is an unwelcome distraction. But I can’t think of a single job where the only requirement is to do focused thinking all day, every day. Pretty much all jobs, especially professional jobs, have an element of collaboration and team work which means that building relationships is a key element of just about everyone’s job. And how do you build relationships? By getting to know people. We work much more effectively with people we like and trust. That chit chat about football or what we did at the weekend bonds us.
Also, if you have people working for you and you don’t let them talk to each other, you don’t have a team. What you have is a group of people who happen to have the same boss. Part of a team leader’s responsibility is to foster relationships between team members, to create a cohesive team, not simply to have good relationships with each individual. So if I’m not on the side of the fun-sappers, what about the other side of the coin?
For me, nothing encapsulated the awkwardness of enforced fun so perfectly as David Brent from The Office describing himself as a “chilled out entertainer”. Contrived fun is often anything but. The best fun at work is spontaneous. Those fun things that are planned are best if they come from the ground up. If the team wants to come to work in pyjamas for Red Nose Day, good luck to them. It’s unlikely to be popular as an edict from on high. And it should never, ever be compulsory.
People vary enormously in their seriousness, playfulness, self-consciousness and what they find funny. No one should be ostracised for not wanting to participate in something they find uncomfortable or which simply doesn’t interest them. This is doubly the case for anything outside work. Yes, it may be bonding for the team to go bowling after work, but some people’s commitments – from childcare, to elderly parents to studying – make this impossible.
A lot of what I’ve talked about so far relates to fun that’s separate from the actual work you’re doing. If you’re really lucky and hit upon a combination of work you find interesting and people you like working with, then the work itself can be fun. It’s often a very good sign of a team working well together. If your team meetings are lively and good-humoured, it suggests a high level of engagement, whereas a dull trudge through a pointless agenda does not. The problem with this utopia, however, is the expectation that it should be like this all the time. What happens when it’s not?
It’s all fun and games until…
I think there are three risks to over-prioritising fun in a team:
1. Lack of diversity
When you have a fun team, it’s too tempting to keep recruiting people who fit in well, which means you can end up with a team that’s all very similar. This isn’t just about obvious forms of representation, though there are downsides to having, for example, a team full of privately-educated, white, middle-class men (How representative are they of their customers?). The problem is also about diversity of thinking. That quiet, cautious, serious-minded candidate may not be the life and soul of your meetings. He may even be a real downer on the whole team, but that doesn’t mean that he isn’t exactly what you need to bring a different perspective. There is a real danger of group think in a close-knit team.
2. Artificial harmony
If everyone’s getting on well and it’s all great fun, it may be difficult to say something you know will be unpopular. No one wants to kill the vibe, so differences are minimised, conflicts avoided. However, if you don’t air differences, you may make sub-optimal decisions or you may find that resentments fester and eventually it stops being fun anyway. Better to tackle the tricky stuff while you’re all getting along well rather than let that goodwill quietly erode.
3. Avoiding the dull stuff
If the work itself is fun, then what happens when you get to the mundane bits? Creative or visionary types can really struggle with this. They have a great time kicking around ideas but may get bored with the implementation. They might spend too long on the exciting, ideas generation bit and put off the detail, the admin, all the bits that would actually make it happen.
So there’s absolutely no reason that work shouldn’t be fun and a total absence of fun may be a sign of a disengaged team. But an over-emphasis on fun may not be what the organisation needs, even if it feels great. I feel rather middle-aged and British here, but I’d suggest everything in moderation. If you’re not sure you’ve got the balance right in your organisation, I’d be happy to have a chat: