Contrived workplace fun backfires on bosses

Contrived workplace fun could be counterproductive, according to an Auckland University study.
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Contrived workplace fun could be counterproductive, according to an Auckland University study.

Cringe-worthy karaoke nights and other manufactured 'fun' activities are backfiring on employers, with one worker admitting to quitting his job rather than being forced to attend another miserable activity.

Asking people what made a fun workplace revealed some interesting results for Auckland University researchers. 

Just one in five people surveyed enjoyed 'fun' events organised by their workplaces, according to the recently published study.

Organised fun in the workplace

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An engineer said he dreaded the "childish" costume office days so much he would call in sick rather than dress up like a cartoon character. 

Auckland University senior lecturer Dr Barbara Plester said people don't like being forced to have fun.

One of the IT workers surveyed said he quit after getting fed up with the constant 'fun' activities at his workplace, including karaoke nights.

For some people working is all the fun they need, according to Auckland University researchers.
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For some people working is all the fun they need, according to Auckland University researchers.

So while the boss may have the best intentions, creating a fun workplace is far more complicated than simply hosting a night out for everyone, Dr Plester said.

This is because fun isn't a one-size-fits-all.

Paintball may be fun for the 21-year-old, but an older colleague may prefer a less violent form of team building.

Plester said there has been a push for employers to create fun work environments as it was perceived as improving productivity and decreasing staff turnover.
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The concept of creating fun events often fell on the HR department.

"They [managers] tend to farm it out to HR. They're put in charge of fun and are expected to be fun fairies."

The well-meaning HR department may think a wear-your-PJs-to-work-day is great, but some staff just find it cringe-worthy or even upsetting, she said.

So what makes a genuinely fun workplace?

Plester said it was a workplace that found a balance of spontaneous, managed and task fun.

Of the three kinds of fun, the spontaneous fun - like banter and jokes - was the most common and is driven by the employees.

Those survey said they preferred this type of fun to organised events, but managers need to be wary of trying too hard to create spontaneous fun.

"Once we talk about creating it, it becomes very contrived," Plester said.

The third type of fun - and cited as the most important to employees - was enjoyment in an employee's actual tasks.

This meant for some people doing their job was enough fun.

"They enjoy their work so much that the day just disappears. Those people don't want to be dragged away form their tasks."

Plester said employers shouldn't get rid of planned fun activities.

Those who were cynical of planned fun also expressed an appreciation for them, she said.

The researcher said workplaces should make sure there was a diverse list of activities on offer and allowed people to opt out.

"Have a day when you do something silly, but respect people who feel challenged by it."

TradeMe has a reputation for being a fun workplace and was a finalist in the 2015 Best Workplace Awards.

Jandals and hoodies are common sight around the office, there is a democratically-run MP3 player, meetings can be held around a pool table and you can take the slide to get downstairs.

TradeMe head of communications Paul Ford said genuine enjoyment and happiness at work was more likely to come from a great company culture, rather than one-off events.

He described the work ethic as "informal but serious" where you have fun but also work really hard.

"We know that having staff excited about getting into the office is a good thing, and we don't take it for granted"

What is a fun (or miserable) workplace?

"When we have fun days at work, like wearing pyjamas…or dressing up as a TV character… I can't stand it…it's so childish…so I stay at home and have a sick day" (James, 34, Engineer, IT company)

"Everybody was up on stage, singing songs together, drunk off their faces. I think it is the sort of fun that you dread, you sit here and think, 'Oh god - I really don't want to' and then you get up there and you find it is really not that bad, in a lot of ways it can be fun." (Sean, 25, IT Account manager)

"When I first came here I thought [expletive] man how am I going to last here because everything was so quiet…. I thought we'll shake this up a little bit, have some fun… and every Friday we put music on and we would dance in the afternoons." (Jasper, 29 Credit Controller, Energy Company)

"You want to say in general - humour, fun, having people laughing is always good - but it's not good when it gets in the way of getting things done. If it's too social where people just sit in the café, and drink coffee and joke and play around and that sort of stuff, I guess that is not productive." (Aidan, 30, Group Manager, Energy Company)

"You feel excluded if you don't go to karaoke ... I wouldn't be averse to going and it wouldn't be a problem and you go to have fun - but behind the light hearted attitude, I can see a certain degree of coercion." (Grant, 64, Engineer, IT Company)

"Friday night drinks, whether you can be bothered …it's social, it's fun, with the element of competitiveness. I think it is a good sort of bonding."(Jazmin, 23, Law clerk)

"Humour to me is about when you have let the side down so you can see the fun or you can see the ridiculous… the whole point of humour is that it is free." (Fiona, 42 Organisational Development Specialist, Energy Company)

*Responses to the Auckland University study of fun in New Zealand workplaces

The three types of fun 

Spontaneous or organic: emerges from interactions between employees, including banter and joking. Another example is employees choosing to gather around to do a morning quiz together.

Managed: organised by a manager or the company and includes dress-up days, quiz nights and karaoke.  Only one-fifth of employees claim to enjoy this type of fun. Although some employees said they were cynical about this type of fun, they also appreciated organised work events.

Task: driven by their actual tasks. These people will say "my work itself is fun". Just under half of people described this type of fun in their work. It was the most important form of fun for employees.

 - Sunday Star Times

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