Fun Work(s)

This week, Keepskor had its first hackhathon, requiring the team to work without really stopping from Friday morning until Saturday late afternoon… and at the end of it, the general feeling was exhaustion mixed with how FUN it was.

Which begs the question: why aren’t more people having fun in their job?

What is fun?

Fun depends from person to person and I suspect it is tied to the concept of doing something that one feels is worthwhile while at the same time finding some kind of fulfillment out of doing that thing. It is, ultimately, about finding the right fit between what you love and what you do.

One of the questions I usually ask of potential recruit for any job is “if I gave you $1 billion dollars right now with no strings attached, what would you do?” The answers vary from person to person but the most fascinating thing is really what happens in the first couple of seconds after I’ve asked the question: some people either freeze as their brain is trying to figure out what the right answer should be (there isn’t one specific one) or people are afraid to tell what they would do; others have probably pondered the question for a while and have a ready answer for it, usually giving me a sense of what motivates them.

A few years ago, someone I hired told me that this question was what had convinced him that he wanted to join my team. While he had not thought about it before, his view was that any manager who asked that type of question was probing for how to make a job more fun for his/her employees. There was some partial truth to his analysis as my goal in such question is to really get a sense of what people are most enthusiastic about and part of it was understanding what type of work would be most fulfilling to someone because when people feel their job is having an impact, they tend to find the work more satisfying.


But this is not something that is limited to the office work. Think back to when you were a kid. Unless you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth, you probably had to do some house chores; and for some reason, as a kid, those seemed fun (while, if you were to compare them to what you do as an adult, they might seem horribly dull.) Part of the reason is that, as a kid, the work you’re given around the house is empowering: it’s something big people do and thus something that must be important. The perception of the impact of the work (having set a dinner table or cleaned up an area) by a kid is that he/she has contributed something important and the simple reward of appreciation via a thank you from a parent creates the necessary validation to empower the kid.

In the same way, as a manager, demonstrating how important a particular task is within the whole machine of work, and thanking employees when they perform great work goes a long way towards making a work environment more fun. For example, let me compare two large corporations I worked in that were in the same line of business. In one of them, a chart showed what the chairman’s goals where, and then how his direct report’s goal aligned to that, all the way down to your manager. When your manager came to you to set up goals, you had to work together on establishing goals that aligned with everyone up the line from you, all the way to the chairman. In the other bank, you set goals based on different criteria and didn’t have the visibility into how your work aligned with that of the people at the top of the food chain. Later in the year, the first company would pass down reports on everyone up the chain from you relating to performance against the stated goals. This extra visibility gave you a strong sense of ownership in the direction of the company and made the work you were doing more rewarding than in the second environment. Here, transparency made work more fun.

I use the example not to beat up on the second company but to highlight another important factor of fun: at its core, fun requires some level of trust. Many people say the hierarchic model of command and control is how old corporations were setup but in the example above, I was dealing with two organizations with centuries-long corporate histories and approaches within those settings that showed the “fun” corporation as more trusting of its employees than its competitor. The kind of transparency provided gave more meaning to employees’ work and showed that management trusted them to do the right thing in terms of aligning with the longer term goals of the corporation. By empowering employees with the knowledge of how they could impact (either positively or negatively) things all the way to the top, a company could increase the amount of enjoyment an employee can take in a task.

From enjoyment to fun

But enjoyment alone is not necessarily fun. So how does one make the leap? Having established an environment where every employee understand the relevance of their work, how does one go from the employees knowing that this is important to making sure that time just flies doing that work (because we all know that time flies when you’re having fun).

Here, the first thing is simply to ask employees what may make the environment more fun. For some, it’s adding some stress release elements. For example, many tech companies have nerf-balls guns employees can use to vent frustration or use to defuse situations when things get overly stressful. Creating the environment that allows for such stress release makes the workplace a more fun environment.

Other places use social gathering to create increasing bonds amongst employees, allowing them to get together in a setting where they can learn more about their co-workers and find areas of common ground that can be useful when brought back into a work setting.

But to truly create a fun environment, one has to select strong employees, show them what needs to be done, provide some stretch goals, and mostly step out of the way. The employees themselves will find a way to codify what makes the office more fun and ask you, as their manager, to support such efforts. When you do, you will create the conditions that will work magics in terms of productivity.

The Fun imperative

Most corporations today may look at fun as frivolous but in a world where top talent gets a choice as to where they can work, the ability to attract and retain the best employees will be driven in large part by the kind of environment a company creates. Today, large corporations may feel they still have the luxury of attracting employees exclusively through monetary rewards but, at a certain point, such rewards lose their allure and employees discover they can find equivalent pay at a competitor that will also provide a more fun environment.

A growing body of work exists highlighting how leading companies are incorporating fun into their workspaces, a trend that is starting to accelerate, as more employees look for more playful environments. As such, it creates a fun imperative for most that can be expressed in the following way:

If you do not make your work environment a more fun one, your best employees will leave for the competitors that do.

So the only question that one many ask himself as a manager is “do I want to be the one to explain to the people above me that I failed at the fun imperative or do I want to be the one that grabs the best employees on the market because my competitors failed at this?”

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