Forced fun at work is often no fun at all

Colette Sexton, news correspondent at The Sunday Business Post, on why your company might be wasting money trying to force employees to have fun at work.


Office parties; charity days; in-house pilates classes; karaoke competitions; pool tables - many companies are going out of their way these days to attract talent. However, employers need to be careful that they are not wasting time and money forcing fun on employees, when in reality, they are achieving very little.

“Employers are easily seduced by the idea of fun at work as a motivator, culture builder, way to show you are investing and care - but ‘official fun’ and organic fun are unwisely conflated,” according to Dr Maeve Houlihan, associate dean at the UCD School of Business and senior lecturer in organisational behaviour and work.

She said that most employees show a healthy scepticism about 'official fun', which is reflected in ironic cultural mirrors like Dilbert and The Office. As a result, there are various ways people react to official fun: engage, enjoy, endure and/or escape. Those who engage are energised by the fact that their company invested in official fun activities as an emblem of commitment and mutuality. Others who enjoy take it at face value and take part in the activity if they like it, but it does not impact their view of the organisation or seduce them. Finally, those who endure and/or escape, find manufactured company fun to be inauthentic, infantilising, silly - or even disingenuous. For example, they would say, instead of a visiting burger van, the company should invest in training for new team members.

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“Truly authentic moments of humour and lightness punctuate the hum drum and provide elements of connection in the workplace. But the key to authentic is that it comes from within.  Manufactured fun rarely hits that mark,” Maeve said.

Real workplace fun has many benefits, including crossing organisational boundaries, letting off steam, and creating closer relationships between staff.

“Much of the humour portrayed in accounts of organisational life is laughter and joking produced as little more than a method of offering relief from the seriousness of work,” Maeve said. However, some managers and employers can find this humour threatening.

Real fun comes from shared stories; purged stress; moments of willful insanity; shared humanity; and cutting clarity, according to Maeve.

“These moments offer shorthand reference points for a web of coping mechanisms, shared experiences, and shared negotiations of everyday working life.”

For those companies that want to design “fun” in the workplace, it can still be done, but they need to keep several things in mind.

  1. Assumptions: Fun on whose terms - the staff or the management?
  2. Delusions: What are we avoiding or actually trying to say here? Are we trying to distract from something we might actually instead fix, such as excessive work hours, insufficient staff, and so on.
  3. Exclusions: Who is this fun for? Are we biasing to age groups or profiles,  do you need to be a certain type of person to enjoy this, is it equally of interest to all?
  4. Confusion: Are there mixed messages or unofficial boundaries? For example, staff romances are not allowed, but employees are allowed to get drunk on work nights out.
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