7th Dec 2020
3 Min Read

When fun at work backfires

Lindsay Kohler
Lindsay Kohler
Culture & Insights

This article was originally published on 20 November 2020 on Forbes.com

Many companies and teams are struggling to replace the traditional holiday party as remote working and social distancing continue to be in place. Morale is low from months of pandemic stress and increasingly long nights, which makes it tempting to double down on creating moments of fun for your team.

Fun at work is a mix of socializing with colleagues, participation in celebratory events, and a perception of if the culture is fun or not. Numerous studies connect fun at work to higher job satisfaction, lower turnover, and less emotional exhaustion.

That said, promoting fun at work is nuanced. Why? Because sometimes, fun at work backfires. For example, attempts to interject non-work or play themes can appear inauthentic. Or employees may be skeptical of fun activities, especially if it starts to feel prescribed and contrived. If an activity or event is promised to be fun — and falls short — that can feel like a breach of the relationship contract between employees and employers. Or sometimes teams take fun too far. Research found in certain circumstances that the higher managerial support is for fun, the lower the productivity. And when we increasingly are struggling to keep boundaries between work and life, fun at work can go against a personal belief about where fun‘s place in someone‘s life belongs.

As we enter the holiday season, carefully consider whether the experience you are creating is truly fun as well as the right amount of fun—or if it crosses the line into forced fun.

Moments of connection and fun do not require a formal event of managerial intervention

Think about ways people can participate or share an experience without necessarily contributing to it. This takes the pressure off, which makes the experience feel more like fun and less like work. For example, creating a highlight reel of the year‘s accomplishments for the team is something everyone can watch and comment on. Or, asking team members to submit videos and photos of something they created during lockdown — but don‘t mandate it.

If you want to inject an element of connection into a traditional activity such as an office gift exchange, how about a "not-so-secret" Santa exchange? In this format, everyone receives the name of their Secret Santa and has to set up a coffee meeting to get to know one another before buying the present. A gift coming directly from a personal conversation helps cements the connection.

If you have to put on an event, this is how to bring it to life

You‘ve internally shared the reasons why forced fun could backfire, but your leaders still want you to forge ahead with planning a company event to bring people together. Not every virtual event has to be educational, feature alcohol, or be a quiz. Think more action-based activities, rather than screen-based. For example, you could arrange an art club, a baking club, or a workout club. The fun will feel less forced if each person has a tangible takeaway at the end, something physical that signals "this was worth my time."

Let‘s turn attention toward another common event this time of year — the virtual recognition and celebration of a year well done. Rather than try to recreate your typical celebration online — don‘t do that — look for inspiration in the virtual events many of us happily tune into from the comfort of our living room sofa. What are they? Awards shows. What makes the Oscars or Emmys must-watch events? It is mastery of the following elements: humor, mystery, glamor, prestige, and storytelling. The challenge, then, is finding ways to bring those elements to life in your event.

For example:

  • Regarding humor — many comedians are out of work with Covid-19; why not hire one to MC your show?
  • Regarding mystery — why not use envelopes with the winners‘ names inside so it‘s a surprise for everyone, including the MC?
  • Regarding glamour — send printed golden tickets to home with a secret URL that is only accessible at the time of the event and encourage everyone to dress up.
  • Regarding prestige — have a strong leadership presence so that people realize the awards mean something.

This time of year, we all need a little boost

Companies should do something fun or celebratory this time of year to lift spirits. There are many things you can do in lieu of the office holiday party, as the ideas above illustrate. Just remember not to mandate participation, and accept the fact that there will always be a few Grinches in the mix

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