If Work is Fun, You’re Doing it Wrong

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“How was work?” my Dad asked me.

I was sixteen. I’d been on my feet all day, cashiering at a local retailer. “It was okay,” I said.

“Well, if work was fun, they wouldn’t have to pay you for it,” He replied.

My Dad was a man of few words, but what he did say usually made a lot of sense. To this day, I don’t come into work expecting to have fun. Apparently, I’m in the minority. One study found that 88 percent of millennials and 60 percent of baby boomers wanted a fun work environment. They want parties at lunch and social hours after work. They want prizes and games and funny hat days. They want coworkers to become their best friends, or better yet, their second family.

Not me. Of course, I’m an Xer, so statistically, I don’t count.

In an attempt to attract and retain workers, many companies have embraced fun in the workplace. Zappos.com is a perfect example. They have regular costume parties and parades. Every department is decorated with a theme (Elvis, cheerleaders, etc.) and their own “fun” way of greeting visitors. They refer to themselves as the Zappos family (for my thoughts on workplaces being like a family, see my pervious post).

Don’t get me wrong. I like to make jokes and laugh at work. I try not to take the job too seriously, and encourage my staff to do the same. I want everyone to get along, to care about each other as people as well as coworkers. The occasionally birthday party or pot-luck or group outing is all well and good. What I take issue with is having fun forced upon me, like it was not only a job requirement, but the reason for dragging myself into work every morning. The Zappos Family, will show you the door (or not even hire you) if you fail to indulge in their “fun” atmosphere. If I worked there, I’d be in the bathroom trying to slit my wrist with a letter opener after the first day.

At least, in this, I’m not alone. One Australian Study found that being obligated to have fun at work can put undo pressure on those who just want to come in and do a good job.

Perhaps the difference between my view and those of the majority of workers is the definition of fun. Thomas Edison said, “I never did a day’s work in my life. It was all fun.” I’ve seen this quote used numerous times by people who do not understand what he meant. They think by fun, he must have meant all those things that Zappos and other companies are doing – social events and games and free doughnuts every morning. But that wasn’t it at all. For him fun came from thinking of new ideas, an experiment that succeeded, discovering that new invention.

I used to hire civil engineers, a job made easier by the company for which I worked. We were able to attract some of the best. When asked why they came to work for us, they almost always pointed to the work. Due to our reputation for quality, we worked on big projects – bridges and interchanges and highways – the type of projects civil engineers went to school for, the types of projects they found exciting.

Not one of them mentioned anything about fun.

“Writing is not fun. Whoever tells you so is a liar. Writing is fulfilling.” These were the words from one of my college journalism teachers. It’s not only true for writing, it’s true for most of what we call work.

Fulfillment is what I want out of work. I want to leave at the end of the day knowing that I did all I could to make the organization a success, make employees’ work environment just a little bit better, be supportive and helpful.

Perhaps that’s why companies like Zappos have to force fun on its employees. To distract them from the fact that they work is not all that fulfilling. That, at the end of the day, all they do is sell shoes and clothing that no one truly needs.

In the end, there is the question of whether making work fun accomplishes much of anything at all. A Penn State study found that while fun at work decreases turnover, it also decreases productivity. I once worked in the warehouse of a book retailer. One manager would foster fun by having his employees sit in a quiet room and read (fun for any book lover, which most employees of bookstores are). Staff loved it, and loved him. Meanwhile, boxes from publishers weren’t getting sorted and stores’ orders weren’t getting filled. Parties and contests and even sitting quietly all take away from getting work done.

If fun, not productivity, is the goal for these companies, they could save them a lot of time and money. Quit planning games and activities and theme days – just bring in a couple of kegs of beer and a few jugs of wine.

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