should managers organize “fun” at work?

A reader writes:

Obviously with these difficult economic times, employees are feeling stressed, burned out, and anxious, among other things. Being fairly new to the HR industry, I think that more fun activities (such as cook-offs, cookie decorating for V-Day, and maybe even a corn-hole tournament in the summer) should be introduced to the staff to help relieve some of the tension. I was thinking about having at least one fun activity every other month.

Shouldn’t employees be able to have fun at work? Do you think this could be an effective way to improve morale? Is there such a thing as scheduling too many activities that it could actually take away from productivity? The reason why I ask the last question is because I’m thinking about maybe showing a short movie at lunch time in a week, then another employee is scheduling an activity two weeks after that and then Valentine’s Day is approaching and I was thinking about having an activity for that holiday — Thanks!

I’m going to be Scrooge here. Yes, there’s such a thing as too many activities impacting productivity. Fundamentally, employees are there to get things done. So really, every activity you plan that takes them away from that impacts their productivity. You’ve got to think about what the mission of the company is, and how using their time in the ways you propose contributes to that.

Of course, presumably your thinking is that by increasing fun at work, you increase people’s morale, which ultimately leads to higher productivity. And it’s true that higher morale tends to equal higher productivity. But is “fun” the way to do it? I’m going to argue it’s not, and here’s why.

For most people, morale and quality of life at work isn’t about having a series of fun activities, but rather about having coworkers you like, a boss who is fair and effective, the resources you need to do your job, recognition for good work, clear expectations, and so forth. In fact, without these things, planned activities can really backfire; it can be infuriating to work somewhere that doesn’t put much effort into these fundamentals but then expects employees to go wild over a fun outing or social event.

Also, many, many people will resent having their work time used on non-work activities. Show me an office organizing a cookie-decorating session and I will show you a bunch of people wondering why they can’t instead just go home an hour earlier if you don’t need them doing work during that time. Lots of people want to have their fun on their own time, in the ways they choose and with the people they choose.

Clearly, your motivation is in the right place: You want happy, less stressed employees. But I’d encourage you to think about different ways of achieving your goal. It’s not about entertaining them, but about thinking about what they really want — see the list above — and finding ways to deliver that to them instead. It’s much harder — but a far more effective path to your goal.

{ 33 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    At least no tournaments of any kind. When a competition is formally organized on company time, many people take it as a test to show the boss what go-getter winners they are. A game meant just for fun can get too serious, damage trust, and do the opposite of team building.

  2. Professor*

    The manager is right! Forget the “funzie” stuff. I’m at work to work! If you don’t need me to work, let me go home early. If you want to improve morale, improve the work environment, hire coworkers who are cooperative, good workers and get along well. Oh, and give me a raise. Better yet, give me job security — so make sure sales and marketing are making our widgets fly off store shelves so that I can keep my job in these turbulent times. But don’t ask me to give up my lunch hour to watch a movie. Thanks!

  3. nuqotw*

    Do not plan “fun” to improve morale. If employees want to socialize together they will, without involvement from the company itself.

    AAM is right about “fun” backfiring. I worked a company with low and sinking morale, and one of the worst calls ever made was to hold a company happy hour. It’s hard enough to work 12+ hours a day plus weekends without the company asking you to donate some of your scant free time (or worse, HR coming by to encourage you to go to happy hour at 5 PM when it’s clear that if you’re lucky you’ll leave work by 10).

    Employee morale is all about work environment and managing employee’s time effectively. A manager who respects his/her employees’ professionally, personally, and respects their time as valuable will create good morale. If those things are absent, no amount of money or fun will make people happy.

  4. Savvy Working Gal*

    Well said, the work potluck is one of my workplace pet peeves. My company’s HR manager arranges a �fun� potluck every month. Employees from every department resent having to spend their free time shopping and cooking for work events. Plus, cooking for a group of forty can be expensive and wasteful; there is almost always too much food. Of course, when it�s time to clean up the HR manager is never around; employees who should be working (they are billable) are wiping tables, washing dishes, packing and throwing out uneaten food. Almost everyone dreads these events, but to date no one has wanted to be the one to tell her, �Enough Already�. If you don�t participate she singles you out implying you are not a team player.

  5. Anonymous*

    I absolutely agree with AAM here. And oh, no, not a potluck. Years ago, I worked for a place that had monthly potlucks and it was terrible. I finally stopped participating (I’m a vegetarian and could not eat most of the things that others brought, anyway), and almost everyone in management or HR took it personally! Mind you, all I did was slip out and go home for lunch on those days–I didn’t announce it or anything–and it still caused a huge problem. This is the same place that had so-called “fun” activities scheduled all the time, and most of us did resent the fact that we were being kept from our work for a few hours every week and still expected to accomplish just as much. And in this economy, I’d caution against anything that costs money, too. My husband’s HR department has started sending out treat packages for employees every Friday. In theory, this seems nice enough, but each “treat bag” includes candy or cookies and cupcakes and little toys and prizes. Most of it is junk that gets thrown away, and that stuff does cost something, after all. The employees complain and wonder: If this is something that the company deems vital enough to spend money on, then no wonder they’re in a salary freeze.

  6. Anonymous*

    If you want to offer them some fun, create a game room with guitar hero and other games so they can do this on their lunch break if they choose. Or order lunch in that they can eat on their time once a month.

    No organized games, it makes people feel like they’ve gone back to HS and are being forced to participate, which is never fun.

  7. Anonymous*

    During these extraordinarily difficult economic times when layoffs have occurred at many companies, we’ve all got more work to do than we can handle. I’m so fried by the end of the day that I just want to go home, hug my kids, and then sit on my rear. If I was forced to participate in an activity that meant it would take me even longer to finish my work, my morale would plummet, not improve.

    AAM is spot-on here. The person who asked the original question does seem to be coming from the right place. But it is the fundamentals that will improve morale. Fun, after all, is in the eye of the beholder.

  8. Anonymous*

    I can appreciate that this HR person is a little green behind the ears, but enthusiastic. I appreciate enthusiasm…but this person hasn’t yet learned to see activities in a 360 degree view. Think about the widowed sales guy who seems happy with his life, and devoted to his job, but do you think he would really appreciate a formal Valentine’s Day work event to remind him that she didn’t have a valentine?

    As per potlucks (I would rather stab myself in the eye than cook), think about allergies, vegetarian/vegan needs, and potential hair falling into food issues. It’s a nightmare.

    Perhaps find a way to invest that energy and eagerness into programs that work…add a perk to life at your company or one Friday a month send everyone home at 4pm. Things like that are far more appreciated than forced socialization. I promise. But good job on realizing that morale is low and you’d like to find a way to improve it.

  9. Bohdan*

    If your employees are stressed out by the ‘difficult economic times’ there are some useful things you can do or help make happen.

    First, help managers set clear expectations for their employees. Most don’t. If your employees know, ‘If I do X, Y, and Z I will keep my job,’ the will be much happier.

    If your company is doing well or at least reasonably well make sure to broadcast that fact. Heck, if your company is making a profit let your employees know.

    If not let them know what is being done about. Convey enthusiasm about the business and its potential for success.

    That’s PR stuff. On the back-end actually find out what you need to do to make the company profitable (or more so). Then do it. There is a lot HR can do to improve profit, one of the basics is coaching managers is dealing with employee relations and performance management. That is especially true for new managers.

  10. Rebecca*

    Sorry, no amount of “fun activities at work” is going to take my mind off the fact that the economy sucks, my bills are piling up, and one wrong move puts me next in line to be fired.

    What do employees ultimately want? More money for less time spent at work. So if you want to give them something, give things like money and time. Give bonuses. Let people be a little flexible with their hours. (It can be life-changing to know that you won’t get in trouble for coming in late or leaving early every now and then as long as you get your work done.)

    And I guarantee your workplace will be less tense if you make it a place like AAM describes in her third paragraph, and a place where people can expect secure, steady employment in return for their hard work.

  11. Just another HR lady...*

    Welcome to the HR newbie, I’m sorry you’re taking a bit of a beating here on your ideas. Your heart is clearly in the right place, and it’s just a matter of experience to realize what employees do and don’t want in the workplace, and what solid HR/business related factors you should consider in trying to improve morale. I think you’ve gotten some good suggestions to consider here in how to improve morale other than setting up unwanted social events. How about doing an employee survey on the environment, benefits, etc. etc.? Keep in mind that I would strongly suggest doing a survey only if your company is prepared to make some of the changes that employees bring forward. If not, the survey will only make a bad situation worse.

    Showing solid business knowledge and common sense in creating a plan to improve morale will also allow HR (and you!) to build a strong reputation as a partner to the business, rather than being viewed as a “social director”.

    Welcome again to the career, it’s going to be a hard go for everyone over the next year.

  12. GeekChic*

    Yeah… ixnay on the organized, compulsory (even if you say it isn’t) “fun”. If a wanted to party with the people at work – I would go out with them after.

    The one thing that work did do in the past couple of years that DID massively improve the morale of my department? Allow us to tele-commute for up to 3 days a week! There’s a way to improve morale.

  13. TisDone*

    Ditto what everyone else has said about good intentions … but for a bit of humorous perspective – after having to lookup Cornhole, the first thing I thought of when reading the orig post was: for exhibit A for what not to do – consider, “The Office.” There have been a few stories dedicated to the topic of compulsory fun – and all of them have gone badly. Just think – “what would Michael Scott do?” – and then do the opposite. :-)

  14. Evil HR Lady*

    Please don’t make me do something fun. Provide me a free lunch. (mmmm, lunch), but no activities.

  15. Productivity Guy*

    Potlucks and food-only events are fine – have them around lunch, people tend to show up for a little bit, hang out, then go back to work with minimal impact to their day. Don’t listen to the vegetarian who couldn’t eat anything. :o)

    As soon as you get into arts and crafts, however, that’s where employees start to get pissy about having to waste their time (although my company did have a pumpkin-carving contest which was pretty entertaining – though I opted not to join in because I was busy).

    But in general, I agree – fun events are not the way to go. For me, having the right environment (coworkers I like, casual atmosphere) is what keeps morale up. Oh, and profitability.

  16. Legal Secretary*

    I really do not like what I call “mandatory fun” of any kind when it comes to work. I don’t even like attending the company Christmas party. I WORK with these people and for the most part I do not wish to socialize with them outside of work. I have “real” friends for that. And oh — if my employer forces me to take a lunch hour every day (which he does), then the hour is mine — it belongs to me and I need to have that hour to run errands or eat lunch. This isn’t kindergarten …. it’s work.

  17. Anonymous*

    Fun events that are simply for the sake of having fun probably aren’t the best way to go. However, if the environment is right, a fun event that encourages sales is great. I used to work for a travel company that did fun giveaways on St Patrick’s day. It was mostly the call center employees that got to participate, but some of the supervisors would run around updating other departments on how things were going. Everyone always seemed to have a blast and get enthusiastic about sales on that day. It was just a quirky little thing that made everyone smile.

  18. Wally Bock*

    AAM hit the core of this one. People want to do interesting and important work with people they like. When you hear people identify times when it was “fun to come to work,” as I often do in one of my training exercises, you don’t hear them describing “Compulsory Fun.” What they describe is the fun of working and making a contribution, usually as part of a team.

  19. Ryan*

    I agree with the Manager. I am an adult and expect to be treated as one. To introduce “funzie” stuff (as originally posted) is condescending to me – I come to work to work, not to be treated like a kid who needs to be entertained constantly or to be productive. If you cannot get your employee to become productive through alternative methods (one-on-ones, memos, etc.), it may be time to find a new employee. There are enough job seekers out there…

  20. Ryan*

    BUT, since you are looking for ways to improve morale…

    1) Be an advocate of the employee. I can only think of one or two employers where managers or HR was there on behalf of the employee – I realize that there will always be a divide between the two, but it always seemed to appear as an “us against them, how can we screw the employee today” attitude, with very little to no confidentiality given. And these were at “professional” companies. I can think of valid complaints that HR WANTED to know about, yet employees refused to bring them to management’s attention because they were afraid of retribution or the fact that the HR person was friends with the GM…and you know how that ends there…

    2) I apologize for the redundancy, but make the employee feel heard – even if you have no intentions of using their ideas. Simply blowing them off because you’ve heard the idea 100’s of times before or think that you are above them is not acceptable. Sidebar: if you have heard the idea 100’s of times before, there’s probably a reason why, and perhaps you should look deeper into it, rather than just blowing it off.

    I could write more, but those are the two pet peeves of mine as an employee.

  21. Esther*

    Since no one has said this yet, I’d like to add that giving the EMPLOYEES flexibility to plan something fun might work, depending on the company. We work in a 20-person office, and periodically we’ll decide to get together for a game of dominoes during lunchtime, or have a voluntary potluck (everyone is allowed to come eat, completely voluntary if you want to bring something.) The main point, though, is that these don’t have to go through the management or necessarily include the management.

    Free lunch is good, but better for morale if it’s truly a free lunch (as in, “I’m buying”) that employee can then eat wherever they want, rather than a forced sit-down on their lunch hour.

    As many people have added avoe, the biggest way to increase morale is going to be work-life flexibility. We get to leave at 2:00 on Fridays all summer, and everyone works harder to get their work done. We almost always get a message from the CEO the day before holidays, telling us we can leave early as well.

  22. siscat12*

    Are you going to cover all positions so that every single person employed can have equal opportunity fun? Our birthday club had their first celebration last week and because I had a waiting room full of people to check in, I missed the whole thing. Had to ask a question and everyone in the office was sitting around in the conference room enjoying cake and ice cream… except for myself. I’m on the front desk, a position that has to be covered. My coworkers like me, my bosses are happy with my work and attitude..yet noone thought to relieve me to go have 10 minutes of fun. Stuff like this doesn’t work and has the possibility of setting up resentment.

  23. The Tonic*

    When it comes to fun, it needs to be productive and beneficial to the employees to be justifiable – and unfortunately those ideas sound shoe horned in. Why not try offering free yoga or free relaxation sessions or start offering free fruit and healthy snacks in the office. Looking after the health of your employees when they’re all stressed out will not only motivate and increase productivity but be seen as a subtle way of the company saying thanks (without hiring a clown).

  24. Dan McCarthy*

    Thank-You AAM!
    Yes, please, no more �fun days� or �fun committees�, or other forms of forced nonsense. Managers can create an environment where the work is engaging and it�s OK to share a laugh now and then. It happens naturally, not by scheduling it.

  25. Anonymous*

    Things my company does that are actually "fun" but are perhaps liabilities. We're in real estate though and the slightly sleazy schmoozy stuff is really industry standard.

    1) We have a full bar in the basement complete with kegerator

    2) Also in basement we have a big screen LCD with satellite, Wii & XBox and huge comfy leather couches for mid day napping

    3) Beer Pong contests once a year.

    5) A made up paid holiday the Friday of our school district's spring break.

    6) A Christmas party/Summer picnic so awesome it would make you cry.

    7) Workout facilities (shower/treadmill/bike/universal gym)


  26. Sue*

    I work in education, and we’re routinely subjected to mandatory fun as if I don’t already have too much to do. Every “fun” activity begins with us being told that everyone knows that we have a lot of work to do, but it is important for us to take some time to have fun. Oh great, I get to take all of my work home with me in order to finish it before my deadlines is what goes through my head.

    Maybe if we were allowed to do our work during working hours, we would actually have time at home to enjoy ourselves and choose what we want to do and who we want to do it with. I don’t have fun around my peers. All they do is incessantly complain about the students or our administrators. While all of this is going on, the administration is watching over us to see who is a good team player and on their side.

    Ditch the mandatory fun and let us do what you’re paying us for: WORK.

  27. Vicki*

    I recall talking once to a woman from our QA group. They had had a “team building” exercise a week before. They were supposed to “get a balloon out of a tree without using our hands”.

    She told me: “I looked at the balloon. I thought about the work on my desk upstairs. I looked at the balloon. And I went back inside and back to work.”

    > Lots of people want to have their fun on their own time, in the ways they choose and with the people they choose.

    Amen to this. Thank you for saying it.

  28. Rindle*

    The anti-compulsory fun contingent is so strong here that it makes me wonder why we all continue to face corn hole tournaments and skeevy potlucks. Is the pro-corn hole group just shy to speak up? The OP sounds like a good person with her heart in the right place. I hope she wasn’t totally demoralized by the outcry.

    I worked for a company that took its executives for a weeklong event to an exotic place every spring. The first day they’d always divide us into teams for some stupid competition. Each team was a different color, complete with T-shirts. They didn’t ask our T-shirt sizes, though – they just bought a couple XLs, mostly Ls, and a few Ms for every team. At that time, I needed an XXXL. So in addition to the annoyance of the compulsory merrymaking, I also got to choose whether I was going to be the “corn hole” who didn’t wear a shirt like everybody else or the pathetic fatty squeezed into a T-shirt three sizes too small. Misery. (Sorry, this response just became my very own therapy session…)

    I’ll end on a funnier note. At a different job, someone advocated office celebrations to celebrate diversity. We had a potluck to celebrate the end of Ramadan. Best dish? A baked ham – no irony intended. Awesomeness.

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