should managers organize “fun” at work?

A reader writes:

My company is going through some difficult financial times, and employees are feeling stressed, burned out, and anxious. Being fairly new to HR, I think that more fun activities (such as cook-offs, cookie decorating for Valentine’s Day, and maybe even a bean bag toss 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? 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 April Fool’s Day is approaching and I was thinking about having an activity for that holiday. Does that sound like it would take away too much productivity?

You can read my answer to this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and often updating/expanding my answers to them).

{ 214 comments… read them below }

  1. Anastasia Beaverhausen*

    Agree so much with this answer. My last job had us create ‘team artwork’ as part of some halfbaked idea management had to get us to work together more efficiently, and it basically had the opposite result.

    (Side note, is “columninist” an INC term or a misspelling?)

    1. long time reader first time poster*

      We were asked (sorry, told) to create shadowboxes about our jobs. Mandatory. And we weren’t allowed to work on them during company time. That was awesome.

      1. Lillie Lane*

        A former team building exercise at my company had them building widgets. Literally, I guess. They had no idea what they were.

      2. Clever Name*

        That’s hilarious! My husband had a coworker who made his entire cubicle a diorama. No exaggeration. There was a parade of people looking at his cubicle during family day (my husband worked at a factory that made cool stuff, so once a year spouses and kids got to come to the factory on a Saturday and see the plant).

      3. Artemesia*

        Although hardly the most abusive example of feckless management behavior, this one has a sort of purity. Shadowboxes? On your own time? Because? Wow.

        1. long time reader first time poster*

          They were for an exhibit in our lobby that was meant to illustrate how cool! creative! fun! we were. People were PISSED about having to do them, because we already all had way more work than we could handle.

          I got laid off shortly after creating mine (which, I might add, came out super awesome). I often wonder if it’s still on display.

      4. Jessa*

        Um unless you’re exempt can they do that? Make you do an off hours required project and not pay you?

      5. Not So NewReader*

        A shadowbox about their jobs? Okay, Advil, Exlax, ice bag, heat pack, favorite beverage for relaxing with….

        I think I could put something together, if I worked there.

      1. Ann O'Nemity*

        Subtitle is: “Organized fun won’t might not be the best way to keep employees happy.”

        I’m thinking you mean “won’t” or “might not,” but not both :)

  2. SJP*

    Oh God, April fools day. Literally I am so anti-pranks. I hate them and just do not find them funny, so OP maybe don’t do the april fools day fun jokey prank thing as it’s a bit marmite as we say in England. You either love it, or hate it.. And I am a pranks hater so if this happened in my office i’d be so ugh

    1. JMegan*

      Me too. Some pranks, carefully done, between people who already trust each other AND who have given explicit permission to be “pranked,” can be fine. But I find that a lot of them don’t meet these requirements, and the prankee too often ends up being genuinely embarrassed or inconvenienced. And then they are the ones who are made to feel bad for not going along with everyone else’s fun! No, thanks.

      As for an office situation – I think it’s too risky, unless you have an already established culture of pranking. But definitely not something to introduce out of the blue, especially into an environment like the OP’s, where people are genuinely worried about their jobs.

    2. AmyNYC*

      I’m not anti-prank, but most of the times “fun pranks” turn mean quick. I’m going to put googly eyes on everything in my fridge, but that’s about it.

    3. Elizabeth West*

      I love Marmite, but I don’t like pranks much, unless they’re played very carefully. That is, you choose your victim carefully and don’t go overboard or do things like that one person who put the coworker out on the balcony and locked the door.

    4. Connie-Lynne*

      Add me to the list of April Fools’ Day haters.

      The only part of that day I really think is even remotely appropriate is small changes to internal tools or displays, and even then it needs to not interfere with getting work done. Humor is so subjective, and so easily crosses the line into othering or discriminatory.

    5. RVA Cat*

      Eek, why am I picturing everyone getting fake pink slips for April Fool’s Day… All fun and games until somebody has a heart attack or comes back with a gun, right?

      1. Arjay*

        I left my boss a fake resignation letter one April Fool’s Day. We were really close, and I was pretty sure she wouldn’t do anything about it until she talked to me. When I saw her that day, she was so nice about the situation. But when I told her it was a joke, she then burst into tears. I felt so awful about the whole thing that I thought was going to be really funny.

    6. Mander*

      I hate April Fool’s pranks. Things like putting out a funny fake news story, or posting a joke copy of your website (OMG!PONIES!), and stuff like that, I’m fine with. But it is far too easy for pranks to end up being mean and hurtful, not to mention embarrassing.

      Every single “prank” I can remember being pulled on me was really just thinly veiled harassment. I’d be really upset if my workplace encouraged them.

      1. SJP*

        Glad you liked my reference there Vicki!
        And i’m also glad i’m not the only pranks hater. As so many of you have said they’re just so subjective. Either you know the person well enough and they get it and it’s all fun and games but all too often they’re rubbish and just embarrassing and as JMegan said you end up being made to look bad or without a sense of humour if you dont laugh or ‘get’ the prank..
        Plus as Mander said, often they can be veiled harassment or some other nasty way of making someone else look stupid…

  3. Kelly L.*

    I can’t agree more with what Alison said. The trouble is that the reasons the employees are stressed are bone-deep (fear of getting laid off and losing their livelihoods, for example) while the fun activities really only address the surface. They’ll go along with your beanbag toss, out of fear of not looking like a team player, but their emotions will still be the same under the skin.

    And yeah, when times are financially tough, it’s really easy to start wondering “If the company can afford (fun thing), why can’t they afford to give raises/keep us employed/etc.”. I know from experience that people (myself included) start noticing every unnecessary festive postcard that was obviously really expensive to print, and the like.

    1. Apple22over7*

      And yeah, when times are financially tough, it’s really easy to start wondering “If the company can afford (fun thing), why can’t they afford to give raises/keep us employed/etc.”. I know from experience that people (myself included) start noticing every unnecessary festive postcard that was obviously really expensive to print, and the like.

      Yeah, I’ve seen this happen. Never mind that the £500/year cost of providing pastries in management meetings was minimal in comparison to salaries, rent, rates etc., the fact that the company still paid for such things when others were being laid off felt really insensitive.

      1. Objectively visualize out-of-the-box sources*

        And not just monetary resources, too. At a time when we’re all feeling overworked, the last thing I want to do is be required to spent 4 hours “socializing and networking” with my department instead of finishing my work so I can go home.

        It can feel like the leaders don’t understand the root issue. If morale is low because we’re overworked, then adding another mandatory activity (even if it sounds “fun”) does not alleviate that.

      2. Nobody Here By That Name*

        I’ve got an addition to that one. At my company we have “fun” that takes place at the C-level executives’ houses. It’s mandatory to go, to the point that the CEO tracks attendance and demands in person explanations from anyone who declines.

        But on top of that the company is also cutting costs and downsizing. You can imagine how much extra “fun” it is to be forced to go to events at huge mansions with acres of property and ocean views and multiple yachts docked out back at the same time you’re told that there’s no money in the budget for even basic cost-of-living raises.

          1. Elizabeth West*

            I’d be tempted to go and then load my big purse up with canapes. If caught, I would explain that I was hungry since the company didn’t pay me enough to keep me in groceries.

            1. Connie-Lynne*

              So much this!

              I love canapes and tiny food of all kinds, and whenever we have a big fancy company shindig, I wish there were some socially-appropriate way for me to take leftovers home. If I were going to Mandatory Fun at a CEO’s mansion, I’d definitely argue that loading up ziplocs was socially appropriate!

              1. The Cosmic Avenger*

                When there’s leftovers from an event at our offices, either a company party or a client meeting, they’re put out in the break room the next day.

                Which reminds me, I really should start keeping knee and elbow pads in my office for occasions like those. ;)

        1. esra*

          Next step: All employees hooked up to heart monitors to make sure they are adequately excited at said event.

          1. Nobody Here By That Name*

            Ha! Thank you for that. It’ll be a good mental image to hold onto at the next such “fun” event.

        2. I'm a Little Teapot*

          I’d find it hilarious if expensive little items started…mysteriously disappearing…from said huge mansion events.

          Or if one of those yachts somehow got loose from its moorings.

    2. Lizzy*

      With all due respect, “fun” activities are when times are good and when the “fun” aspect has always been a part of company culture. This is the last thing employees who are worried about whether they will have jobs to put food on the table in the coming months want.

      1. Lizzy*

        My bad! This was suppose to be a standalone comment. But I do agree with your last paragraph: employees wondering if the company can afford “fun” activities, why aren’t they spending the money instead of on saving jobs.

        1. Kelly L.*

          Right! It’s always demoralizing to feel like the only thing that’s being cut is the people, even if that’s not true behind the scenes. Even for optics alone (gah, buzzword), management needs to look like some austerity is going on in their world too.

          1. Dynamic Beige*

            Speaking of optics… One of my clients doesn’t have full-time staff, only contract workers. So when the Great Financial Meltdown happened… of course as many of the contract workers that could be shed were. But then a few months later, this same “boss” was thrilled to the gills about the great deal they had gotten on a retirement house in a sun destination and bragged about it just a little too much. Now I don’t know if that client had been saving for a retirement home for a long time, or someone had passed away in their family and they used their inheritance to buy that house or whatever — it just looked bad. You can’t lay off most of your contract employees because you claim you can’t afford to pay them and then go off and brag about all the money you’re spending on a second home. Gah.

            1. Zillah*

              Agreed. And, I mean, it’s entirely possible that they’d been saving up for awhile, and I certainly don’t think that a boss should forego their own (reasonable) salary to save jobs… but at the same time, sensitivity doesn’t cost you anything.

            2. AmyNYC*

              In his defense, I would guess thehouse was bought with his personal money, not the company’s. Still really tasteless to brag about it to people losing their jobs, though.

            3. Connie-Lynne*

              A dot-com I worked for in the early 90’s sent out an email letting everyone know that the company was out of money and that people might not get paid that week, along with some kind of weird three-paragraph ramble from the (born into money) CEO about how sad he was one time when he couldn’t buy his college girlfriend a dress she really wanted.

              It was wildly inappropriate and tone-deaf, given that many folks were looking at “how do I pay my rent/mortgage” issues.

              Two weeks later he went on the run to China (he was not Chinese) with the remaining money in the company coffers. A month after that he started trying to recruit former employees who he considered “elite” to his new startup — that he was running from China so that US bill collectors couldn’t get at any of the money he’d taken!

              Sometimes I wonder what is going through people’s heads.

              1. I'm a Little Teapot*

                I hope all the former employees laughed in his face. And that he’s had to live his whole life in exile to avoid the bill collectors.

                If he was fleeing from Massachusetts, he might have been fleeing the cops. Intentional nonpayment of wages is a felony here. (I love my home state so much.)

          2. AnonAnalyst*

            Exactly. I actually have been through this from the employee side, and while I think the idea is coming from a good place, as an employee this kind of stuff just feels crappy.

            I worked for a small company that had to do a layoff in 2009. Because the company was small, a lot of the employees were close and many had been there for many years, so the layoff was pretty painful. One of the other solutions to the budgetary issue was to cut salaries for the remaining employees for the rest of that year, and after the layoff, company leadership announced that they might not have cut deeply enough so there might be future layoffs. So there was a huge morale hit among the employees that remained, in addition to the lingering concern about future cuts.

            After the layoff, the appearance was that spending continued unabated: there were plenty of “fun” events, as well as visible spending for various company meetings and other events. I don’t know why, but one that particularly stood out to me and a few others was management’s decree that we needed more autumn and holiday decorations for our reception area (note: we already had some that were still perfectly usable). It just seemed really frivolous and gave the impression that they were tone deaf.

            I totally get that the small amounts of money spent on these things wouldn’t have been enough to keep people on or pay all employees their pre-layoff salaries. Intellectually, I see that. But as an employee it just felt like the employees were bearing the brunt of poor financial management by company leadership, who were continuing to waste money and didn’t appear to be impacted at all by the recent events.

      2. Sunflower*

        Yea I have that feeling to. My friend genuinely likes her company and her job. When they do ‘fun’ activities, they seem like actual fun and people enjoy them. If my company(which people are not happy with) did them ,it would only further upset people.

    3. LizNYC*

      I’ve been there too. The company bought new cubicles (said it was to increase collaboration. Sure.), redid two bathrooms, got a coffee machine and bought new carpet. All the while, we hadn’t received raises in 4 years and there was a hiring freeze (in addition to two rounds of layoffs in two years). All I could think of was “if we can pay for new bathroom tile, why can’t I get my nominal $75 bonus at Christmas?”

        1. esra*

          I worked for a small company that did a round of layoffs in November, assured us that would be it, had a Christmas party that was easy 75k+, then laid off another round of people in the new year.

      1. Former Diet Coke Addict*

        Oh boy. This. Don’t be my boss. At a meeting a few weeks ago he told us all that the company was doing so poorly that he himself (the owner) hadn’t been paid in two years! Of course there was no room for raises for his staff of years.

        This would have been more effective if over the past two years he hadn’t told us all in graphic detail about his new cottage, his new speedboat, the new ATV and miniature ATV for his kid, the other boat, the expensive summer camps for his kid, their annual visits to the Dominican and to Europe, and his wife’s new luxury SUV.


    4. INTP*

      And your second paragraph goes for time, too, not just money. If there’s time to spend an afternoon on a chili cook off or cookie decorating, people are going to wonder why there’s no time for them to leave early (or work less overtime if they’re doing that). Most people would rather be at home than decorating cookies at work, and that goes double for burned out people.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Yeah, if people are not already burned out, make them stand there and decorate cookies. That ought to push them over the edge as they try to describe the size of the disconnect between management and workers.

    5. Meg Murry*

      And its not just about money, its also about how someone spends their time. When times are tough, I don’t want to see HR organizing cookie decorating – I want to see them researching lower health insurance rates, a cheaper place to get office supplies or similar. Organizing frivolous fun events seems like “I don’t have enough real work to do” and look especially bad if departments that DO have a lot of work to do have employees that get laid off.

      If there are already fun events in place, yes, keep them going or expand a little, or if you can organize something easy, that’s one thing – but don’t spend lots of work time buying cookies and frosting to set up and decorate, etc. Do something to help the bottom line as your most visible thing.

      1. Dasha*

        +1 for this: I want to see them researching lower health insurance rates, a cheaper place to get office supplies or similar

      2. INTP*

        Yup, and for that matter, if I’m burnt out, I don’t want to be invited to such events. I want to be invited to go home earlier. You can call it optional but these things rarely work out to be truly optional when it comes down to perceptions of commitment and team player-ness.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          How true. Burn out is eased by sending people home with early, with their new healthy raises.

    6. Ann Furthermore*

      Yep, I do the same thing. I work for a large company and the SOP is no adding headcount, slashing budgets, and so on. Questions like how you’re supposed to keep a multi-billion dollar business operating when you won’t invest in the infrastructure are brushed aside. It’s been this way for the last few years. Not unique by any means, but still very frustrating.

      Then a C-level exec retired last year, and he embarked upon some sort of farewell tour to every freaking subsidiary to talk about his career. This involves flying all over the country (in either business or first class), staying at hotels much more expensive than the ones that the rest of us peons are allowed to stay in when we travel, meals, rental cars, and all the rest of it, all on the company’s dime. Added to that was the cost of everyone attending these sessions instead of working. It must have ridiculously expensive. And I still haven’t figured out what was accomplished by this that could not have been accomplished by a webcast, which would have been a fraction of the cost.

    7. Artemesia*

      And it introduces the ‘if I can’t stand ‘shower games’ at work and don’t play will that hurt my job prospects — am I going to get laid off first because I am not an enthusiastic cookie decorator?’ This whole thing sounds like a childish nightmare from hell to me.

  4. reader*

    No, just No. For the reasons Alison wrote but also I would not want to do any of the activities listed. I am a work. I am there to work not to play. This to me smacks of forced friendship or forced membership in a social group. This will not build up my morale.

    1. JB*

      Totally agree. At my office we have small fun activities for a lot of holidays, but they are ALL optional. So if you like that kind of thing, you can participate in the pumpkin decorating at Halloween, etc., but if you don’t like it, no participation is necessary.

      We do have some required supposedly morale-boosting events that are mandatory, which I don’t like (why are you telling me to get my work done by a certain time but then demanding I spend 3 hours of my day at a “fun” lunch), but they are mercifully limited in number.

  5. Snarkus Aurelius*

    Ugh. Don’t infantilize grown adults. I appreciate the sentiment, but there’s a reason work is called work and not fun. We distinguish those two things on purpose.

    AAM is right. You have to offer substantive benefits and a good working environment. I get that it’s easier to have a cookie decorating contest than examine working conditions or a fair healthcare plan, but employees aren’t dumb. They’re certainly not going to be distracted by a movie day if they haven’t had a raise in two years.

    Many years ago, I worked with a department that notoriously sucked. Their staff were rude, not helpful, and always needed multiple reminders for basic tasks. If they didn’t know something, they’d either not tell you and ignore your question or tell you to Google it, which resulted in an intern breaking a database. Oh but they had monthly events for the rest of us. No one ever went because it was such a superficial gesture.

    Don’t do stuff like this. Just don’t.

    1. JB*

      “superficial gesture”

      Exactly. What you and Alison both said is exactly the point. When the office doesn’t address the substantive reasons that employees are not happy, superficial stuff doesn’t make anyone feel better, except the people whose idea it was to do the superficial stuff.

      1. Snarkus Aurelius*

        What’s worse is that it’s so insulting, especially to adults with a functioning brain. The older I get, the more I’m floored at how brazen these tactics get.

        A friend of mine was a receptionist in DC, and she made $33k. She asked for a raise and got fed sone nonsense about the economy and budget cuts and everyone was sacrificing, even the VPs! A few days later, she was processing expenses from the Board of Directors meeting, a task her boss (the one who turned down her raise) knew she would be doing that day. My friend saw the bar bill alone was on par with her bimonthly paycheck. Dinner bill was on a seperate form. Yes she started looking for another job that day.

        So I don’t get it. We can see what you’re doing. What gives?

        1. JB*

          Seriously. It’s like playing a board game with a 5 year old who really really doesn’t get that you are very aware that they’re cheating. Your friend’s boss was either totally clueless or a total jerk, and either way, your friend made the right call to look elsewhere.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      In this example giving people cookies to decorate or pumpkins to carve could end up with the employees throwing the cookies or pumpkins at each other. It’s just such a bad plan.

    1. the_scientist*

      “but pretzel day? I like pretzel day”.

      I was just coming here to say A++ Office reference. Pretzel day is a great episode.

    2. Windchime*

      We actually do sometimes have fresh pretzels! We have a quarterly “anniversary party” and it’s always very low key. Sometimes it’s rootbeer floats, sometimes it’s pretzels with toppings/sauces, sometimes it’s just cake. They set it up and then people just go and help themselves. We can either spend a few minutes mingling or just take our treats back to our desk. Fun, but not Enforced Fun ™.

  6. jillociraptor*

    Perfect advice. When you’re facing scary stuff at work, I think you tend to want transparency and honesty. Even things that are done with the very best intentions, like the OP’s ideas, can fall flat because people jump to the worst possible conclusions in the face of ambiguity and fear. (“Are they trying to distract us? Is this one last hurrah before we all lose our jobs? Is this a test to see who keeps working and who takes a break?”)

    Of course, fun, social activities can have a place in the workplace, but tend to be successful when they’re optional and varied, not “mandatory fun.” Many of our offices have regular lunch activities (one had a weekly Serial discussion group), and opt-in contests like what OP describes, but zero shame for not participating.

    1. girlonfire*

      I enjoy office activities, sometimes, and even at my last (toxic, awful) job, I think some employee-centered fun is helpful in boosting morale. But don’t be tone-deaf about it, and don’t make it mandatory. Optional trivia night on a Friday at 4 (including beers)? Great! Hiring a singing creepy clown to come around to every office and serenade us and make us balloon animals, regardless of whether or not you wanted to participate? Totally infantilizing.

  7. Boo*

    Heh. This reminds me of my previous job which I fondly refer to as The Pit of Despair, where my boss decided there was a morale/silo working problem (there certainly was) and the way to solve it was to have each team enter a Great British Bake-Off style contest. People cheated. There weren’t even any prizes, until she realised people expected some and sent me out to buy giant tins of Roses chocolates. It was so sad I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. And no it did not help the morale/silo working problems. If anything, it made it worse, what with all the cheats.

      1. Boo*

        Not as much as I was when I had to follow my boss around while she scored everyone and made small talk! Argh argh argh. (To add an extra note of cringeyness, like it needed it, this was an essential branch of local government, so an entire morning of baking/scoring/bitching/cheating was in effect funded by the taxpayer).

  8. AdAgencyChick*

    Gawd. No. Memo to all ad agencies: STOP TRYING TO MAKE ME BE FRIENDS WITH MY COWORKERS.

    Some of the junior employees seem to be all for it — they are, all, “Yeah! Free drinks!” I would much rather buy myself a drink and enjoy it with people of my choosing. Some of those people may even be coworkers. But only those coworkers where a friendship happens naturally.

    I feel like management thinks this will be an inexpensive way to retain employees — if they’re reluctant to leave their friends, they won’t take that 20% raise the agency down the street is offering, right?

    Yeah, I don’t think so.

    1. Kyrielle*

      So true. And management should consider that the other side of that is that if they don’t fix the environment but DO get employees to get friendly, one may take the 20% raise the agency down the street is offering…and then when they’re about to have an opening say “I know the perfect person!” and bring on their friend from former-company and so on.

    2. Lanya*

      At OldJob, which was at an ad agency, it was a very young company, and there was definitely a push for all of us to be friends. The constant forced closeness and team building was too much for me, and was one of several reasons why I left. When I broke the news that I was giving my 2 week notice, you would have thought someone died. I felt bad about leaving…but not bad enough to stay.

      1. Adonday Veeah*

        “But we looooove you! You’re like faaaaaamly!”

        Uh, no. You’re my co-workers and my bosses. We have a business relationship, and I’m making a business decision. Buh-bye.

    3. sharon g*

      I use to have a sticky not on my monitor that had “PAWANYF.” It stood for “People At Work Are Not Your Friends.” The reminder kept a few knives out of my back.

    4. Goldie*

      Yeah the junior coworkers haven’t been around long enough to have reached my levels of cynicism. Whenever I see or hear of extraneous fun stuff going on at work – beer in the fridge, parties, nap rooms with cots, slides in the office (true story – my son interned at a place that has two slides going from 2nd floor to the 1st), picnics etc – I get a feeling that they want their employees to never leave for the day. Why go home at 6 when your beer and your friends are right here? Stay. Put in another hour or five for the same pay! Yeah… no!

  9. Ihmmy*

    please no competition based ‘fun’ nonsense. Or at least, not exclusively that. Some of us loathe competition based nonsense

    1. Anx*

      Oh absolutely.

      My favorite activities are the ones that are supposed to teach us the value of teamwork by proving how much less efficient you were trying to include everyone’s contributions in a timed exercise when you could have won the challenge in less time on your own. Ugh.

    2. Goldie*

      OMG yes. So humiliating. One of my proudest workplace achievements is that I once helped cancel a department-wide vote thing at work – people were supposed to vote their coworkers for a dozen different categories: “most likely to succeed”, “best haircut”, “biggest drama queen”, “most difficult to work with” and so on. I overheard a bunch of my coworkers planning to all vote for the same guy for biggest drama queen (which, granted, he kind of was). I didn’t even like the guy, but I figured he wouldn’t get much work done after receiving that nomination – that’d depress the hell out of anyone, let alone someone who appears to be borderline depressed already! So I went to my boss’s office, closed the door, explained my reasons, and volunteered for the biggest drama queen award to be given to me instead. He had an even better idea and convinced his higher-ups to have the whole thing pulled. The potential drama-queen guy never even found out what he’d dodged.

  10. illini02*

    While I agree in this instance, I don’t think its bad in general. I think in this instance you are putting a band-aid on a bullet hole, so you really are likely to do more harm than good. But I think in general, if these things are put in place when times are fine, then it can definitely improve morale and maybe not make the bad times so bad.

    1. JB*

      Agreed if it’s small stuff and optional. For those of us who hate mandatory activities that are fun to the people organizing them but not to people like me, having to spend more than a nominal amount of time participating in them is the opposite of morale-boosting.

      1. Chinook*

        “Agreed if it’s small stuff and optional”

        Can I also add that it should be inclusive? If you are doing a company wide “fun activity,” please esnure that all your staff can opt in. Nothing is worse than being the receptionist stuck behind while everyone is out at the annual golf tournament or the shift that has to work while everyone is at the annual Christmas Party. Both times, not only did I not even get leftovers or thought of in the prize draws, but I had to deal with customers looking for staff who are away and cover for them.

        1. Elizabeth West*

          My backup and I took turns with the potlucks at Exjob. He’d watch the phone when I went to get my food and then I’d watch it while he got his. We’d take turns with who had to eat at their desk. They never started them when I normally took lunch, and he was part-time and didn’t get a lunch anyway.

        2. Felicia*

          Also make sure it doesn’t involve physical stuff…like my old job had a fun game type thing (it wasn’t fun for me) styled after minute to win it, which involved a lot of doing ridiculous things, but alsoo things that involved a lot of physical coordination, and my coworker with some physical disabilities couldn’t participate (i didn’t want to participate, but she mentioned to me that she did, so both those things suck)

          1. Wanna-Alp*

            Physical stuff can be ok so long as people who don’t want to participate don’t have to, and people who do want to participate can.

            At my former place of work, we had a rounders match, with people from our building vs people from the other building, at a time when the workload wasn’t frantic (important!). The game is such that you don’t need to be sporty or experienced to take part and have fun, and allows for people in different roles like umpire or backstop or pitcher, which would accommodate at least several physical disabilities. One guy hit and another ran for him. Some spectated and had a good time. We all ate yummy food (although the choice of food could have been more culturally sensitive).

            I think that was the funniest time I’ve ever had at work. My laugh muscles hurt for the rest of the afternoon. Particularly the sight of the boss trying and failing to catch the ball :-)

    2. fposte*

      Yeah, we have various fun things around the office; they’re all opt-in, and they’ve been around for a while.

      But, as you say, I think there would have been a lot of resentment if they’d suddenly been offered to us as a solution to a bad situation. That seems more like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic for a perky game of musical chairs.

    3. ThursdaysGeek*

      Yup. We bought and wrapped presents for some families in need at Christmas, and the company bought lunch. Totally optional. There was a potluck right before the Superbowl: optional. The company provides tickets for various sports teams, gives away what they can to people who request them. Our safety meeting isn’t optional, but they provide healthy and non-healthy foods for it. But all of that is based on a company that treats us well, gives us the tools we need to do our jobs, and treats us like adults.

  11. fposte*

    I’m thinking about that “Shouldn’t employees be able to have fun at work?” question. I have a lot of fun at my work, but it’s because I really like my colleagues and staff and we enjoy most of what we do, not because we do special non-work events together at work. The OP makes it sounds as if fun is something that gets applied to an existing structure, like some kind of work frosting, and if she doesn’t spray it on there’s no fun to be had. But if they’re unhappy with the fundamental structure, a bean bag toss isn’t going to change that; you relieve the tension by relieving the problem.

    1. LBK*

      The way I like to think about this is whether I want my job to be fun or satisfying. I consider a fun job one where I get to do something I genuinely find enjoyable. For me, being a video game tester, a cat sitter or a film critic would be extremely fun jobs because those are things that are fun for me to do anyway. A job that spends a lot of time on “fun” activities that aren’t actually related to my work isn’t a fun job, it’s a regular job with occasional distractions, because the fun parts aren’t actually my job.

      When I come in to work, I don’t anticipate that I will have fun doing financial reporting all day (although sometimes it is – I get a bit of a tingle every time I use VLOOKUP, but that’s a whole other thing). However, I do want my work to be satisfying. I want to feel like I’ve accomplished something every day. I want to feel like I’m surrounded by like-minded people who are supportive and that I like interacting with, professionally and socially. I want to feel like my efforts are appreciated and recognized, especially in regards to the most boring parts of my job. I wouldn’t consider any of those things “fun”, but they’re definitely satisfying.

      The majority of jobs are never going to be fun just by their nature, no matter how many bake sales or Mario Kart tournaments you arrange in the office. For those jobs that just aren’t fun, focus your energy on making them satisfying instead.

      1. fposte*

        That’s a really good point, and it gets at some of the unease I felt at the writer’s defensive negative phrasing, like she felt she was sticking up for a right that was getting ignored. It’s okay for a job not to be fun. It doesn’t mean it’s horrible or unsatisfying.

      2. Cara*

        Good point. My job is satisfying but not fun, and I’m perfectly happy with that. I have my evenings and weekends free to have fun, after all. I definitely wouldn’t enjoy mandatory “fun” activities at work, and I’d prefer to be able to opt out without being seen as a non-team player, which is difficult at many companies.

        There really aren’t many pleasant perks that can be added to a job that aren’t either “forced fun” or financial benefits, since OP says their company is going through tough times. But if OP is looking for something nice to do for the staff, bringing in snacks is pretty much universally appreciated.

        1. Myrin*

          Especially since “fun” is such a different thing for everyone. For example, I immensely enjoy gardening – it brings me great fun but I suspect it’s not what people typically think of when they say “fun things”. On the flip-side, the things the OP suggests sound pretty… not fun to me (I don’t wanna say “horrible” since that is reserved for things like the OP who wrote in because her employer made them do sports or something), so there.

    2. Kelly L.*

      Work frosting! I hope that becomes a meme, because it describes a whole lot of situations that come up on here.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        We need a list of AAM memes.

        Chocolate teapot
        Work frosting
        Hanukkah balls
        Aack! Don’t do that! (my favorite)
        Your boss is an ass (I picture this with a smarmy Nicolas Cage photo for some reason)

        I’m sure I’m missing a bunch.

        1. LBK*

          Maybe not memes, but there are the classic quotes “Black magic is one of many occupational hazards” and the more recent “Shamans have to have day jobs, I guess.”

      2. ThursdaysGeek*

        Work frosting is a good thing, provided the work itself is a cookie. It’s not so good if the work is a road apple.

    3. Anx*

      Also, fun isn’t happiness. And a lot of people don’t seem to understand that fun isn’t equally sought after by everyone. It took a long time for the people in my personal relationships to understand that choosing fun activities over responsible ones lowers my self-esteem and makes me feel worse. I can’t enjoy the activity in the moment and I regret it after the fact. Maybe one day I’ll find myself in need of some fun or in a place where I feel more deserving of it, but happiness to me right now is working toward my goals. That’s what makes me happy. Not fun.

      I feel like a buzz-kill but I could care less about fun. Give me satisfaction, pride, security, appreciation, respect, etc. at work, but fun isn’t a priority.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Well said. Everyone has their own definition of fun and that includes the value of fun to them as an individual.

    4. Just me*

      I agree! We have a weekly happy hour that does more to break down silos than anything. It’s organized by those of us who want to go out and have fun- not the company.

      I really enjoy my team, but I have a VP who is smart, helps me grow, and supports us. We are well paid. We are high performing. Meetings are often full of jokes and laughing.

      Decorating cookies would annoy me. Being recognized and given the support I need makes work fun.

    5. Connie-Lynne*

      One of the teams I now oversee budget for is the team in charge of “fun” events at work. Part of our justification for the budget is that these things build connection between teams, and free up people’s brains to interact in unexpected ways: we’ve all had that moment of beating our heads against a problem and then figuring out the answer when we take a break, or describing it to someone else.

      Our philosophy is to have such events be frequent, small, opt-in, and varied — provide non-alcoholic fun, for example. We also try to make sure they tie in to work, or more-efficient work, in some way. Some examples:
      * “Tech Talks” on cocktails, brewing, or wine at happy hour, so that people get practice in public speaking.
      * Organizing a number of fun kids’ activities in the office (including a babysitter) on days when the schools have off but we don’t. This was great; _so_ many more parents came in to the office that day than usual.
      * Hosting meetups and user groups around the technologies we use.

      Budget for everything but the meetups would probably disappear immediately if we had to do layoffs or a hiring freeze, and rightly so — during good times, meetups help people network outside the company and bring new folks in; during bad times, meetups help people grow their networks in case they need to find new work.

  12. B*

    Great response for this question. I can tell you from first hand experience when there is stress and worry I do not want to have fun. I want honesty and a willingness to make things better, cookie decorating and being all kumbaya is not it. If you can pay for the cookies, decorating expenses, etc you can pay for me to have some coffee each morning or a spoon. And if you expect me to go home, cook, and bring it in for a pot luck you are truly mistaken. I would rather take a sick day than spend my money on people who may or may not eat my food. I will then not take it home because everyone has coughed on and touched it.

    My other pet peeve on this…do not make me try to be friends with coworkers. Yes, I work with them professionally but it does not mean I like them personally. Two very VERY different things.

    1. Shortie*

      I so agree with you on the potluck. Even when they’re optional, people can feel obligated. And if people are already stressed or burned out, cooking (or even purchasing something ready-made) on their own time that people may not even like and schlepping it along with whatever else they need to take to work is not fun. Or at least not fun for everyone. I don’t even like being asked to bring in “some cookies for so and so’s birthday tomorrow” or “you don’t mind supplying the cups, right?” YES, I mind. We don’t need parties at work and tonight is not my grocery store night! Maybe I’m a scrooge, but that’s how I feel …

      1. Elizabeth West*

        I think this really depends on the workplace. I’ve worked in companies where it’s fun and spontaneous and I’m happy to bring stuff and eat with my coworkers and others where if you suggested a potluck I’d give you a big old side-eye. >_>

        1. Boo*

          Yeah, I think a lot of this stuff is fine when it’s a good workplace where most people are already pretty happy – then people are more likely to make an extra effort to bring in cookies or whatever – but the crappier the workplace, the more people will resent being asked/expected to go above and beyond in any way. Which I guess just proves that the fun stuff is in no way a solution to a crappy workplace. Fix the cause, not the symptoms.

  13. LillianMcGee*

    Really helpful article, thank you! I do like fun at work, but in planning things I realized early on it would have to be something that was, above all, OPTIONAL!

  14. Allison*

    A manager shouldn’t try to act as a cruise director. I would so much rather have a boss that allows for work-life balance (flexible hours, ability to occasionally work from home, etc.) so I can have fun on my own terms. The occasional team building bowling or trivia night might be fun, but different people have fun in different ways, and they should be able to find time for their favorite activities. It’s also important to make sure people have time to socialize with friends outside of work. Allowing for that will improve morale much more effectively than dragging people out for pizza after work.

  15. Lee*

    I agree! I’ve had good jobs and …challenging… jobs, and the challenging jobs always had “fun” activities that were resented by most of the staff, especially if they were after hours, or at the boss’s expensive summer home 1 1/2 hours away, or took the whole day.
    At the good jobs, where the work was interesting, good work was appreciated, bonuses were fair, managers encouraged learning and gave training, the same types of fun group activities were appreciated. My most recent position was with a company that had lower pay but high days off, and I had a fantastic manager. Bi-weekly staff meetings often involved a snack (provided by the manager or the staff). We all looked forward to them because the meetings were also time-efficient and effective. The occasional outings (for pizza, coffee, or fro-yo) were self-pay, took a less than an hour, and were well timed to match the work flow. The manager also took care of the basics; if someone had completed a tough task, she sent an email. If you needed project support, she’d try to provide it. If there was an opportunity for company-wide recognition, she’d nominate you. If the department got a congratulations, she shared it with the whole team. Good daily management goes a long way toward productivity and workplace happiness!

    1. Michele*

      Ugh. I used to have a horrible boss (worst ever for so many reasons) who insisted on “treating” us by having us drive two hours each way to his house in the country on our day off. He claimed it was for altruistic reasons, as if we had been clamoring to see what his bloated salary bought, but we all knew it was a way of showing off and weilding power.

      Note: I don’t think the LW is trying to show off. I think they just don’t know what to do with limited resources.

  16. ali*

    My company does a LOT of these things. I mean, a LOT. We have a fun committee and have at least one event a month. The thing is, they are all opt-in. No one is pressured to participate, and they almost always include free food. Just so far this year we’ve had a euchre tournament, a chili cook-off, and a ping-pong tournament (yes, we do in fact have a pingpong table in the breakroom, but we aren’t *that* culture).

    I don’t think that it’s ever affected our productivity. Some of these things, like the chili cook-off and Pi (pie) Day have been around since the beginning of the company and are traditions that a lot of the employees who have been around for awhile really look forward to.

    During December, we show Christmas movies in the conference room one day a week (and show it over and over all day). A lot of people just bring in their laptops and work while watching the movie. There’s also food, of course. Whatever we do, there is always food.

    Have I mentioned the food?

      1. ali*

        Yeah, most of it is company paid for, but there’s also a lot of pitch-in/pot-luck style. And we always end up with WAY too much food in either case, so there’s leftovers for days.

        And to be fair, it’s not always “good” food. The other day, the company bought a million White Castle burgers. Pretty thankful I was working from home that day! (But the reason? It’s really cold out and we don’t have a cafe anymore, so we don’t want people to go out if they don’t have to. Which was cool)

        1. OriginalEmma*

          I’m one of the few who actually enjoys those tiny burgers, so this would be such a treat for me. Now if they could get White Manna burgers? Heavennnnn.

          1. ali*

            Come on over! There’s probably 30 left in the fridge as of this morning. They’re even better when a week old, right? ;)

      2. long time reader first time poster*

        Away from the desks? LOL. I worked for an agency that provided free lunch but nowhere to sit and eat it. You basically grabbed the free chow and then shuffled right back to your desk and back to work. Genius move on management’s part, nobody ever wasted a precious minute that could have been spent working by leaving the office to get food…

    1. Jen RO*

      My previous job had a weekly “happy hour” type thing which included food and socializing. Attendance was optional, but most of us attended because we enjoyed it. I’d love to work in a place like that again!

    2. Elizabeth West*

      I worked in a small business where we would close for lunch and all twelve of us would walk up the street and eat at this bar that made really great sandwiches. Even though it was part-time and minimum wage, I LOVED THAT JOB SO MUCH. We had fun all day too–and pranked the hell out of each other (but we all knew each other and were friends).

  17. Helen*

    I agree with your answer. At my last job, pretty much everyone was unhappy–terrible benefits and work/life balance, bad pay, terrible clients, bad management, etc. Their solution to increase morale was to do things like “holiday week!” and “dollar raffle!” Shockingly, everyone still hated their jobs.

  18. the_scientist*

    My new workplace seems to take a good approach to team-building. Once a quarter, there are afternoon (so half-day) social/team-building events planned. They are blocked off in our calendars, we are all paid for the full work day and the events take place off-site. Activities are decided by a majority-rules vote, cost <$25 and there is (apparently) no obligation to stay beyond the end of the workday. Now, I've only been at New Job for a little while, so I haven't had the opportunity to attend an event yet but to me this seems like as good a way as any to do social events without placing undue burden on employees (particularly since they take place during work hours). I suppose the argument could be that if there's time for an afternoon off, we should all be allowed to just go home early once a quarter, but my team is so large that I can easily go days without interacting with certain co-workers so I think the opportunity to put in "face time" in a social setting during work hours is important and valuable here.

    1. Shortie*

      This sounds like it could work okay in a balanced environment. The problem in a stressed environment, though, is that people usually have high workloads and can’t afford that much time away from the office. They’re just stressed out the whole time thinking of how much work is piling up while they’re gone.

      1. the_scientist*

        Oh, absolutely! This happens to be a very balanced environment that treats employees well (generous salaries, excellent vacation time and benefits, flexible work hours, WFH options, autonomy, training opportunities) and also has a company-wide culture of promoting work-life balance. For example, all employees, even the most junior, are allowed to protect non-work hours from meetings (that is, before 9 a.m., after 5 p.m. and between 12 p.m. and 1 p.m.). Given all of the above, and also because of the nature of the work we do (I work in cancer research and very few people are cavalier or blase about cancer), people generally like their jobs to begin with, so these team-building events aren’t seen as time-wasting or out of touch. But certainly, in a less balanced environment, this model could be a total disaster.

        And obviously, my new workplace is not a perfect environment…but by and large it seems to be extremely balanced and functional.

  19. Gwen*

    Yeah, I really enjoy the occasional fun activities at my work BUT a) they are occasional b) they are totally non-mandatory and c) I really enjoy my work & my coworkers, so I like to do social activities with them and do, in fact, choose to do genuinely social things with some of them in my free time. If I was unhappy in my work, company-sponsored “fun” would not make me feel better.

  20. Green*

    Here are some constructive things you could do to help improve morale, depending on how dire things are:
    (1) Financial transparency and accountability from management. Sometimes just saying what everyone is thinking out loud helps and lets the company help shape the message instead of the rumor mill.
    (2) Q&A with leaders (+1 for allowing anonymously submitted questions)
    (3) Early information regarding layoffs as well as information regarding which positions may be impacted and which ones definitely won’t. It is extremely stressful for the people who are in positions that may be eliminated, but allows them to plan ahead and takes stress off from positions that definitely won’t be so that you won’t lose employees you intended to retain to uncertainty.
    (4) Information regarding the company’s plan to turn things around and/or minimize layoffs. Many employees want to know how they can help. For example, to avoid layoffs in my department, we haven’t been backfilling all year and are not subject to true layoffs because normal attrition accounted for the difference and has left a few spots open for current employees if positions are eliminated. However, our department head asked for buy-in on that plan early last year and asked us all to put in extra effort this year to absorb work when people left so that our colleagues would have soft landings if positions were eventually eliminated.
    (5) If you do have to have layoffs, do it in a way that preserves the dignity of the impacted people and provides as much financial cushion to them as you’re able to offer (non-working notice periods, etc.).
    (6) Reminders about employee assistance plans and other available resources.

    What they want right now is assurance. And if you’re not able to offer that, then the next best thing is *information* that allows them to make the best decisions they can.

    1. Green*

      Oh, and if you’re in financial difficulties, definitely do NOT do any “fun activities” that require spend. Depending on the size of the company, those things could add up to the amount of someone’s raise they expected but won’t be getting, bonus they expected but won’t be getting, or even someone’s salary. (And even if it only adds up to one person’s bonus, everyone will abstractly assume it was money that would otherwise have been theirs.) Depending on the level of uncertainty many employees will inevitably think that even low-key but unnecessary spending is disrespectful to the circumstances you’re in or takes something away from their paycheck.

      1. BeenThere*

        This also applied tothe management team around to have dinner with each other in every country. Ten return trips from Australia to the US is a fair bit of cash that could easily be many raises or whole years salaries.

        Tell them to suck it up like the rest of us and teleconference at odd hours.

  21. LizNYC*

    Suggestions for making work more “fun”:
    –Offer telecommuting options for 1-3 days a week. A day without a commute = a happier employee.
    –Allow flexible hours. 8-4, 9-5, 10-6, etc. Would allow those to better manage their work-life balance (and maybe fit in a workout = less stress).
    –Be transparent as possible with employees. Not knowing what’s going on with the company as a whole for a long period of time can be really demoralizing. Let employees know if efforts are improving the outlook or if there is more attention to be done in X sector. It will help everyone feel like they’re a part of a team to fix the company rather than just faceless cogs punching in and out each day.
    –In lieu of raises (bc I assume no one is getting them), give extra vacation/personal days/floating holidays. Employees deserve to be rewarded for their work, and even though cash is (usually) best, time is another commodity to use.

  22. Joey*

    I tend to disagree….sort of. I think fun activities can be a good thing when they’re done right. That means it can’t be the singular solution to better morale. They have to be a part of a concerted effort to a good work environment. First though you have to start with what’s most important to people- a good boss, competitive pay/benefits, and a manageable workload. And since you’re new to HR you should know that HR can’t make the workplace fun, that has to come from the manager. And of course if it’s coming from the manager it has to be genuine for it to work. That means if the manager is the serious type “fun” might be creating some performance based competitions or buying lunch to work through a project. The fluffy stuff only works with people that like fluffy stuff. In other words you have to allow managers the flexibility to create fun in their own ways. Otherwise it’s going to come off cheesy to the folks who prefer to do it another way.

    1. LBK*

      I think it’s a bit of a catch-22 – when morale is low people think “fun” will help, when morale is high people don’t see a need for it. If everyone’s already satisfied it rarely occurs to managers to buy everyone lunch or organize a picnic (which I do think makes it even more impactful when those perks are given on top of the rest of the job generally being awesome). It usually only happens in good times when it’s meant as a reward for exceeding effort or for getting through the busy season, and I suppose the argument then becomes whether rewards like that could come in a better form (like money or time off).

    2. river*

      The problem I have is that one person’s idea of fun is not the same as another’s. None of the activities the letter writer mentions sound the least bit enjoyable to me, but they seem to feel they are fun.

      And mandatory fun is never fun.

  23. Sunflower*

    Games and fun only work in an environment where everything else is working. When people are already stressed(and I’m talking bad kind, not just busy stressed) and anxious, being forced to participate in events not related to work is only going to frustrate them more. Similar to what Lizzy said above, this stuff is only fun if everything else is going relatively well and people are generally happy at work. Agree wholeheartedly that you improve employee morale (and productivity) by being a fair company and giving good benefits.

    I think these games and such seem to be big because they are cheaper on the surface than giving employees what they really want and need- either more money, more staff/resources or more time off. Companies seem to greatly downplay the cost of staff turnover and burnout. Or maybe they refuse to attribute it to themselves. I feel like they see big companies where people are dying to work and say ‘they have a ping-pong table. lets get one’ instead of ‘look at what they offer their employees, let’s get closer to that’.

    I would seriously consider giving time off or money if possible. I don’t work in HR so I can’t really calculate how time off computes but if you could tell people they can leave early one day, it really does make a difference, at least much more than a cupcake decorating contest.

  24. Mike*

    I had a lot of fun at one of my former companies but it was organic fun. People brought it card games and we’d play during lunch, there was a room with some video game consoles that people could play, one of the vendors provided some nerf guns so we had that, and more. The key points were that the stuff was there, management fostered an environment where people felt like they could use it, the people were willing to use it, and none of it was forced.

    1. Green*

      There was a previous letter about the nerf guns from the perspective of someone who did not find them fun. :)

      1. Mike*

        We were careful to not involve people who didn’t want to participate. After the first incident we adopted an informal rule of only involving those that were actively including themselves.

        It also died down after a few months (mostly because we couldn’t find the ammo)

    2. Nerd Girl*


      A company I worked for had a group of women that liked to watch soap operas during their lunch. They had brought in a little black and white TV and used to huddle around it in the break room. The company moved one of the TV’s that was no longer being used in their decaying A/V department into the break room and the ladies were able to enjoy their lunch watching the shows on a large, color screen. The group got larger as the screen did and lunch became a fun, social hour in there! I always liked to sit in there when All My Children was on…they were so animated watching that one!!!

      1. Judy*

        There was a group at a former company that watched movies at lunch. We brought our lunches, and between us, had lots of DVDs. It started when a younger engineer who had emigrated from another country when she was 12 stated that she had never seen the “original” star wars. We watched all the star wars, star trek, indiana jones, etc movies. We would watch for about 40 minutes a day. It was a nice break.

  25. Anon Accountan*

    Clear standards, feedback, market value pay and good benefits are what employees want. Is a good compromise the occasional company provided catered lunch? Can the company once a month provide lunch for employees, depending on the size of the company, and it wouldn’t be as awkward as some team building events.

  26. soitgoes*

    This is so Monica Geller. “We need rules! They control the fun!”

    I think it’s useful to be aware of the highly specific nature of certain activities that planners assume are universal. When I think about Valentine’s Day, I don’t think about decorating cookies. If I were in a relationship and I had a dinner planned for that night, I wouldn’t want to eat a bunch of cheapo cookies at work. If I were single on Valentine’s Day, I wouldn’t want to have to hear about other people’s dinner plans, which is what people would talk about during an activity that centered on that specific holiday.

    Stuff like this always comes off like someone thought it up in five minutes, and yet employees are expected to devote hours to these activities AND be grateful enough to tide over other issues for months afterward. And yeah, if you can afford to pay employees to sit and do this mindless nonsense, you can afford to pay them while letting them leave two hours early.

    1. LBK*

      This is so Monica Geller. “We need rules! They control the fun!”

      Monica: We’re supposed to start having fun in 15 minutes!
      Rachel: And clearly not a minute sooner.

  27. De Minimis*

    What improves morale is gestures of goodwill toward employees that don’t require anything in return. During the government shutdown [we were all deemed essential and had to come in to work, so morale was pretty low] some of the managers paid for a catered meal out of their own pockets. That really meant a lot.

  28. Scott M*

    As someone who frequently rolled my eyes at office ‘fun’ in the past, I recently found myself actually enjoying some recent events. Here was the key difference: I was actually enjoying my job FIRST, and that led me to enjoy more ‘fun’ events.

    Why do I enjoy my job now? Because I have a great boss whom I trust, and who provides clear expectations. And these expectations dovetail nicely with my plan for my career. And I don’t have unreasonable deadlines with little support or resources.

    In short, make sure the actual ‘work’ part of your employees day is satisfying, and they will be more likely to enjoy ‘fun’ with their coworkers. But don’t make it mandatory either way.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      This. I have been to my boss’ house for a few holidays and picnics. I had a great time. But the basics are in place- I have the materials and support I need to do my job. She listens to and answers my concerns and questions all the time.

      She gets the concept “you have to take care of those who are taking care of you”.
      Where this lands is we enjoy each other’s company and hanging out during non-work hours is a pleasure, not a chore. Never once has she ever said anything about needing some (synthetic) fun in our workplace.

  29. HR Manager*

    One of my companies had a the unspoken rule of “work hard, play hard”. So it was absolutely possible to mix fun and work (though not at the same time of course). We had many employees regularly putting in over 50 hrs a week (and not unheard of 60-70 hrs/wk), and so occasional breaks of fun in the office or offsite were welcome. I appreciate when employers try, as long as it’s not forced. I’ve actually had really pleasant and good team building experiences, so I don’t look at them with nearly as much skepticism, but I acknowledge they are hard to pull off well, and when organized well they can be great too, but I don’t think employers need to go there.

    The occasional ice-cream social, late afternoon beer/wine/snacks and the recreational ping pong game do wonders at sending the right message to employees that there is no need to work yourself to death 8-12 hrs straight. As long as you get your work done for clients, it’s all good. We broke out Wii for a department celebration once, and it was awesome, especially when the actual leaders get involved. That’s the key – if you’re looking to send the right message – make sure your executives play the part. Nothing rings false more than doing something like this for employees but none of management or the executive team are visible, get involved or cut loose. Then you know it’s just a check the box exercise.

    1. Anon Accountant*

      That sounds fun to have an ice cream social or snack foods in the afternoon. Management definitely needs involved. At one job management even held a midday picnic for employees where they grilled hot dogs and had other picnic foods. It was fun and the company had really put a lot of work into it.

    2. Green*

      We had a beer cart that would roll around on Thursdays. I was fun for the first year until you realized that you had to drink with your coworkers because you didn’t have time to have friends outside of work.

      1. Nerd Girl*

        Workplaces like that sound like HYDRA’s incentives program on Agents of SHIELD. We’ll make it so you want to work here…no matter what. LOL!

    3. Goldie*

      This is exactly what I came here to comment on. My problem with this would be, if people already have tight deadlines (as indicated by 60-70 hr work weeks), wouldn’t a midday beer pong… er ping-pong game or ice cream social further cut into the time they need to put in so they can meet those deadlines? A break from 2 to 3 PM is all good and well, unless it means that I have to stay until midnight tonight to make up for it.

  30. Those are Writing Words!*

    I definitely agree with this, especially the bit about how even if the LW wants happy employees–and it sounds like they do–“it’s not about entertaining them” but actually thinking about they want.

    Also, while I’ve seen one case when a non-work activity–in this case, a weekly knitting club–actually did become a good place for employees in stressful jobs to relax and connect, the reasons it worked had little to do with how “fun” or “exciting” knitting is. (Though I’m sure the growing popularity of knitting didn’t hurt.)

    Instead, it worked because first, it was extremely easy to go to (in a central room), and there was no pressure to go, or go every week. Second, if you did go, you didn’t have to knit, or even talk to others–people came to read, to eat silently and text on their phones, to get the chance to watch hockey in a group; it required little socializing energy, but for some of us it was nicer than eating alone at our desks. Third, people at all levels participated and the managers and directors who came made a point to try to talk to entry-level employees like me, so even if I had hated the club it would have been an opportunity to build connections or learn about departments I was interested in. And most importantly, though the work was stressful (non-profit), the club coincided with a larger push by management to actively encourage people to take time off and take their full lunch break whenever possible–without penalizing them for it at all. So the knitting club wasn’t seen as yet another time-drain or energy-drain, or something that meant you’d have to stay late if you participated.

    And even so, it took several months, almost a year, for it to become an established “tradition”! I’m just putting this out there because I think there are ways that activities improve culture even if you can’t improve pay, for example, but they absolutely require time for organic growth and some sort of visible benefit to employees.

    1. Jennifer*

      Oooh, I wish we could do that in our office. It wouldn’t work with everyone’s ever-changing schedules, but that sounds really nice.

  31. ACA*

    At my old job, we had weekly “quizzes” that were supposed to “bring a moment of brevity” (sic) to dull afternoons. “Winners” got to take a “prize” from the “Kool Stuff Box.” One time I won a single envelope of microwave popcorn.

  32. nona*

    I think these sound fun. But there are two things:

    These should be optional for employees. I like the events that are planned at my job, but I also like that I can stay out of them if I need to keep working to meet a deadline.

    Second – and this is a really general point, not assuming that you aren’t already doing this, LW – you should focus on improving the rest of the workplace before adding the fun stuff.

  33. Objectively visualize out-of-the-box sources*

    Thank you – I’ve bookmarked this article to share with the PTB. A few years back, some feedback was given that employees weren’t always getting along and working well together. Instead of targeting the issues as they related to getting our core work done, someone decided that what we all needed was to have FUN! TOGETHER!

    So “fun” events were scheduled, and poorly attended. Rather than taking this as information that people didn’t value these activities and deciding to stop wasting time on them, they made them MANDATORY. Yeah. Now we’re required to participate in events that are not enjoyable to all (because no one event could ever do that), all while trying to be nice to the coworkers who we still have working issues with.

    Please, managers and leaders – if there is an issue around coworker relationships, it is most likely based on working styles, unaligned priorities, respect, etc., and NOT because they just didn’t know the other person liked cats too!

    1. Natalie*

      This just reminds me of Better Off Ted for some reason:

      The company has expressed your individuality for you in 4 exciting and inoffensive themes: Green Bay Packers, cats, space, and classic cars. Enjoy your new personalities!

      1. Objectively visualize out-of-the-box sources*

        Yes, exactly!

        Although the one that came to my mind was 30 Rock – “Ain’t no party like a Liz Lemon party, because a Liz Lemon party is mandatory.”

  34. C Average*

    I am the biggest Grinch alive when it comes to organized fun, but last summer my office did some team-building stuff that, looking back, was highly successful.

    We spent the first half of the day touring another department in our company and learning about their work. They do very innovative stuff that we otherwise would’ve never known about. It was fun, informative, and actually helped us do our jobs better (by adding to our networks, enhancing our company knowledge, and instilling pride in us about the cool things our company is doing). Then we all went out for lunch and beers together and talked about . . . anything we wanted. Mostly the morning’s events.

    I’ve been to literally dozens of happy hours and games and outings and “fun” events that I gritted my teeth and endured. They didn’t improve my morale, make my team more cohesive, or help me do my job better.

    Give me something fun and work-related any day. If you want me to blow off steam in a way that’s enjoyable to me, though, let me organize that myself, please.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      This actually begins to make sense. People will not take the time to go into other departments to see what’s going on and that can be kind of awkward if they try.

      One place I worked we were informed that because everyone was so unhappy with their jobs, they were going to trade places with people in other departments for a week. (This trade was doable, especially if they left a few core people who knew what they were doing in the department.)
      Well, as you can guess that blew up big time. Because the underlying message was “you think your job sucks, wait until you see what is going on over there. You’ll never complain again.” People started muttering stuff about quitting on the spot, so the plan got the axe.

  35. Bevina del Ray*

    This is so right on. There’s also the fact that even in company cultures where morale is already solid and there aren’t any “sinking ship” vibes, some people just absolutely HATE group ‘fun’ activities. I happen to be one of them, even as a combo intro/extravert, because it feels forced, and I absolutely must be “on” or demonstrate that I’m “enjoying myself.” A celebratory dinner is different, and it’s great if companies want to reward great progress or teamwork, but most people probably want to leave work at work, choose what level of social engagement they’d like to opt into or out of, and not deal with the anxiety of ‘fun’ activities. I’d recommend to the OP to not only follow AAM’s advice, but also that if they’re really on the fence, poll your workers–see what they’d like to do to increase morale. Ask for open-ended, anonymous replies to a question about what might increase morale, and you’ll get your answers.

  36. Brett*

    I know that the budget for “fun” activities is not enough to pay for raises.

    But it might be enough to pay for some optional professional development. Especially if I think the company is shaky, I would much rather have training to refresh my skills than Valentine’s cookies and movies. Having the company actually interested in my development would boost my morale more than fun.

    1. Goldie*

      Awww but if you train them, they might leave, whereas if you give them cookies, they’ll come back for more cookies! Seriously, it’s a great idea – something I’ve never seen at any of my past jobs, but would love to.

      1. Goldie*

        Correction, my last job did put together a few good training seminars for us. Much better than the cookies! More fun, too.

  37. MaryMary*

    So what do you appreciate from a mid to low level manager or HR person to improve morale? Assume these people are doing what they can from Alison’s list in the article: being fair and effective, setting clear expectations, passing on useful feedback, recognizing good work, but they can’t really change pay and benefits, resources, or workload. Would you want your manager to try to plan some fun (non-mandatory, I’m totally agreed on that)? Or if they can’t impact the big stuff, does the cookie exchange or happy hour or office trivia content not matter? Or maybe even hurt more than it helps?

    1. LBK*

      I wouldn’t recommend it. My guess is that if morale is low it’s because you can’t change pay or benefits and if you can’t, you can’t, there’s nothing you can really do about it. Spending money on a fun event is going to be like a kick in the shins to people you told you don’t have the funds to pay more, even if it’s a small amount, and spending office time when you can’t give them more vacation time or more people to do work isn’t going to make them feel great either.

      Unfortunately I think the answer here is that you have to figure out a way to fix your lack of funds to pay for the things that will really improve morale. I know it’s not really a great answer and probably way out of your control.

      1. LBK*

        Although I think one thing that might be helpful is to be really level with your employees about the financial situation. If you’ve flatout told them that raises and promotions aren’t coming and you’re not hiring more help, then it’s up to them to decide if those are conditions they want to work in.

        Sometimes the drag on morale in those situations comes from the uncertainty of feeling like you’re constantly waiting for a promised raise or other change that will come “once we have the money”. If you make it clear that money isn’t coming, that might help people not feel strung along.

    2. soitgoes*

      Just don’t do it. I kind of get how “I want to do something kind for my employees” gets turned into “IT MUST BE AN IN-OFFICE EVENT” but it’s not something that employees actually want. And yet, when employers pose this question, they resist the answers that are given: let people leave early or, if it’s possible, use the annual “fun time” budget to give people raises, especially if they’re hourly (because even 50 cents an hour can go a long way). It’s the gift card principle – someone wants to give you money, but is trying to control how you spend it. Don’t take that money and spend it on catering that some of the employees won’t like or can’t eat. Give them the money and let them do what they want with it.

      The only time I’ve ever enjoyed small office perks was at my current job. All three of the women in the office (myself included) are under 30, and my boss’ wife likes to send in Godiva Valentine’s candies, Victoria’s Secret gift bags, etc. Stuff we actually WANT. And yes, it’s expensive, but that’s the compromise.

        1. soitgoes*

          It was a set of perfume sprays and some yoga pants! idk, I’m of the generation that grew up wearing sweatpants with PINK on the butt. Getting a gift of MOAR VS THINGS is so much fun.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      Morale does not tank for just one reason. If there is a morale problem more than one thing is going on. I would say look around for toxic bosses or look around to see if anyone is falsifying paperwork. Does the AC/heat work? Advocate for people if the basics are not working correctly. What about safety issues, are corners being cut? Are people turning a blind eye?

      If the company is faced with a serious financial issue, the people doing the work KNOW how to effectively cut costs. Listen to them. Consider asking for volunteers to work shorter weeks to help ease the need for layoffs.

      In short, roll up your sleeves and dig in. Look at the nuts and bolts of what is actually going on.

  38. hayling*

    My last job was at a company with a major morale problem. We weren’t having financial issues or anything like the OP’s but a lot of people were miserable. Having a giant holiday party (that probably cost $10k) and spring picnic didn’t balance the low pay and crappy management.

    My current company has a fair amount of non-mandatory fun stuff but everyone is pretty happy and everyone already likes each other, so it’s more a symptom of a good company culture than trying to fix a bad one.

  39. AnotherHRPro*

    For some organizations, having fun at work is an important part of their culture. The thing is, this isn’t for everyone and you can’t force your organization to change the culture into a fun-loving one. For example, Zappos and Southwest are both known for their fun (in good times and bad). I personally wouldn’t work at either company. They actively select employees who will fit into that culture that embraces fun at work. So unless your organization is already an established “fun-zone” it will be very hard to introduce fun activities without it seeming hollow, forced and reactive. If you believe their is an opportunity to increase levity and enjoyment at work, encourage managers to find ways to make their departments more fun, but fun that fits into their culture or established norms. For example, my team is not a big socializing group. They are mostly introverts. They do have “fun” working on the occasional project as a team and getting silly from time to time, which I encourage. It fits our norm. A company-wide ice-cream social would not.

  40. BritCred*

    I’ve had 2 “forced fun” things in my past which really got to me because they just didn’t fit with the work and were too invasive on the job:

    1) a day trip to Ireland – get on a plane stupidly early in the morning, get back late and still have to work the next day. And be “on holiday” with around 20 other co-workers on forced activities etc. Yes, it was on the companies dime but a) I don’t want to spend an exhausting day with my co workers and I hate flying for medical reasons and would struggle to do such a long day and not be snappy at the end of it let alone work the next day. My line manager got so bent out of line when I said that I didn’t want to go and would prefer to actually *work* the day instead.

    2) Someone once made our quarterly meeting into a full day meeting with so called fun activities which basically included doing a mock up of other departments work for them. During our busy period where we had a new clients job that needed to be out the next day. Due to it being mandatory during the short breaks I had the Director for my area trying to get me to do work on that job. Co workers were also being annoying since they knew they had a captive audience and they were the office clowns….

    I admit the OP is arranging much different types of activities here but I’d caution against making them mandatory and caution against not being realistic about departments and workers being so busy due to the season/workloads that they really don’t want to join in.

    The two activities to me wouldn’t really appeal either – based around Aprils Fools and enough “jokes” and jokers get in the way day to day in any office I’ve worked in. And the movie over lunch? lunch is my quiet time…

    I know I sound boring and prudish – I’m not. I’m just focussed at work and have worked with far too many people that have made me jaded to organised “fun” in the office….lol

  41. DMC*

    Depending on the nature of the work and whether employees are exempt or nonexempt, the best morale booster, I think (at least for me), is being told it’s okay to leave half a day early on a Friday (I’m exempt, though). Occasional surprise “go home early today” commandments are golden around here in my office. We all love them. We do have a mixture of exempt and nonexempt folks, and while I’m not 100% sure how it’s handles with the nonexempt folks, my hopeful guess is that they are paid their normal hours (they’re all happy to take the time off, so I assume they’re getting paid a full day). Now, I know that can send the wrong message if a company is really hurting, but if it’s communicated properly, I think the employees will really appreciate it. Or a gifted “telecommute” day. I do realize that in some cases it’s just not feasible with workload, deadlines, or budget. Around here, though, even when we have a lot on our plates, most people take management up on those occasional offers (but not everyone leaves at the same time, so if someone’s working on deadline, they’ll stay a bit later than everyone else but still leave earlier than they otherwise would have).

    1. Natalie*

      My office does that too – we officially close early the day before major holidays (4th of July, Christmas, etc), and unofficially close early other times, like the first reaaaally nice day in spring or possible last nice day in fall. Us non-exempt employees are paid our usual number of hours.

  42. Mephyle*

    If people are stressed, burnt out and anxious, they are surely overworked. It’s obvious to every reader here that subtracting from the time they have available to do their job is the opposite of a solution, and yet it didn’t occur to the OP, or they wouldn’t have suggested their idea of ‘fun activities in the workplace.’ I wonder if OP was able to connect the dots and see the light back in the time when Alison first answered the question.

  43. Anx*

    This isn’t so much about ‘fun’ but about morale in general:

    When making decisions about boosting morale, always consider what may be different for your employees.

    For example, I’ve seen management decide to close at the first sign of snow and err on the side of “we could all use the snow day.” They of course were salaried. Many employees lost a day’s pay, which is a significant chunk of their paycheck when they are part-time, and had less wiggle room for sick days. To be clear, safety should always be paramount, but what bothered me was the reasoning for the decision and more importantly, not recognizing that even if you had to close for snow for safety reasons, it could lower morale.

    {I happen to have a snow day, today. I work at a school so the decision isn’t about employees so much as students and there are much bigger liability and safety concerns. But still, snow days are terrible when you are hourly and part-time. I’ve lost 15% of my paycheck to snow this month and I’m not even in an area with major snow fall. Fortunately I haven’t opened my Valentine’s Day presents so they can be returned.}

  44. jen*

    yeah, some activities can be fun, but context and tone are everything. today, a new C-level exec was named to take over my dept and a few others. the person is internal and already known by most of the people they will manage. most people in the departments know each other. this has been delayed for over 7 months and there are still additional restructuring pieces happening. we’re also in the middle of our budget process. and this new exec’s first announcement was… an afternoon of city-scavenger-hunting with teams drawn form a hat so that we can all get to know each other better- a not-mandatory-but-really-mandatory activity to end at a bar, for further ‘bonding’. i did not see one truly enthusiastic face.

    1. Sadsack*

      A scavenger hunt may seem fun, but could be rather disastrous. I think I would encourage my team to just admit defeat and head to the bar.

      1. Windchime*

        Yeah, or pile into a car and hit Target to get all the items, then head to the bar the clear winners for the day.

    2. Vicki*

      One year, my department had an off-site at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. It’s an awesome museum / aquarium and not inexpensive, so I was happy to have them buy my ticket. The off-site began at 11:30 am. I showed up at 9:30 am, when the doors opened, with my spouse (he paid for his own ticket), and we walked around and enjoyed the exhibits for 2 hours. Then the work folks showed up and I joined them for lunch and a very not-fun “scavenger hunt” through the exhibits in which the point was not to enjoy things but to run around trying to answer questions on a printed sheet faster than the other “teams”. Blech.

  45. BananaPants*

    No mandatory, forced fun. Morale isn’t so hot around here and hasn’t been for years. We’re all overworked and get a pittance for an annual increase when we get anything at all. We had layoffs 2 years ago and have spent the last year or more under constant threat of “reorganization”. As an exempt employee I would rather be told to leave an hour or two early on a Friday than be badgered into spending my lunch hour decorating cookies or watching a movie.

    One “fun” thing we do that everyone seems to enjoy is the group picnic. Some segments go out for a group lunch but mine has a picnic every year. It’s held on a Friday in early fall – in the last few years the company has provided around $8-10 per employee to pay for food, but prior to that it was paid for/provided by the 4-5 managers in the segment. We work in the morning, then meet at a local park and the mangers grill/cook lunch. There are organized sports/games in the afternoon with voluntary participation – some just sit and chat while others play kickball or badminton. People can leave any time after around 3 PM, but the entire group is “unofficially” invited to the nearby home of one of the managers for a beer – and a good number of us go (we can’t have alcoholic beverages at the picnic itself due to company policy). It’s a nice time and a good way to get out of the office with coworkers, and it doesn’t take up any of my personal time outside of work.

  46. Amber Rose*

    There are better ways to show care and concern and promote de-stressing than “fun”.

    When we’re swamped, our company makes lunch. Pizza sometimes, but for instance, last week one of the managers brought in a crock pot and made chili. We were encouraged to hang out and eat lunch, but not forced to. Morning runs for coffee are also common and a way to give everyone a quick breather.

    One of our employees was on her last day so we had a choice: leave a little early (half hour or so) or have a beer and say goodbye.

    The theme here is choice. Though we do “team building” stuff like build playgrounds or have picnics, these are things we’re asked about ahead of time.

  47. HR Ninja (green belt)*

    First, I want to applaud the LW for recognizing the issue of low morale and trying to figure out a solution. Even better for recognizing some of the causes of the low morale.

    Creating fun though isn’t the job of Human Resources and fun doesn’t equal improved morale. Human Resources, when done right, should be about developing employees and leadership, opening communication lines between managers and their reports and representing not only the legal side of dealing with human beings but also the ethical side as well. No where in there should HR professionals be planning potlucks or cookie decorating or anything of the like. That doesn’t say Human Resources professional – that says Party Planner. There is nothing wrong with being a Party Planner but that’s just not the job of HR. I realize that sometimes businesses off load these events to HR because they can’t think of anyone else to do it but today, LW, you have the choice. So choose to lead instead of plan!

    Not everyone views increased morale in the same way so you’ll need to consider a multi-pronged approach if you really want to affect change.

    Start with communication. Your management team needs to communicate the troubles with the business, what’s going on to correct the situation, what the immediate plans are (layoffs, no layoffs, options to reduce work hours in order to keep people employed etc.) and how employees can help. They will also want to be giving feedback to their direct reports regarding work product just like they would during the good times. Managers need to be out and seen and communicating.

    Next try offering free opportunities for work life balance or improvement. Others have already mentioned leaving work early and I’m all for that. Other options include giving an extra day off with pay to someone as a reward for doing something incredible or amazing, public recognition of good work, kudos and just plain thanking employees for their dedication during these trouble times. But do this personally and make sure it’s sincere.

    I also personally step up my lunch and learns for employees. I try to do a lunch and learn quarterly for employees in the office – usually professional development related. How to build your personal board of directors, creating your golden circle, how to have crucial conversations, creating better presentations or similar items. I’ve been known to present certain TED talks about leadership, innovation etc and lead a lunch discussion around these topics. I’ve had financial planners come in and discuss financial planning, executive coaches come in and discuss networking, had leadership give a talk about their past or a book they read recently that really resonated with them and our EAP representative come in and talk about services they offer – you get the idea. All of this was free, all of this is in my wheel house as a developer of people and this was all during lunch. People would bring in their own lunches and this would give them a break. Never mandatory, advertised well in advance (2-3 weeks at least) and I would always let people know if they couldn’t attend for any reason they could see me later and I would go over it with them personally.

    Finally, make sure people have the resources they need to get their jobs done. Believe it or not this goes a long way towards helping morale. If people don’t have the tools, information or other people they need it makes their jobs 10 times harder and gives them a negative outlook. If people don’t have the tools see how you can help get them what they need or make sure the right people who can provide these tools know about it.

    Holy cow that was long winded.

  48. Jessa*

    And OMG as the introverted disabled person in the office here…99% of these things are NOT inclusive of me. I end up having to either say “no I cannot go outside in the summer unless you want me to go to hospital because I cannot breathe,” or other reason that I cannot eat this thing I’m allergic to, or perform this task that requires standing up all afternoon. Or whatever.

    Even if I liked the garbage they usually come up with there are often a lot of people in an office that have visible or hidden disabilities and it’s not required that they notify anyone unless and until they need an accommodation. Way to be a party pooper Jessa, having to explain that I can’t X after everyone has signed onto it and management is screaming how mandatory it is. And then I get the “make her feel guilty” looks and sometimes comments, because I’m not going to tell the entire office necessarily, and it’s not their business why I don’t have to do this thing and they do.

    Then watch the ones who line up after me for other valid reasons. I’m all for completely voluntary fun.

  49. Suzanne*

    No, no, & no. I want to like my work, feel valued, and like my co-workers. I do not want to have forced fun at work. I only want to bring in cookies when I feel like baking cookies. I don’t do crafts at home so I sure as heck don’t want to do them at work.
    The HR manager at one job thought we should have fun by having a corn hole tournament pitting departments against each other. Game were played on our breaks. Yippee, skippee. No thanks. I’d like to use my break for, you know, a break. The carry-ins were always “fun” too. Random food made by Gawd knows who that had been sitting out Gawd knows how long by the time we were allowed to have lunch.

    You can’t mandate fun, but treating the employees like human beings rather than worker drones will go a long way.

  50. Neeta*

    What about doing it after hours and making participation voluntary?

    Our company does this every few months, and while I don’t always participate, sometimes it’s nice to just go and have a drink in the kitchen, and maybe grab something sweet.

    Granted, you did say that the company was going through some tough financial times, so maybe that’d be a strain on the budget… in which case it wouldn’t be a good idea.

  51. C Average*

    OK, I am waaaay late to this party, but had a truly excellent conversation about this whole concept with a friend and really want to share our conclusions.

    We decided that these quirky, “fun” team-building functions are our workplace’s attempt to be the Manic Pixie Dream Company: “Look at how much fun I am! Look at how hip I am! Look at my childlike exuberance and ability to embrace my own awkwardness! And whatever you do, don’t be a grinch and bring up my less endearing characteristics or the fact that I’m clearly dysfunctional, because that would be unkind and not very supportive.”

  52. Amy*

    I feel like “fun activity time” during working hours is a giftcard, while going home early would be cash. The gift card says: you have three hours out of work, but you can only spend them doing this specific activity. Whereas letting me go home early is cash: I have a certain amount to spend, and can use it any way I like.

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