Sunday, August 17, 2008

How Much Fun is Fun at Work Really?

It has become all the rage these days to have vision boards. Well, let me just say, I have a vision wall. It started out with just one picture, torn from an American Express magazine ad from a few years ago. Kate Winslet is prettily chewing on a fingernail and studying what can only be the script for her next movie. It was published about the same time I was single-mindedly focused on a book proposal. So I tore it out and taped it to the wall behind my desk chair. My hope was that it will remind me that it’s possible to be attractive while looking like hell, focused on work, sitting like a man, chawing down on an expensive manicure and surrounded by the tedious detritus of paperwork. You know, kind of like what my day is like, when I’m not on the road interviewing people who love their work.

That picture quickly began attracting company. Now I have pictures and headlines and inspirational words taped all over the place. Clippings have reached around corners, jumped the empty space where my door is always open, invaded the closet bi-fold doors, and threatened to knock over the 7 ft. tall twin bookshelves so they can have those bare walls as well. It’s a regular Stephen King novel of the invasion of inspirational magazine snippets. (If I’m ever tempted to sell in this down market, all I have to do is remember the clutter of clippings and what a drag it will be to take them down. That should snap me right out of any idea of selling low.)

Anyway, I’ve got a few clippings that I’m especially fond of. One I’ll tell you about because it just makes me smile. The other one I’ll tell you about because it’s actually pertinent to this blog posting. (I always take such a long time getting around to the core theme of my blog posts, don’t I?)

So, the clipping that makes me grin is a picture of a penguin leaping, vertical and stiff-legged into mid-air with his flippers flapping behind him like angel wings. I found a headline that reads “footloose and fancy free,” which I taped directly under his feet. I’ve found two clippings of the word “joy,” which I’ve taped around his head.

The other one is a headline I’ve pulled from some ad. I feel kind of badly that I don’t know who the sponsor of this particular inspiration was – that company deserves the credit (well, at least the copy writer does):

“When your life flashes before your eyes, make sure it’s fun to watch.”

Fun, huh? What a concept.

How many people can you think of (notice I didn’t say, “know”) who actually have fun at work? Here’s what I’ve come up with: Richard Branson and Samantha Brown. (And me, sometimes, which we’ll get to in a moment.) I would have said Anthony Bourdain, but I can’t imagine how eating still-beating cobra hearts would be anyone’s idea of a good time.

When was the last time you actually had fun at work? What were the elements involved? And what would you do to replicate those elements and ha, ha, ha, ha, do it again? It’s kind of hard to fold intentional fun into the strategic plan, isn’t it? Unless Necker Island figures in the scenario somehow, I just don’t see how you can go after fun without turning your workplace into a totalitarian romper room, where no one is having a good time really – although they’re expected to look like they are.

Companies that want to position themselves as a fun place to work may be barking up the wrong tree. Why? Fun means different things to different people. And how desperate does an employer look when they’re saying, “We’re fun! Really, we are!” Uh. Yeah.

Even seeing those words, “fun place to work,” makes me feel like a party pooper. Can I really, for instance, sustain all that dependable levity that Southwest Airlines is famous for? I just know that sometimes I would want to say, “Sit down, shut up, and fasten your seatbelts so we can get on with this stupid flight. OKAY?”

Well, I guess that’s why I don’t work for Southwest, although I do have plenty of heart.

Fun in the workplace is a scary notion. You can’t make fun, just like you can’t make romance. Sure, you can set up a certain, shall we say, environment, that is conducive to fun, but you can’t make your people have fun on the job.

And fun is a personal kind of thing (just like, well, romance is). What’s a barrel of monkeys for some people is about as fun as a death march for others. Say, for instance, that lovely tradition of the waitstaff gathering ‘round a cringing diner and singing Happy Birthday. Frankly, I’d rather have a tooth pulled.

To make matters worse, you may not be keeping up with your employees’ idea of what’s fun. I have one client that started life as a fun company, complete with margarita machine Friday, beer and pizza at the drop of the hat, and flip-flop wearing every day. That’s what it’s all about, man! The thing of it was, as the years passed extremely quickly (as they always do in the high-tech world), that founding group of employees grew up, got serious and got married. Suddenly they had to get home to the kids. “No time for the ‘rita, man, gotta split before day care closes.”

While doing culture audit for them a few months ago, I heard the management say, “We’re a fun company! We’ve got parties, and outings, and we get to wear flip flops.” But then I asked the rank-and-file what fun means to them, and they said, “The satisfaction of filling a busy day doing great work with really terrific people I can respect and count on.” Wow. Cool.

By setting up the wrong kind of fun, you’re also attracting the wrong kind of employee. As this company was discovering. It was still attracting candidates who liked the idea of ping pong tables. And it was really irritating that core group of original employees who couldn’t concentrate with all that pock-pock pock-pock pock-pock going on.

You want employees who get jazzed by booze? Set up those margarita machines and knock yourself out. Brag about the flip flops. Put that bennie front and center, and you’ll get candidates who think you’re a groovy place to work. But then don’t go asking yourself why there are Youtube video clips of them Xeroxing their butts.

You too can have fun at work! Find out what’s fun about the work you do, the people you serve, the people you work with, what gives you OTJ grins, and then go with that! You don’t have to try so hard to be merry, jolly, a good time. That’s about as authentic and attractive as an over-eager date.

Okay, so am I a sober-sides? Maybe. This is what’s fun for me: Interviewing people who are absolutely over-the-moon about the work they do. Meeting total strangers and then parting company a couple of hours later with a hug and a new, laughing, friendship. Loading my convertible for another roadtrip through America’s highways in search of ordinary folks who love their job. Hittin’ the highway with the top down and the tunes up. And then, back home in New Mexico, sitting at my desk in front of my vision wall, shoulder bopping to the Squirrel Nut Zippers on my I-pod, while typing away as thunderstorm rolls in over the Sangre De Cristo mountains right outside my window.

The fun comes in capturing the passion of others who believe in the work they do.


Diane said...

I found myself physically nodding several times while reading this blog entry.

“The satisfaction of filling a busy day doing great work with really terrific people I can respect and count on.”

Each word of that sentence is meaningful, and right on target. For example, take out "great" from "great work" and the day could be fun but dissatisfying.

Lori Steed said...

Martha, you put a smile on my face reading your stuff! You are on my favorite all time author list. :-)