Sad clown puppet lying in a basket

First, let's be clear - I don't actually hate fun (although my partner might disagree). However, I do automatically become suspicious every time "fun" is mentioned in a work context. This is because the word is often used as a cover for a lot of other, significantly less fun, terms. For example:

  • unhealthy
  • unpaid
  • overworked
  • toxic

Why fun is bad

When a work environment is described as being "fun", employers seem to stop worrying about whether or not it is actually a good place to work. Employees should just enjoy being there 24/7 because it is such a fun place to be.

In a previous job, I had a boss who called me out for leaving on time. To him, if I enjoyed my work and cared about the company I should naturally want to stay late. The result of this attitude was easy to see: everyone in that team did daily unpaid overtime.

Sadly, my boss was not unique in this respect. Traditionally fun industries such as the games industry regularly do unpaid overtime and put in 70 hour weeks. Because the work is seen as being "cool", and "fun", there is more competition for jobs and employees are more likely to be asked to work beyond their contract.

To gauge whether a company is actually fun, ignore the beanbag armchairs, pizza nights, and foosball tables. Instead, ask the following:

  • Is it diverse?
  • Do they respect work/life balance?
  • Are employees fairly compensated?

If the answer to all of these is "no", that is in no way a fun place to work.

Colleagues aren't friends

Socialising outside of work can seem like harmless downtime - it's just a bit of fun, right? But it can also be negative if it is embedded in work culture.

Rich Armstrong has written a great article on why socialising and staying late can make a workplace less inclusive. He argues that the best way to promote diversity is to make work about, well, work.

When our office culture is focused on business rather than socializing, we reduce the number of ways in which we all have to be the same. When we do that, we allow diversity to flourish.

Socialising outside of work isn't just about having fun - it is also an opportunity for networking and building up relationships. This precludes people who aren't able to stay late (because they live at a distance, are parents, have other obligations, or just don't want to hang out).

If you are a boss who loves to socialise, don't make the mistake of thinking that your employees have a free choice as to whether or not to hang out after work. It can never be a free choice if you have control over those people's careers and salaries.

This is not to say that colleagues can't ever be friends - but you shouldn't have to be friends with someone in order to work with them. It is perfectly fine to have a professional relationship, and nothing else.

Does that mean I can never have fun?

No, of course not! It just means that we need to think about how to make sure everyone is having fun.

If you genuinely want to make your team a fun place to work, here are some ways to achieve that:

  • Socialise within working hours. This achieves two things. First, it doesn't exclude anyone who can't stay after work. Second, it shows people that your company values the benefits of social time enough to sacrifice some work time for it.
  • Think outside the box. "Fun" doesn't always have to mean pizza or going to the pub. Take a vote on what to do. We've had some great (and unusual) team outings like taking a walk along the river, or going to a local attraction.
  • Be inclusive. Make sure that no one is being excluded from coming along. Social events should always be free (or subsidised for those who can't afford it). They should also be something that everyone feels comfortable doing.
  • Keep it optional. If an event is genuinely for fun, then people should have the option not to attend. If there is an obligation or clear benefit attached to something, it isn't for fun, it's for work.

Instead of being fun, let's try to make our workplaces more of the following:

  • respectful
  • diverse
  • innovative
  • supportive

That's how to truly have fun at work.

© 2019 by Marissa Warner-Wu. All rights reserved.

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