Fun at Work

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FAD OR SERIOUS BUSINESS? 'Work' and 'fun' may not be words traditionally uttered in the same breath. However, recent research suggests that 'fun' is exactly what today's employees want. Given New Zealand's tight labour market, it would seem worthwhile to investigate whether a driver like 'fun' is a mere fad, or something that could have serious implications for retaining and attracting talented staff. Kathryn Owler takes a look.

When most people think of having fun at work, they think of fun 'activities'. Perhaps a table tennis table in the lunch room, a crazy hat day organised by HR, or the annual Christmas festivity. However, evidence suggests that rather than viewing 'fun at work' as as a mere add on to good business, it makes better business sense to integrate 'fun at work' successfully into workplace operations and culture.

Research conducted into corporate culture in the early 1980s argued that the success of many blue chip US corporations was largely due to the intermix of work and play. As a result, the appropriate use of fun, play and humour came to be promoted in managerial literature as a resource that could be used positively to energise and motivate employees, increase employee well-being and contribute to economic performance. These strategies were adopted by a number of businesses in the US, the UK, and Australia.

The idea that fun at work is good for employees, has recently been embraced by the positive psychology movement. Positive psychology is the scientific study of 'what goes right in life'. Dr Rachel Morrison is a psychologist and lecturer in the AUT School of Business. She says the benefits of positive psychology include "examining the causes and effects of happiness" which will hopefully lead to a better understanding of the role of positive emotions in the workplace.

It could be said that traditionally psychologists have been more interested "to delve into dysfunction and craziness than functioning wellness," Morrison says. Focusing on those workplaces that are happy and functioning well might therefore provide welcome insight. She says the move away from the historical "what is wrong?" approach means people begin to look at how things work when hope and joy are present in a workplace. Companies might then presumably seek to replicate these conditions.

Pat Armistead is one particularly vocal and good humoured commentator who works hard to spread the positive psychology message in New Zealand. Armistead has fashioned herself into New Zealand's premier "joyologist" and her goal is to use positive psychology to empower people to shift negative perceptions and create new opportunities.

Originally from Australia, she has observed a shift amongst New Zealand employees over the 10 years she has been in this country. While "they have always wanted it" she says, employees are now demanding more fun at work and have finally caught up with their Australian counterparts in this regard. "Initially I thought there was not much difference between humour here and Australia," Armistead says.

"However, in terms of embracing fun at work, my experience has been that Australians have always embraced fun and just love a 'larrikin' and will celebrate that contribution. It is a harsh country and has relished and thrived on outlandish humour. I found it much more tempered here," she says.

She herself has been told on occasions "if you want to get on here you had better tone it down a bit". Needless to say she did not. Armistead is delighted to see that more New Zealanders are having the courage to make a fun and positive contribution to the work environment, adding that people are now "experiencing for themselves the way in which fun contributes to individual and team productivity".

One key piece of research evidence certainly backs up Armistead's argument that New Zealand employees appreciate fun at work. …