Self Employed Web

Fun Factor

Posted on Saturday, November 1st, 2003 by


No one says that your company has to be Shangri-La. But business experts and entrepreneurs alike say that injecting a little levity into the workplace can change everything. And by the way, loosen up a little, will ya?

The first quarter of 2003 was no laughing matter at Realityworks ( The 47-person educational-equipment manufacturer missed its sales goal by a mere $60. But instead of delivering a glum report, the goals committee paraded through the building, serenading co-workers with makeshift musical instruments and handing out “Near Miss” slips, ice cream bars and envelopes with a micro-bonus of
$5 apiece. “It was amazing how that got people excited and motivated them to keep going,” says public relations manager Carol Lambert of the Eau Claire, Wis.–based company. “It was only $5, and we didn’t meet our goal—but we had fun.”

Fun and work. Do they really belong in the same sentence and in today’s small business? In the effervescent dot-com days, there was a foosball table in every office suite. In the hunkered-down economy, as many small businesses sweat their survival, levity can be scarce.

But “fun in the workplace, more than ever before, is becoming significant for companies today,” says a survey report from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). Companies that promote fun at work are more effective than companies that don’t, said three-fourths of the HR personnel surveyed. And survey participants credited workplace fun with helping attract new employees, reinvigorating veteran employees, strengthening co-worker bonds and sparking creativity and innovation.

Small businesses may actually have an edge in the fun department. The SHRM survey found that companies with 99 or fewer employees were more likely than medium-size or large companies to believe their workplace incorporated just the right amount of fun. And some fun-generating ideas—including social events, recognition of personal milestones (such as birthdays) and celebrations of professional achievements—were rated as more effective with small work forces than larger ones.

Workplace Laugh Meter

CEO Tim Lybrook laid a toy-car racetrack from one office to the next, then passed out miniature vehicles and challenged staffers to cross the finish line first…but only when they hit production goals.

Fun in the workplace works, says Tom Yorton, because “shared laughter bonds people.” Yorton should know: He hails from Second City Communications (, a corporate offshoot of the legendary Chicago comedy troupe that trained stars such as Bill Murray, Mike Myers, Tina Fey, and John and Jim Belushi. Yorton’s team goes into workplaces to perform sketch comedy as office entertainment and, increasingly, as a training and communications tool. In Yorton’s view, “The high-jinks stuff is all well and good, just fun for the sake of fun. But more and more, business people are saying, ‘Can we do something that functions on both levels?’” That is, fun that also strengthens and rewards personnel.

At his Bloomington, Ind., telecommunications firm, CEO Tim Lybrook laid a toy-car racetrack from one office to the next, then passed out miniature vehicles and challenged staffers to cross the finish line first. The road rally was kid-stuff fun but also serious business: Lybrook let his employees inch their cars down the track only when they hit production goals. Linking fun with high performance did the trick: Teletron Inc. (, the tiny company Lybrook launched in 1989, grew to 200 employees and $15 million in annual revenue before he sold it in October 2002.

Now Lybrook is running a trio of new telecom ventures, and he’ll be recycling some of his best stunts. One day, employees might find the office ceiling lined with helium balloons; strong performers get to pop some and collect the dollar amounts listed on paper slips inside. Another day, Lybrook might deal blackjack to staffers who have earned gambling chips for good work and who can win cash and prizes by beating the house (aka the boss).

Get Creative

Lynn Tandler wanted to celebrate the triumph on the water, but on a budget. A SkyMate customer offered the use of his 57-foot yacht.

To fashion a fun and rewarding place to work, “the biggest thing is creativity,” says Dean Spitzer, an IBM senior consultant who’s an authority on energizing organizations and author of the landmark book SuperMotivation. “The lower the money value and the more creative the activity, the better off you are,” Spitzer says. “When you start giving people things that have a high monetary value, then you start establishing a bar. And then the next time it’s got to be more and more valuable in order to get the same impact. So what I always recommend is that you do fun and meaningful things—things that have a lot of symbolic value.”

For example, SkyMate Inc. of Chantilly, Va. (, produces wireless satellite communications systems that let recreational boaters send and receive email, maritime-positioning data and other information. Last fall, the two-year-old, 10-person company earned a spot at the Newport, R.I., International Boat Show, SkyMate’s first major exhibition. For obvious reasons, COO Lynn Tandler wanted to celebrate the triumph on the water, but on a budget. A SkyMate customer offered the use of his 57-foot yacht. In its teak-paneled dining area, Tandler served co-workers and spouses a meal she cooked herself (featuring beef tenderloin, shrimp and cheesecake). Then couples scattered to individual sailboats moored in Newport Harbor, where Tandler had arranged overnight lodging. “We can’t spend a lot of extra money,” she says, “but we want to celebrate people’s achievements and say thanks.”

At Realityworks—which makes babylike simulators used in parenting education—the fun is homey and low-cost. Managers frequently hand out tokens of appreciation such as microwave popcorn and movie-rental coupons; last fall they set up a make-your-own-caramel-apple station. Employees flock to the firm’s staffwide potluck lunches; every summer, they switch to four-day workweeks of 10-hour days, and take either Fridays or Mondays off. Says PR manager Lambert: “It’s amazing how stuff like that keeps morale up.”

If there’s a trifecta of workplace fun, experts say it’s this: an activity that tickles the employee’s fancy, builds his or her skills and has lasting benefits for the whole company.

Last summer, Norfolk Beverage Company rented a sleeper bus and drove employees to Sturgis, S.D., for a day of music, food and roaring Harleys at the annual Black Hills Motorcycle Rally.

At Norfolk (Nebraska) Beverage Company, when four of the beer wholesaler’s 30 employees wanted to learn Spanish, president Gary Blinn paid for their local college courses. He then sent them to Antigua, Guatemala, for two weeks, to live with local families and speak only the native tongue. The result: Valued staffers got a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Blinn welcomed home employees who had learned “not just Spanish but also courage. Once you’ve made your way in a foreign country not knowing the language, having to ask a supermarket executive to put Budweiser on sale for the Fourth of July is a cakewalk.” And there’s even something in it for the company, he says: In a region with a growing Hispanic population, “we’re showing customers we care about them” by training bilingual staff.

Blinn also sends everyone who drives for his distributorship to Skip Barber Racing School, in Elkhart Lake, Wis. “They have a blast” training in race cars, he says. His employees come back much sharper drivers, and the company enjoys lower insurance rates because its drivers are so accident-free. (Norfolk Beverage also knows a little something about fun for fun’s sake: Last summer, the company rented a sleeper bus and drove employees to Sturgis, S.D., for a day of music, food and roaring Harleys at the annual Black Hills Motorcycle Rally.)

Spitzer says he’s seen “all kinds of wacky things organizations do” to jolly up the workplace, “but I’m not necessarily saying they’re good things to do. Wacky things might fit in one workplace and flop in another.” Attempts at workplace fun can backfire, he says, if they seem false or excessive, or are embarrassing or inappropriate for the audience.

In The 1001 Rewards & Recognition Fieldbook, a book he co-wrote with Bob Nelson, Spitzer cites examples of inventive, no-cost activities that were fun for all concerned. An Oregon company sponsored a car wash at which the employees sipped iced tea in the shade while managers washed their cars. A Texas manager fashioned a “Thanks a Million Award” by taping thank-you notes to “$100,000” candy bars, which the 10 commended employees shared with colleagues who contributed to their success. When a California manager’s team finished a taxing project, she treated them to a movie (complete with popcorn) during the lunch hour.

Whatever kind of fun fits a company’s needs, it should not be done episodically, says Yorton. “It shouldn’t be, ‘Okay, we’re going to Do Fun; thank you very much, see you again in two years.’ If you’re going to be that kind of culture, it almost works against you if you give people a taste and then they go back to their jobs and their jobs reflect none of that.”

And fun shouldn’t be sacrificed because of a sour economy, Yorton insists. “When times are tough, people typically seize up and go into a shell, a bunker—and that’s exactly the wrong answer,” he says. “People should be willing and able to laugh in a down time too. It’s a very freeing thing.”

Veteran journalist Patricia Edmonds, former assistant managing editor for online at National Public Radio, is a freelance writer and editor at large at the Casey Journalism Center, University of Maryland.

Workplace performance guru Dean Spitzer, a senior consultant at IBM and author of SuperMotivation, says there’s one sure way to make a workplace more fun: eliminate what he calls “demotivators.” Corrosive forces that demoralize employees and poison the work environment, these demotivators “lie like a cancer beneath the surface, and most small-business owners are not sensitive to these things,” he says. “They don’t generally have people on staff who are really experienced in human resources—they’re concentrating on managing the business. Because it’s a smaller company, they should be in a position to be more on top of these issues, and yet they’re not.”

If the workplace is rife with demotivators, he says, the bosses can stage all the funfests they like, to no avail. Spitzer composed a list of the 10 deadliest demotivators:

Organizational politics: “An environment in which the competition for power, influence, resources and promotions is based on subjective or hidden criteria.”

Unclear expectations: “Unclear, confusing, and/or contradictory goals, objectives and standards.”

Unfairness: “When organizations are full of policies and practices perceived as inequitable.”

Lack of follow-up: “Most employees could write a book about the ‘latest and greatest programs’ that died on the vine.”

Dishonesty: “Employees hate being lied to.”

Hypocrisy: “How can you trust leaders who say one thing and do another?”

Being taken for granted: “When employees quietly do a good job and are systematically ignored.”

Micromanagement: “Most employees are willing to be empowered, but few managers are willing to give them enough authority to be empowered.”

Takeaways: “Reversing a benefit or policy to create another passing fad—here today and gone tomorrow.”

Being forced to do lousy work: “Work rules that don’t allow quality-conscious employees to take pride in the work they do.”


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