Forcing workers to be happy with mindless fun can work against you, experts say

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Radhika Panjwani is a former journalist from Toronto and a blogger.

Forced fun activities such as improv workshops, scavenger hunts, escape rooms or after-hour drinks will not boost employee engagement if they are mandated by human resources, a pair of experts say.

Wanting your employees to be happy at work is commendable, but shoving compulsory fun activities and exercises down their throats in the guise of team-building is counterproductive, says Paul Lopushinsky, founder of Playficient, a Vancouver-based employee experience design consultancy.

“I define ‘mandatory fun’ as management on high, making decisions about what kind of fun employees should have,” he says. “I am referring to the kind of activities that if employees aren’t taking part in (think, beer on Fridays), then they’re not being team players. Team-building is only effective when everybody wants to be there.”

The overzealous desire to force feed fun is an attempt to mimic FAANG companies, an acronym for Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google, who successfully positioned themselves as an antithesis to the dreary cubicle farms, Mr. Lopushinsky says.

The FAANG companies and others sported brightly coloured open floor plans, foosball tables and beanbag chairs, and bragged about instituting a corporate culture where employees could play arcade games or enjoy karaoke sessions and Hawaiian-themed parties during work hours.

“The FAANG companies kickstarted what I call the ‘kindergarten office,’ an office that resembles a kindergarten class rather than a workplace,” he says. “Other tech companies started to copy that and it soon began spreading to other industries who copied the idea without understanding the ‘why’ behind it.”

Mr. Lopushinsky says team-building activities based on science with an evidence-based approach will be both effective and equitable. He suggests organizations study the concept of eight play personalities created by psychiatrist Dr. Stuart Brown and devise appropriate at-work activities.

The science of play

Dr. Brown, founder of National Institute of Play, a non-profit, identified eight play personalities after observing hundreds of people. Dr. Brown found as individuals grow older, they develop a preference for certain types of play. By identifying one’s primary play personality or even a mix of play personalities, people can pinpoint activities that will excite them. For instance, the Collector is thrilled by gathering objects or experiences; the Joker’s play will centre on tomfoolery; the Competitor’s sense of euphoria comes from playing to win and seeing how their score compares to others.

“Most organizations when mandating fun, tend to only focus on the ‘competitive’ play personality,” Mr. Lopushinsky says. “This makes sense as companies and leaders are competitive by nature. Issues arise when what leadership sees as fun isn’t remotely fun for employees.”

Lunch and learns, he says, are an example of a good activity. Companies can encourage their employees to present a topic they’re passionate about without putting pressure on people to attend the sessions, he said.

Building connections

Trent Davis, director of product management and marketing at Lennox International, Inc., a U.S.-based provider of climate control products, recently experienced an ‘aha’ moment when his LinkedIn post on mandatory fun went viral.

Engaging employees through team-building activities remains close to Mr. Davis’s heart. He has seen first-hand how stepping away from the normal grind at work helps people connect on a personal level.

“Ties built through socializing dramatically expand your network of support and understanding,” Mr. Davis says. “Team cohesion builds fastest when a team is given a common goal and must figure out how to achieve it together. Even silly activities like axe throwing or an escape room builds trust through a common experience of overcoming unfamiliar challenges.”

Is mandatory fun an oxymoron?

During COVID-19, Mr. Davis sensed people needed a break from juggling work and childcare. So when there was a lull in the active COVID-19 cases, he rented out an open patio and hosted lunch. Everyone showed up. He continued with different activities when he realized he had to continue feeding people’s hunger for social connection. Another popular activity at his workplace was called Coffee and Connections, in which employees were randomly assigned to groups of five. They made connections through conversations across departments and locations with people they worked with but had never talked to via video chats.

Mr. Davis says although there’s value in spending time together as a team outside of the normal office workday, it’s critical for leaders to understand each team member’s personality and preferences.

He says he’s wary of calling the team-building activities that he’s part of as “mandatory fun.”

“It can be mandatory, or it can be fun but it can’t be both,” Mr. Davis says. “When people use the term ‘mandatory fun’ they’re mocking the tone-deaf, ineffective events that some companies force employees into. When something’s fun, you don’t have to make it mandatory.”

A ‘fun’ checklist

Leaders who want to incorporate regular team-building exercises should start the process with an anonymous survey to assess interest in social events and ask pertinent questions on what days and times work best for the team, what type of events would interest them and what events they like and dislike, Mr. Davis advises.

Next, he recommends sharing the results of the survey with the team. Following that, leaders must build a calendar based on the team’s feedback and add a mix of during and after work activities at various venues such as restaurants, bars, outdoors and in the office.

Mr. Davis’s tips include:

  • Do not include alcohol in every event: This common mistake excludes those who do not drink or who have negative personal experiences with alcohol
  • Look for opportunities to include other teams you work closely with
  • Understand your budget
  • If your team’s interested, occasionally offer an event where they can bring significant others and spouses. This helps gain a deeper appreciation of the full person

“As a leader, it’s your responsibility to create a welcoming and inclusive environment,” Mr. Davis says. “Approach your team with appreciation and respect for differences, and always have a learner’s attitude.”

What I’m reading around the web

  • In a Strategy + Business, PricewaterhouseCoopers newsletter, author Michele Wucker writes about how creatively inclined employees are more likely to take the kind of “good” risks that lead to innovation.
  • In his blog and podcast, Tanveer Naseer, keynote speaker, writer and podcaster, writes about what leaders should be doing to be more effective drivers of change.
  • Claire Hughes Johnson, a former vice-president at Google, writes in that she has interviewed hundreds of applicants and the No. 1 skill she has looked for is the level of self-awareness they exhibit.

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