The only time there’s any noise in the office is when they test the fire alarm. It’s so quiet that you can hear the guy right at the end of the corridor hammering on his keyboard. There are no spontaneous outbreaks of laughter, no harmless banter so that people look to see what’s going on, no ‘happy birthdays’, no baby showers, no balloons, no chat in the lift or gossip in the queue for coffee.
So what? Nobody goes to work for entertainment or social life – or do they?
Full-time workers spend more time with their colleagues than they do with their friends, family and neighbours. Random groups of people are brought together day after day because they share a skill or a qualification. As our old friend Henry Mintzberg reminds us “we are social animals who cannot function effectively without a social system that is larger than ourselves” (HBR July-August 2009). This applies as much in the workplace as it does anywhere else in our lives, maybe even more so.
If your workplace is a sombre, quiet, serious place you are missing something important. Social interaction and friendship are good for our health – they increase our sense of belonging and purpose, improve confidence and self-worth, boost happiness and reduce stress (Mayo Clinic). If you are a HR Director you know that happy, confident people who feel part of a community are less likely to leave than those who feel unappreciated and isolated at work. And the Finance Director might also be interested to know that increased sociability in the workplace encourages people to contribute more discretionary effort, it has been shown to improve performance through increasing what is known as ‘organizational citizenship’ (Kamdar and Van Dyne 2007).
We’re not talking here about forced fun, or suggesting turning the office into ‘party central’. The reality is that, particularly in places where the national culture is collective, a few tweaks will be enough. Four things you could do to start:
Find your director(s) of entertainment
There are probably already people who are good at this stuff who just need a bit of encouragement (and a small budget). Depending on the size of your organization, it might be someone in the Communication team, someone in HR or maybe one of the Admin Assistants.
Make it clear that it’s okay to have fun
The next time there’s something to celebrate in your business don’t just write an email of appreciation to the employees – order balloons, get pizza or cupcakes sent in, raffle a couple of modest prizes to celebrate (see point above for who will organize all this stuff).
If your people are not mainly customer facing (and maybe even if they are) have a day where people are encouraged to wear their favourite sport’s team jersey to work. It could coincide with a major sporting event – World Cup for example. This can also be an opportunity to raise money for a local good cause with a small donation from everyone who doesn’t dress up – being part of an organization that supports its community also increases employee engagement so it is a real win-win.
When you announce new people joining your company – especially if they are in the management layer – include some personal details, especially something fun that the individual is comfortable to share “Justin plays the trombone (badly, by his own admission) and holds the distinction of having been declared ‘Mr Barbecue 2017’ at his local village fete”.
There are lots of opportunities to lighten the atmosphere – make it okay to have fun and people will respond with their own ideas.
Make space for socialization
An office that is nothing but workstations and a canteen that opens for set hours is quite a cold place. The space for socialization doesn’t have to be a games room with bean bags – big tables where people can gather to cut a birthday cake or share a noisy lunch break is a good start. It’s especially helpful if they are located near a tea and coffee station.
Encourage self-organizing groups
Whether it’s a book club, golf society, cinema club or a regular 5-aside football game – find out what’s going on and support any way possible. Make space in your communication agenda to mention their activity – a panel in the regular newsletter, or story on your intranet, promoting the groups with pictures and contact details. It doesn’t have to be financial support (although that helps of course), your support is another signal that ‘it’s okay to have fun here’.
Happiness expert Annie McKee, author of How To Be Happy At Work, says, “one of the ways we can make ourselves happy and feel more fulfilled in our workplaces is to build friendships with the people that work with us, work for us and even with our boss.” The benefit is increased engagement – employees talk more positively about your organization and improve your attractiveness to new talent, absence reduces as people are increasingly reluctant to ‘let the side down’, productivity increases and, due to better communal networks, knowledge transfer is easier and more effective.
Is there a downside? No, there isn’t, people will still be judged on what they achieve and paid for their results – twenty minutes spent gossiping with colleagues at a ‘bake-off’ event on a Friday afternoon won’t change that.
Nuala Maher has helped many organizations to improve employee engagement using multiple levers, including making the workplace a happier and more fulfilling experience for everyone.