I love having fun at work, and I love having a fun workplace. But here’s what I’m learning:
I wish I had written that chapter in my book Culture Wins.
We’ve been fortunate at Vanderbloemen to have won a lot of awards for our workplace culture. And along that path, we’ve also had a lot of fun. But now that I’ve been studying teams and culture for a while, I’m realizing that fun, in and of itself, is overrated. Just because a team event is fun doesn’t mean it’s an event that creates a healthy workplace culture.
This first hit me a few years back when we were taking a survey to measure our culture. Everyone was asked to pick three words that describe our workplace. Any three words, out of the over 170,000 words in the English language.
“Fun” was the most popular. Half of our team picked “fun” as one of their words. We have an awesome team, and fun isn’t a bad word to choose. In many ways, it’s a good result, and it helped us recruit some great people. But I’m beginning to see that maybe it’s maybe not the best thing.
Fun is good, but as Jim Collins says in his book, Good to Great, “good is the enemy of great.”
Most surveys I’ve read show that two out of three Americans hate their job. So it would be easy to think that building a “fun” culture is the remedy. When fun is a byproduct of a healthy culture, it can be great. A healthy culture is the glue that holds teams together, retains great employees, and lowers overall turnover. Low turnover usually helps the profit and loss. But that’s healthy workplaces where fun is a byproduct of health. I see too many managers making fun their main goal, and that can be dangerous. Here are three cautions about making fun the goal of your culture:
1. Fun is temporary.
Much like candy is to a diet, fun has an initial rush, but it’s a sugar high that doesn’t last. And when the fun is over, much like a sugar rush, nobody has any energy to do anything else. Studies are showing that a focus on creating a “feel-good” workplace can go overboard and end up hurting productivity.
2. Fun always requires the next level of fun.
Once you’ve made fun a goal, if you have competitive people at all, you’ll find that they want the next level of fun. A great example of this is the failure of the culture at Zenefits. Over the first years, in the name of creating a “great” workplace, the fun just kept escalating to the point of the new CEO actually needing to send a memo telling employees that behavior like drinking, smoking, and having sex in the stairwells was no longer ok. I’m guessing no one at the company set out for these things to be normal, but the case studies on Zenefits show that as the growth and fun escalated, productivity dropped, behavior went way out of bounds, and risk escalated at an alarming rate. It’s no mistake that the company nearly fell apart because of this.
3. Fun perks can often be a one-way street.
Over and over, I found stories of companies that were able to have fun perks when they were one size, only to find that those perks didn’t scale, and weren’t helpful as the company grew. A great example is one of the employee perks at AirBnB. When they started their company, they gave employees a rent stipend of $2,000 a year. But now, with almost 4,000 employees, it has become an unwieldy cost to the company. And taking a perk like that away – well that’s nearly impossible. We’ve noticed this challenge too as we’ve grown and some changes have become necessary. What I’m learning from other smart companies is to focus on offering perks that will scale with growth, but ones that won’t be as challenging to take away when the landscape changes.
In other words, view fun as a fruit, and not the root of cultural health. As I studied 150 companies and organizations that were winning culture awards, I found that those who won year after year had one common trait: they focus on health, not feelings. Feeling good about a workplace is excellent, but my studies showed me that the good feelings (and the fun) come as an almost necessary fruit borne out of the root of company health.
We identified eight critical areas of basic cultural health and started measuring how companies stack up. As a result, we built a free assessment for companies to take in hopes that teams could identify areas of health that need work or improvement.
Despite all the awards we’ve won, we have had to shift our focus and rework our culture some as we have grown, and as we position for future growth. And it’s working. Our word study surveys are showing more people choose words like “meaningful” and “purpose” to describe us. I think if we keep going down that road, we will not only be healthier than ever, but as a natural byproduct we’ll have more fun than ever.