IN the late 90s, I was invited to a debate between Herb Kelleher, CEO of Southwestern Airlines and Jack Welch.
I became impressed with Herb Kelleher and his usage of fun to drive productivity. No whips or initiatives, or forced compliance to the cause, but a simple but unorthodox philosophy of levity to drive productivity at his airline.
Southwest’s former CEO often rode to work on his Harley and once settled a legal suit with an arm–wrestling match. And on occasions, Kelleher was known to dress up as Elvis Presley or a Bunny, just to keep his employees smiling and happy.
And smile they did, as Southwest built for itself a reputation as the nation’s most profitable airline, posting in 2000 sales of nearly US$5.7bil and a profit of US$603mil.
A few months later, I was given the responsibility to be the functional leader of a business. When I began my assignment, I met my new team and spent the first few days getting to know them and understanding their working styles.
They were hard-working and a technically talented team but there was low morale and extremely poor productivity. Everyone worked late hours but had minimal results. And everyone disliked their work.
Kelleher’s words on leveraging levity and fun to drive productivity kept ringing in my mind and even though it seemed illogical, I decided to test out his philosophy with my new team.
Every quarter, we closed the department over the weekend and had a retreat where we just had fun and started bonding as friends. We started having team lunches together as often as we could.
We developed an after lunch “crazy hour” ritual, where the team would do crazy things – like have everyone wear a straw on their shirt, or exercise together, or just play practical jokes on each other.
We started weekly team activities like Latin dancing or playing volleyball. Just as Kelleher had done with Southwest, as we had more fun together, interestingly, productivity in my team increased and our accomplishments began to multiply exponentially.
While many of the other departments used to stare at our “crazy” department initially, they soon were craving to “hang-out’ with us and join our quarterly retreat rituals.
Fun, instead of making us less productive, actually had the opposite effect of increasing our effectiveness.
There are numerous reasons why fun is important in the workplace.
Levity boosts our ability to think outside the box and enables us to generate innovative solutions necessary to solve problems. Fun is a great creativity booster. Research also indicates that while having fun, we develop new neural cells in areas devoted to learning and memory. Fun is also good for teaching.
Adrian Gostick and Scott Christopher wrote about how learning in the classroom is enhanced by fun: “... Humour also works in the classroom. In fact, college students are more likely to recall a lecture when it is sprinkled with jokes.
Psychologist Randy Gardner’s fascinating research showed that when levity about relevant topics was injected into lectures, students scored an amazing 15% higher on exams than their non-humoured, bored-to-drooling peers.”
Fun is a critical element in employee retention. Employee turnover can easily cost over RM60,000 per person if you include severance pay, exit interviews, hiring costs and lost productivity while training the new hire.
Then add the indirect costs like loss of intellectual capital, decreased morale, increased employee stress and negative reputation.
A fun workplace is a cure for employee turnover. I remember after my department became a fun workplace, most of my employees did not want to miss work.
Not only did they have friends at work, they did not want to miss any fun “action” at work and they definitely were not sending out their resumes. Google, with its fun workplace, retains about 95% of their employees.
People are naturally attracted to fun. A recent survey of employees showed that humour displayed by their manager increases their loyalty (retention) and productivity.
Another survey by Ipsos had employees rate their managers’ sense of humour, along with the likelihood of them working in their current job a year from the date of the survey. The results were striking! They found that managers with better sense of humour were more likely to retain employees.
So how do you make your workplace fun? Think it’s something that only the multinational corporations can afford? It really doesn’t have to cost you as much as building Google’s extravagant facilities, a fancy swimming pool or a rock climbing wall.
It can be something as simple as fortnightly charades championships, breakfast potlucks or making fun at KPI at all meetings. Just providing an environment where people can lighten up is all it requires.
Too often fun doesn’t see the light of day, because we sentence fun to the bottom of priorities list. “Business first, fun last,” is our mantra. Taking our jobs seriously and ourselves lightly is the key to making fun of work.
At my previous office, one person signs up each day to blast a song daily in the afternoon when everyone needs a break and people get up and dance.
The Lego company has scooters for workers to ride around its business park. At Southwest Airlines, the crew have fun with their passengers. At Hakia, employees express themselves on blank canvases that hang on the walls. At Leaderonomics, we unwind by having fun contests amongst ourselves.
But what happens then if you’re not a “fun” person by nature? Not to worry, like everything else, it can be learnt. We don’t need to suddenly become a fun person, because play is something that we enjoyed unconsciously as a child.
All we need to do is to learn to give ourselves and others permission to have fun. As a leader, we need to build enablers for fun to thrive.
“You don’t have to have a team of comedy writers,” says David Summers of the American Management Association.
“Managers just need to give employees permission to be human, open to giving and receiving humour at work,” he says.
And therein is the secret to enabling fun to thrive in your workplace – embracing fun yourself and opening up your organisation to elements of fun, even occasionally allowing yourself to be the object of fun at the workplace.
A final thought – fun is important as it attracts new customers. People are attracted to organisations that are cool and fun.
I recall a big customer who ended up signing an exclusive multi-million deal with the company I was at a few years ago.
When I questioned him on why he signed up even though our performance was not near world-class, he replied quickly: “Your organisation is fun and it’s contagious. All your employees love their work and I bet in a few years you will become world-class.” He wasn’t wrong.
All being said, fun is a key tool to leverage in these recessionary times.
It improves communication, enhances creativity, builds trust and friendships in the organisation, and even has health benefits.
When people are having fun, they’re working harder, focused on your organisation, and are able to maintain their composure in a crisis. If your organisation is ready to catapult into the next level of business success, fun may just be your catalyst.