27 September 2023

Can we stop with forced fun in the workplace?

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Pema Bakshi* argues against mandated ‘fun’ at work and offers some solutions that could help employees genuinely enjoy themselves.

During lockdowns, most of us began to miss the mundanity of office life.

From the familiar scent of stale coffee to the distant hum of chatter in the kitchen and the desk chairs that knew our contours better than we know ourselves, suddenly, the little things seemed all the more romantic.

And besides, virtual happy hours just weren’t the same.

But as we began to return to the office, reluctantly giving up our tracksuit uniforms and lunchtime errands, it became pretty apparent that we actually don’t care to have much of that old office life back.

In an effort to create more positive experiences in the office or to help retain staff during the so-called Great Resignation, companies began to prioritise investing into their workplace culture, mostly through benefits and perks that are supposed to make you want to stick around.

And while company culture is important when assessing a job or your desire to be there long-term, the most contentious element of modern workplaces has to be the rise of mandated bonding — yes, we’re talking about ‘forced fun’.

If you’ve never drunk champagne out of a coffee mug while chatting to your new coworkers over some grocery cake, or been distracted by the sounds of a ping pong tournament while you’re trying to tick off your to-dos, then we’re jealous.

But while we’ve always struggled to pinpoint what feels so off about these occasions, one Girlboss writer suggests that it’s time to stop with the mandatory bonding.

“One thing we absolutely need to cancel is forced fun at work,” says Victoria Christie in a viral Instagram post.

“There’s nothing worse than your workplace mandating you to bond with Greg, the mansplainer from accounts, over [arcade games].

“No amount of pizza slices is going to make up for that.”

A bit of playfulness during the workday sounds like a welcome reprieve from the humdrum of answering emails.

So why does it often fall so flat? The thing about fun is that it generally comes about naturally.

When workplaces allow for the freedom to joke around or for playfulness to flourish on its own, the impacts of organic bonding far overpower any manufactured kind.

As noted by Ethan R. Mollick and Nancy Rothbard in their research on gamification in the workplace, this is especially an issue when employees don’t get a say in the activities.

“The notion of ‘mandatory’ fun is fundamentally about the desire to make work more pleasant for people or to distract them from the unpleasant and taxing aspects of the work,” they write.

“Yet it also requires that managers decide what it is that will be pleasurable to the employees.”

Perks and ‘forced fun’ can be especially precarious when you’re dealing with a prospective employer trying to sell you on the company culture as an alternative to positive working conditions.

Remember, if all a company has to offer is pizza parties and free Friday beers over reasonable hours, flexible working and a decent salary package, then you might want to look a little closer.

The truth is, there might be blistering tension and overworked employees behind all the foosball tables and karaoke nights.

Don’t get us wrong, it’s always a worthwhile endeavour to try to make employees happier in their workplace, especially since happy employees tend to work harder than dissatisfied ones.

But these attempts at regulated joy aren’t actually hitting what’s really important to employees.

As Christie notes, “All these efforts in employee bonding aren’t really helping boost morale.

“It really just puts people behind on work and takes away from what people really want.

“Like better pay, better benefits, parental leave, better work/life balance, flexibility, etc.”

Within its annual employee engagement survey of 2.7 million workers across 100,000+ teams, 87 per cent of respondents reported to Gallup that they aren’t engaged at work, which means they’re also not productive, happy, or innovative.

And as a recent report by Deloitte showed, women in particular, are more stressed than ever, often harbouring the labour of organising and facilitating these non-promotable tasks.

In terms of what workers want, work flexibility still reportedly makes more of a difference than anything else when it comes to workplace satisfaction — ranking even above salary in importance.

Forced fun, on the other hand, can also hold us back.

For many, the pandemic urged us to focus more on life outside of the 9-5.

And with burnout levels only rising, separating our work from our identities has become a major focus in post-Girlboss discourse.

What this means is that sometimes we’d rather just get our work done as soon as possible and head on home to our actual lives.

As one Harvard Business School study shows, being able to get work done, uninterrupted, can lead to greater satisfaction.

In the 2016 survey, workers reported feeling most satisfied on the days at work when they were just left to focus on an important piece of work and make some meaningful progress on it.

From an employer’s perspective, we get that it’s complicated.

People are doing what they can to hold onto staff and balancing what’s right for everyone can be tricky to navigate.

So what’s the solution? There are ways to actively work on company culture without enforcing it.

As Christie says, “Corporate bonding doesn’t have to look like a mandatory bowling league every Thursday night.”

What it really comes down to, is putting the choice back into the hands of employees.

Employee-run initiatives

Initiatives that employees can manage on their own are ideal.

Think Book clubs, movie clubs and even small freedoms like slack channels for fandoms etc.

Without the pressure of a formal workplace event, these small implementations can facilitate bonding in a more flexible way.

Ask for feedback — anonymously

If organisations are genuinely interested in making their employees happy at work, listening to them is key.

However, when it comes to workplace surveys, people often feel nervous about voicing their opinions.

Things like suggestion boxes or anonymous online questionnaires are the best way to suss out what staff are really interested in.

Put your money where your mouth is

Sometimes gifts and vouchers are the best incentives! Instead of forcing everyone to go to a physical soirée, try slinging some lunch vouchers that everyone can enjoy in their own time.

Keep it within business hours

During busier periods, no one wants to leave their desk for a ping pong tournament, only to come back to a mounting workload.

And holding events or activities after hours automatically limits those who can attend.

Employees with children and responsibilities to get home to can’t always stick around to hang out with their workmates, and those working on deadlines may need the entire day to get their work done, no matter how fun the festivities promise to be.

Even when events are optional, it doesn’t feel great to miss out or be the person who never joins in.

At least when activities are within office hours, people are generally more likely to reap the benefits — as long as the dips in productivity are accounted for, anyway.

Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with seeing work as what you do for a living and nothing more.

Particularly when your work is taxing, it’s nice when an employer acknowledges the need for a pat on the back, but would we take ‘vibes’ over better working conditions? Absolutely not.

And remember: being a team player is always worth much more than a duet at karaoke.

*Pema Bakshi is style and living editor at Refinery29 Australia.

This article first appeared at refinery29.com.

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