In The Talent War, Fun Is The New Competitive Weapon

It's going to be harder than ever to retain talent post-pandemic. Making the office a fun place to be could make all the difference to your turnover rates.

Each year, the Great Place to Work Institute asks thousands of employees to rate their workplace experiences based on a number of factors, including, “This is a fun place to work.” Fortune magazine then uses this data to compile its annual 100 Best Companies to Work For list—and what it reveals about combining work and fun is significant.

Employees in companies ranked as “great places to work” report overwhelmingly—an average of 81%—that they’re working in “fun” environments. At the “good” companies—those that apply for inclusion but don’t make Fortune’s top 100 list—only 62% of employees say they’re having fun. This 19-point gap between great and good companies is, surprisingly, one of the largest in the survey.

The big takeaway: Employees at the best companies are having the most fun. Likewise, if you start having more fun at work, your own company will be a better place to work. High performers are having the most fun, and people who are having fun tend to be high performers. They are two sides of the same coin.

This is compelling data that supports the notion that all companies should strive to make work more fun for employees. When doing so, time at work becomes more enjoyable and work days go by faster; people are more excited about what they’re doing, who they work with, and what they’re achieving, which boosts the pride they have in their work, themselves and the company.

The benefits to companies are also substantial. Promoting a fun work environment helps companies large and small become “Employers of Choice,” which makes it easier to attract high-performing talent (who can choose where they want to work) and subsequently gets top talent to stay longer with the organization.

So why don’t more people have fun at work? Is it a Puritan work ethic that makes employees feel guilty if they’re having fun? Is it a fear of being judged, ridiculed or chastised by others—especially the boss? Do they inherently feel that doing fun things is “wasting time” when they could be, and are being paid to be, productive? Maybe we all harbor some of these concerns.

The reasons we don’t have more fun at work are many. But we all do have a choice in the matter. You and your employees can choose to make fun a natural and ongoing part of how you work going forward. We’ve compiled simple, easy-to-use techniques, strategies and best practices to make work more fun—for any worker in any location, onsite or remotely—so that work can be easier and more enjoyable to complete. Here are some sample strategies:

For leaders:

• Paul Conningham, a manager with SBC Global uses friendly banter to start discussion with his employees. “I’m a Ford guy and my employee is a Chevy guy,” says Conningham. “I might start with something like, ’Thank goodness I have a Ford because a Chevy would never have made it through this weather, you must have hitched a ride with someone today.’ The exchange only lasts a few moments, but it sets the tone for the day for us. I’ll then do a similar thing with another employee. Since everyone is different I’ll find what motivates each employee to have fun with them about.”

• Naomi Dolahanty, system vice president of talent acquisition for Advocate Aurora Health in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, tries to personally insert fun comments into conversations. “You can be serious about your work and still have fun! It’s about engaging and encouraging that levity within the team. As a leader, you set the tone. I truly believe setting a tone of fun and humor allow my team to deliver better results.”

• Kunji Wang, firm administrator for Hennelly & Grossfeld LLP in Los Angeles, California, says, “ I try to keep a positive attitude towards work and my coworkers. I see staff get stressed with coworkers or they are unhappy with coworkers where they end up eventually leaving or getting fired. I encourage people not to dwell on the negative at work and try to remember what they enjoy about their work.”

For teams:

• One Friday a month, the customer support team at Zapier, the San Francisco, California-based app-connecting software firm, hosts a virtual dance party. The team selects a song from Spotify and asks employees to open Photo Booth to record a five-second video of their dance moves. Employees then upload the clip to GIPHY to convert it to a GIF. Finally, the team makes and posts a montage of it on Zapier’s company-wide Slack channel.

• Don Coyhis, a district manager for Digital Equipment Corporation’s Colorado customer support center explains “We taught everyone to juggle bean bags. If an employee felt uptight after a call, they were encouraged to juggle to break the tension and prepare for the next call. We also institute a ‘grouch patrol’ to tell grouchy people to take a break. We found that if we systematically take breaks, productivity improves.”

• There is an Innovation Lab at AdventHealth in Orlando, Florida. When employees need to identify an improvement process, or are faced with a management problem, they can present their issues to the team in the lab. People from different departments meet to discuss ways to solve the issues. The team also offers “Wisdom Wednesdays,” when they host lunch and a 30-minute discussion of an issue, sometimes presenting a TED talk-like presentation.

For organizations:

• William Pickens, owner of Pool Covers Inc. in Fairfield, California, often hangs a number on the wall and rewards employees who know how it is related to the business. For example, 22.5 is the average miles per gallon of the delivery truck fleet, and those who knew it received a $10 prize. Pickens says the game gets employees to think about the business and also creates camaraderie.

• Pyramid Solutions, an automation software firm in Bingham Farms, Michigan, encourages employees to spontaneously break into Nerf gun battles whenever the need arises. “It’s a fun way to de-stress at work that doesn’t take intense physical activity or lengthy set up or cleanup,” says one senior systems engineer.

• All Star Directories, an online education service headquartered in Seattle, has a Mandatory Fun Committee that organizes several competitions throughout the year, including miniature golf, table tennis and air hockey tournaments.

Fun is the new competitive advantage

As Deloitte Consulting states, “Workplace fun is becoming a form of competitive advantage.” They add that a fun work environment “intentionally encourages, initiates, and supports a variety of enjoyable and pleasurable activities that positively impact the attitude and productivity of the individuals and groups.”

But workplace fun is much more than having a ping-pong table in the employee break room, free soda in the refrigerator, and an occasional office party. As Deloitte notes, it’s about “truly embedding a climate of fun. Building meaningful work in a nurturing environment, filled with growth opportunities underpinned by supportive management and trusted leadership, is increasingly a must-have for organizations that want to thrive.”

The authors of this research go so far as to label the 2020s as the “Era of Workplace Fun.” We say: Let the fun begin!