Fun at work makes it easier for employees to function on the job

July 17, 2008

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Having fun in the workplace is no joke when it comes to boosting employee productivity, a new University of Florida study finds.

Workers who have a good time while they’re on the clock accomplished more, showed a higher level of creativity and extended more help to co-workers, said Erin Fluegge Woolf, who did the research for her doctoral dissertation in management at UF.

“With people spending more and more of their lives at work, they feel they might as well make it enjoyable, and our study finds surprising payoffs when they do,” said Fluegge Woolf, who is now a management professor at Southeast Missouri State University. “Not only did employees report being in better moods and more engaged in their work, they also performed better on the job.”

Fluegge Woolf defines fun at work as “any social, interpersonal or job-related activity of either a humorous or playful nature that a person finds enjoyable and interesting. It can be anything from an office party to playing jokes on people you work with,” she said.

“Despite the popularity of the concept of fun at work, which emerged with the dot-com boom of the ‘90s when businesses become more associated with play, there has been little research addressing its effects on individual job performance,” she said.

Fluegge Woolf surveyed 245 UF students enrolled in an undergraduate management course who also worked at least 20 hours a week about their perceptions of their workplace as fun. The study participants were asked to rate how frequently they were able to socialize with co-workers, have celebrations at work and be permitted various personal freedoms at work, such as having a relaxed dress code.

How well they actually performed on the job was measured by their employers, who completed surveys of their own, she said.

The study found the strongest relationships between having fun at work and organizational citizenship behaviors such as helping co-workers, being loyal to the company and showing pride in the organization.

“People feel like part of the gang when they’re sharing some of their pranks and jokes, and it builds their emotional attachment to those they work with,” Fluegge Woolf said. “It would make sense that you’re more likely to help your co-workers when you know them better.”

The study also found that having fun at work increases employees’ job engagement, which encourages them to be more creative, Fluegge Woolf said. “When you’re really attuned to what you’re doing, it closely resembles this idea of flow and the result is a greater level of creativity,” she said.

Fluegge Woolf said she got the idea for the research from her own experience on the job as something of a practical joker. She participated in a variety of pranks, including hiding her co-workers’ belongings, passing around a dog toy that resembled a piece of meat and fabricating a story for the rest of the staff about a wedding taking place outside their office. Occasionally, she was the target, such as the time she left work to find her car covered in plastic wrap.

Despite the collegial advantages of a fun-loving environment, it may not always be appropriate, depending on the nature of the work and the culture of the organization, Fluegge Woolf said. For instance, restaurant customers may delight in seeing the wait staff having a good time, but be turned off at finding employees in a funeral home yuck it up or doctors banter with nurses in a hospital or nursing home, she said.

At the same time, aiming to have fun in the workplace can be taken to such an extreme that it defeats its purpose, she said.

“There is a darker side to this positivity in an organization, which manifests itself in the idea of forced fun, be it an office party or any other mandatory social event,” she said. “Managers need to be sensitive about what activity tends to work best with a particular set of personalities, whether it is a casual event or something more formal like a recognition party.”

John W. Newstrom, a University of Minnesota Duluth emeritus management professor and co-author of “Leading with a Laugh” and the forthcoming book “The Fun Minute Manager,” said the study provides significant evidence that further legitimizes the role of fun at work.

“Fluegge Woolf’s results are highly consistent with our previous research conducted for the Society for Human Resource Management, but her survey also documents the results that employers value most – creativity, productivity, teamwork and loyalty,” he said.