Lego office. Photo by georgivar : http://www.flickr.com/photos/georgivar/4444202254/
  • Author:Tom du Pré
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Having fun in the work place

In almost every team brain storming session, retrospective or ideas session I have ever been to, someone has raised the idea we should; “Have more fun in the office”.

I have been the person who puts “Have more fun” on the ideas wall, and I’ve also been the manager who thought he was responsible for delivering software and suddenly finds out he’s responsible for making everyone have fun as well.  So how do we do it?

Here’s some supposedly “fun” things that I don’t think have any lasting positive impact on a team’s morale.

  • Team night out – It might be a fun night, especially if someone else’s credit card is behind the bar, but it’s quickly forgotten. Especially if it has to be organised by the team manager who ends up having to try to gain consent amongst a disparate set of conflicting requirements to cater for all tastes, locations and religious laws about what can and can’t be eaten or drunk. The result is that all but one of two people end up going somewhere they don’t really want to go.
  • Music in the office – If everyone in the team likes the same sort of music at the same volume, go for it. If you leave in the real world, accept that no-one else really likes your heavy metal. If you force people to hear music they don’t like all you’ll end up with is a bunch of people with headphones on who aren’t talking to each other.
  • Toys in the office – For some reason I am yet to understand there is a school (I used the word advisedly) of people who think that adopting the Agile methodology means you need to have an arsenal of Nerf guns or various rubber-band powered weaponry in the office. These are good fun in fairly small doses, but they pretty quickly they end up making the place look like a ten year old boy’s bed room. Aren’t we supposed to be grown up professionals?
  • Team building away days – What a waste of time and money. Whilst there is a pleasure to be had in shooting your project manager in the arse from short range with a paint ball gun, the fun is very one sided. Unfortunately team building away days invariably end up with grown ups being forced to play childish games to somehow prove they are bonding. In the unlikely event the day is fun, the buzz will have worn off by lunchtime the following working day. Having a day of fun outside the office does not mean the next day in the office will be more fun.

The bottom line is this :

If you have to organise fun,
it’s not fun.

So how do you do it?

First, recognise that when people say they want to have more fun in the office they are probably trying to say they are suffering from low morale. It’s hard to tell other people, especially your manager in a public setting that you have low morale or you think other people do. It might be seen as a weakness or an acknowledgement of failure. So people say they want to have more fun instead. This sounds far more positive and palatable.

Having more fun isn’t a million miles away from having less misery. Identifying and removing one significant frustration will have a far more lasting effect than one evening in a bowling alley. Toys and evenings out will not make up for the unhappiness caused by pointless processes, bullying bosses and weekend working. Fix the route causes.

A team adopts the personality of its leader. If the boss is a boring humourless stiff in a suit it is likely his team will be the same. If your team aren’t able to relax and chat with each other and engage in banter because the boss is right there, then maybe the boss would be better off in an office?

You can make life in the office a lot more engaging by really buying in to the first of the principles of the Agile Manifesto: Individuals and interactions over processes and tools. In other words, talk to each other! Don’t always communicate via email and defect tracking tools. Go and speak to people. Be polite to them! Get to know them! Have a chat! Compliment their excellent choice of heavy metal tshirt! You are probably surrounded by hundreds of interesting and entertaining people about whom you know next to nothing. You never know, you might even grow to like some of them when you get to know them. And when you go to work with people you like, you will have a lot more fun.

Massively important note: Please do not under any situation interpret my previous paragraph as a recommendation to set up some cringing and ghastly “get to know your peers” compulsory ice breaking session. If you try to force it, I guarantee it will backfire spectacularly. Everyone will hate each other and everyone will hate you, including me, and you will deserve it.

Celebrate success and reward good work. If you feel your job is a daily grind towards some impossibly distant target you will never get any sense of achievement. If you break your team’s work down into deliverable chunks you can celebrate the successful delivery of each bit. You can also celebrate individual successes and recognise significant contributions from individuals. It doesn’t matter how you do this, but I think the more immediate and genuine the celebration or recognition is, the better.

Chris. You are brilliant. You just found a particularly well-hidden showstopper defect, and by doing so, saved us a heap of trouble later. So I just went down the coffee shop and got you one of those giant cookies you like so much. Actually I got you two of them. Thanks Chris!

This giant cookie will be remembered for a long time, even if Chris looks a bit embarrassed at the attention at the time. It will probably mean more to Chris and his team than being called out at a department wide meeting three months later by a manager who mispronounces his name and gives him a voucher for a foot spa treatment.

So what do you think? What ideas do you have to improve morale in your office and have more fun?

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