“Fun-gineering” gone wrong

Silicon valley tech is likely patient zero of the “fun” workplace. Google and Facebook openly publicize offices with bright colors, bean bag chairs, and (according to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In), large LEGO collections.

I won’t deny that my tiny sector of silicon valley biotech embraced this model as well.

And yes – this is me:

I just read the NY Times OpEd “Who goes to work to have fun” and was horrified to hear that this workplace model has been co-opted (and even commercialized?) by “happiness consultants” or “fungineers”. Oliver Burkeman is spot on – putting up silly movie posters with your coworkers faces instead of the actors is a la The Office cringeworthy. Forced fun is just that – forced.

In graduate school, my coworkers were generally unhappy. It was a high stress environment where group-wide whisperings about our PI’s mood before meetings was normal. Yet every year, he insisted on a full-participation beach day and christmas party. We had no control over this mandatory fun – there was a highly regimented and scheduled series of events we were expected to maintain. Prior mishaps, like the time the appointed organizers chose a beach site too close to the bathrooms, lived in infamy.

When I joined a biotech start-up, there were no forced team-building exercises or trust falls. Instead, there were subtle gestures that my CEOs cared. Free coffee and tea of our choice. An endless supply of soda. A genuine appreciation of good work over face time. Relatively frequent lunches with the bosses to check in.

True to Burkeman’s OpEd, if workers in an environment feel they are not being treated fairly, no amount of mandatory fun is going to change their happiness levels. I think the Silicon Valley (SV) casual workplace idea is less about creating ‘fun’ and more about incorporating work into a larger lifestyle. Speaking from experience, the people in these SV companies are not 9-to-5 ‘ers. They don’t come in to clock hours and take home a paycheck. These are passionate people who are willing to put in lots of time because they feel they are enabling change.

I think SV realizes that managing that time investment requires some workplace accommodation. If many of your employees bike to work, make the office bike friendly. If the normal employee works 60+ hours a week, provide a gym (or a gym membership) as a healthy way to deal with stress. Set up a virtual private network (VPN) so workers can access the network or their work computer from home or a coffee shop. Don’t be afraid to push hard, but recognize when your employees need a break. Reward good work when reward is due, and provide honest feedback when improvements need to be made.

If you are in control of a work environment and want to make it more fun, just be observant, communicate authentically, and show that you care. Making an effort to make work more convenient or comfortable can go much farther in the happiness regime than a hawaiian shirt friday.

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4 thoughts on ““Fun-gineering” gone wrong

  1. Chula Rogers says:

    I love your writing style!! It is intriguing and very well written. I strongly agree with your position in Fun-gineering.

  2. Tim says:

    Great article! So true and very good insights. After all, people are genuine human resources with endless talent / idea possibilities when cultivated with authentic communication and appreciation.

  3. I find–and unfortunately most people cannot control this unless they start there own business and even then there are some uncontrollable parts because the employees you hire could end up being crazy–that working with the correct people in a smaller group, a sprinkle of luck, equity in the company, having hands off boss, and being justifiably busy (not just creating work to create work) is by far and away the best way to workplace happiness. I have worked and many terrible jobs and for the most part its the jobs where it isn’t busy to be the most toxic. Be it a restaurant that had shitty business, be it a beach that no one went to, or a legislative office that had WAY too big of a budget and as a result had way too many staff to do one person’s work–these jobs all had co-workers that eventually, despite how nice they were, started hating one another but also had people that had the potential to become such vitriolic, back stabbing harpies (most, coincidentally, were women). At each job, because everyone had a very part time job and was slightly motivated, found ways to stand out and that usually meant a toxic work environment. Have I mentioned, I hated those bitches?

    The job I currently have is wonderful and unlike all others I’ve had, which includes the job I had at age 12 feeding clay pigeons into a feeder while people blasted shot guns over my head (a negligence suit waiting to happen). Everyone is super busy but, for the most part, at a manageable level. Every person I work for has a great sense of humor and is always appreciative. The people don’t harbor grudges and rarely get angry. The group is small: one other attorney, a paralegal and me. My boss has other businesses, so we rarely see him. I have a decent equity interest in certain areas of the law practice I specialize in. The interesting thing, though, is that we all get along really well at work, but we never hang out outside of work, which I think too is a good thing. Co-workers should not be drinking buddies (for reason too long to go into, but I’ll just say 90% of legislative staffers are borderline to hot-red-fire-poker alcoholics).

    In short–if it makes sense–I agree with you. Not only should you not fabricate fun outside of work activities, it should be avoided. I think the things I like about work demonstrate what you are getting at: ease, convenience, freedom, incentive.

    In short–if this made no sense–here is a gif of a basset hound running in slow motion: http://i.imgur.com/gYPpsF2.gif

  4. Howdy! This post could not be written any better! Reading this post reminds me of my good old room mate!
    He always kept talking about this. I will forward this write-up to him.

    Fairly certain he will have a good read. Many thanks for sharing!

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