“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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