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Oliver Burkeman’s piece in the NY Times, “Who Goes to Work to Have Fun?” on 11 December says ‘enough of this orchestrated ‘fun at work’. But I say — if we are not enjoying ourselves — then what is the point?

One could argue, as Oliver does, that work is work. And as such, why should we expect to have a good time? Well, maybe it’s just that we do things a little differently in the ‘land down under’, but I believe the words ‘fun’ and ‘work’ are not, and should not be, mutually exclusive.

Oliver makes some very good points, and even acknowledges that happiness at work is a good thing, but too many businesses are trying to “engineer happiness” – a path fraught with dissatisfaction.

But if this fun and happiness is authentic; if everyone in the business has a role to play in the overall culture; and fun is owned and fostered by all people in the business, happiness can deliver amazing results. If you have a business purpose that everyone believes in and can rally around, your people will not only give you their best, you will also unlock their valuable discretionary effort.

I’d worked for a lot of large corporations, some better than others, before I started my own show in 2001. But there was one common theme when I was an employee; I seemed to leave the ‘real’ me at home every morning. I became this suited-up, serious executive that acted like everyone else around me.

When I started my business, I wanted to work in a place that ‘I wanted to work in’. Where I could express an opinion and be listened to. I wanted to work in a place where I could wear what suited me and expressed my personality. But most of all I wanted to feel connected, have a laugh and share a smile. To be part of something bigger than myself. So I started my business with the intent of having fun — not just be in the business of fun.

But five years in, I and those around me were not having fun at all – we had got very serious indeed. When employee turnover reached 64 per cent in 2006, I had to have a tough conversation with myself. I made the decision to invest in the employee experience; hire a HR professional; and overhaul our whole approach to our people. I had the intent — but not necessarily the skills needed to create a great work place

And the proof is evident, another seven years on, we created a workplace with an employee engagement score of over 90 per cent – the national average in Australia is just 54 per cent. And there has been a clear and deliverable commercial outcome from creating an amazing place to be. The business has grown aggressively and consistency over this time, and notched up 40 per cent growth in transactional value last financial year. Pretty telling for a 12 year old operation.

But I am confronted on a daily basis by people who tell me that it was easy because my business is about encouraging people to experience things that make them happy. My business RedBalloon sells vouchers to experiences – activities across Australian and New Zealand, from cooking classes to skydiving, hot air ballooning to romantic retreats. But that has absolutely nothing to do with having a team of happy, motivated employees. Much as the 70 or so employees here would like to be out there sampling our wares every day; we have a business to run!

We aren’t happy and engaged working at RedBalloon because of what we sell. We are happy because we choose to work at a business that values happiness. A lawyer’s office could do the same. So too a bank. So why isn’t happiness part of our everyday working vernacular? Especially when work is such a big part of our life. I’m sure if it were we’d see a far higher average engagement score, delivering those coveted commercial outcomes.

If you pay your people fairly; give them the tools and conditions to do their best work; and ensure they are stretched, challenged and given the opportunity to develop professionally, happiness will follow.

And not only is this good for productivity and retention, we know that happy employees are more likely to create happy customers. And that’s a recipe for happy profits. Thomas Wright, professor of organisational behaviour at the University of Nevada, states ‘employee happiness accounts for as much as 10-15 per cent of the variance in performance between different workers’. In a 40 hour week that could mean up to three-quarters of an hour in lost productivity, every day. So businesses who don’t attend to the happiness of their people are unlikely to get the best out of them.

Similarly, the experts at Gallup tell us that unhappy workers cost billions in lost productivity every year, whereas engaged employees are more profitable, more customer-focused, safer and more likely to stick around. In fact, organisations with a happy workforce have 20 per cent higher profits. At work, happy people are:

  • 31 per cent more productive
  • 40 per cent more likely to receive a promotion – people like happy people
  • Absent less, with 23 per cent fewer fatigue symptoms
  • Up to 10 per cent more engaged at work
  • Able to sell more – happy sales people produce 37 per cent greater sales

Sometime businesses simply take themselves too seriously. Can we all lighten up a bit? One of Deepak Chopra’s Five Secrets to Happiness is enjoyment at work, and that simple notion can have huge impacts upon productivity, well-being and profits.

So in response to Oliver’s initial question, “can we stop trying to ‘make work fun’?” I truly believe that would be a big mistake — but it is not something that ‘management’ can impose on the team. Every team member must want it to be that way… and be a part of it. Corporate culture is not something that happens to you — it is something that each person creates.

 

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