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Madmen and Fish: How to have fun at work

The hugely successful television series, Mad Men, is a stylised drama about the advertising industry on New York’s Madison Avenue, set in the 1960s. It reminds us of how much office life has changed since then. Smoking is not now accepted in the workplace, but the concept of treating women as equals, most definitely is. The show also shows us that we have forgotten how to have fun at work.

The ad-men at Sterling Cooper spend their days drinking and smoking furiously and their evenings in their secretaries’ arms. In a constant fug of hedonism and smoke, these men do not need to be taught how to have fun at work, they never want to leave the place. It is simply amazing they get any ads made, but it helps that their biggest account is Lucky Strike.

Somewhere along the way, we forgot how to enjoy ourselves at work, but the concept is returning and today some companies seem obsessed with fun and ensuring their employees have it.

We can probably blame some of this on business management books like Fish! A Remarkable Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results, which was published ten years ago to great acclaim. Its three authors claimed that an organisation that learns to have fun can inspire its staff, become more customer-focused and significantly increase productivity.

The book was inspired by the experiences of Mary Jane Ramirez, at Seattle’s famous Pike Place Fish Market. She had just been promoted to the role of manager of operations, on the dreaded third floor of the financial company where she worked.

Everyone on the third floor appeared to hate their work and their section was described as a ‘toxic energy dump’. Ramirez was charged with turning the section around and had no idea how to do this.

On a visit to the fish market, she was struck by how the employees behaved at work. They are renowned for the way they have fun and interact with their customers. Ramirez befriended Lonnie, an employee, who taught her how to transform and energise her department at work.

Lonnie’s lessons break down into four main areas:

Choose your attitude: “There is always a choice about how you do your work, even if there is not a choice about the work itself.” The book says, even if you are bored with your work, you can still choose to go about it with a positive approach.

Play: The authors claim even the most mundane jobs can be made more energetic and fun if you learn to play while you get the job done. They suggest getting your customers involved in the fun as well.

Make their day: Go out of your way to do something special for your employees and customers each day.

Be present: They write that it is critical that you focus on your customers (internally and externally) during the time you are dealing with them. At the fish market, Ramirez is struck by the way a fish lands at Lonnie’s feet while he is talking to her and he doesn’t take his eyes off her.

Armed with her new-found knowledge, Ramirez found her employees eager and receptive to the concepts and the department soon became the company’s most successful division.

A number of successful business people do support the basic premises of Fish! If job satisfaction is “the degree to which individuals feel positively or negatively about their jobs”, then it makes sense to create an environment in which mundane tasks can become more enjoyable to perform.

The obsession with fun at work does seem to have originated in Seattle, where companies have had basketball courts, rock-climbing walls and inflatable animals at work for years. Unfortunately like most innovative ideas, these have spread to the wider world.

The IT company, Acclaris, has a ‘chief fun officer’, the bank, Toronto Dominion, has a ‘Wow!’ department, which sends teams out to ‘surprise and delight’ its workers and Red Bull, London, has installed a slide in its offices.

There is nothing wrong with a pool table or a Friday evening bar at work, but a team of fun meisters in fancy dress costumes, disturbing the work environment, deserves a good kicking in any language.

A British company, Fun at Work, guarantees offices ‘more hilarity than you can handle’ and Madan Kataria, the self-styled ‘guru of giggling’ sells ‘laughter yoga’ to corporate clients. It is tempting to think that any company resorting to these tactics is beyond help, but some of the world’s most successful are in on the act.

Google’s offices have cycle paths, dinosaurs, volleyball courts, roller hockey and professional masseuses for their injured computer programmers and new kids on the block, Twitter, force staff to wear cowboy hats and their website boasts; “Crazy things happen every day…it’s pretty ridiculous.” Indeed.

Many companies pride themselves on empowering their employees, but it still remains that only 20% of them are fully engaged with their work and even fewer are creative. The idea of fun is presumably to liberate previously innate creative skills, but the problem is that once fun becomes prescriptive, it turns into its opposite; an empty impostion.

Fun companies coerce employees through ‘team-building’, but you cannot force someone to have fun. Nowadays, workers are forced to huddle outside in doorways if they smoke and drinking at lunchtime is something of a lost art. Some offices even try to ban office romances.

Mad Men reminds us of a world we have lost and no amount of enforced jollity can return us to those innocent days of debauchery. Trying to induce good feelings through top-down edicts, or even self-delusion are doomed to failure. There is something within happiness itself, which demands it arises freely; it is possible to create an environment in which it might thrive, but it cannot be forced.

ExecutiveSurf’s Italian CEO, Alessandro Tosi, says the idea of fun at work reminds him of the pre-bubble internet era, but that he knows of successful companies, where you can see people having fun. Alessandro says: “In the end, the mostbetween what you have to do and what you like to do. Researchers tend to have fun, because they have an intellectual payoff. Leaders can transmit passion and this can facilitate the matching I mentioned.”

Ultimately, though, forcing fun on people is a double bind, where, as the philosopher, Alan Watts, said: “you are required to do something that will be acceptable only if you do it voluntarily.” Enforced happiness is no happiness at all, books with exclamation marks in the title cannot teach you anything and the route to fun is to crack open the office drinks cabinet.

As Don Draper himself said: “Advertising is based on one thing; happiness. And you know what happiness is? It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay.”

Nigel Phillips

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