How Work Gets to Be Fun

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The idea of having fun at work is a frequently discussed—and important—topic. I wrote about it earlier, and Fast Company recently published a list of the happiest places to work. But happiness at work is not as simple a concept as it may first seem. How work gets to be fun matters.

Oliver Burkeman addresses the tensions involved in thinking about fun at work in a New York Times opinion piece. In this article he asks, “Please—no, really, please—can we stop trying to 'make work fun?'” Burkeman complains that some companies are spending too much time and energy “making” work fun and not enough time understanding why people enjoy work. He reviews some studies and concludes that having fun at work is a desirable thing, but you can’t force it.

Focusing on creating fun through extrinsic means (“fungineering” is the term he references) can be counterproductive. The right answer is to do things that help people find joy in their job intrinsically, including “giving employees as much autonomy as possible, and ensuring that people are treated evenhandedly.”

If the key is to create the right environment rather than having fun activities, there are still challenges to overcome. There can be a fine line between enabling productivity and enforcing a work style in the name of fun and effectiveness. The Economist discusses the backlash against “Montessori management,” an approach that borrows from progressive education to create more collaborative workplace environments.

Although this collaborative approach works for some, it can actually make work less enjoyable and less collaborative for others. Understanding your team and the individuals on your team is key to effectively enabling collaboration and fun.

Arthur Brooks describes some principles that can lead to happiness in work and other aspects of our lives. He writes, “It turns out that choosing to pursue four basic values of faith, family, community and work is the surest path to happiness.”

Brooks explains that while there are other factors, including genetics, that play a role in how happy we are in a given situation, having a job that is somewhat of a vocation is essential to happiness at work. According to Brooks, “If you can discern your own project and discover the true currency you value, you’ll be earning your success. You will have found the secret to happiness through your work.”

This advice for happiness at work may not be specific enough to make work better and a team more productive, but the principle of meaningful, self-directed work can be an important entry point to a series of discussions about how to get there. And if you are on an agile team, you can use these questions to help you understand if you are applying the concept of a self-organizing team effectively.

What makes your work more—or less—fun? What would you suggest to people to make their teams more productive and their work more enjoyable?

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Steve Berczuk

Steve Berczuk is a Principal Engineer and ScrumMaster at Fitbit in Boston, MA. He is the author of Software Configuration Management Patterns: Effective Teamwork, Practical Integration, and has an M.S. in operations research from Stanford University and an S.B. in Electrical Engineering from MIT.