Let's Bring Fun Back to the Workplace!

Stuck in an "all work no play" kind of moment? Modern Mentor shares her favorite tips for bringing fun back into the workplace!

Rachel Cooke
5-minute read
Episode #664
The Quick And Dirty

After a tough year of working at home, we have to re-think what "fun" means in the workplace. Fun in the workplace requires people to feel safe, and can be more about infusing everyday interactions with levity rather than an hour of "forced fun." 

Remember the water cooler? And how it felt to just bump into someone and chat about Netflix or your kid’s baseball game with no agenda? And everyone wore pants?
In the wise words of Joni Mitchell, sometimes “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
Working physically in an office came at a price for sure. It wasn’t all fun and games. But for many of us, that fun-and-games part is feeling absent. We’re working longer days (and weekends), we’re feeling the burn, and we’re missing a sense of fun. 
The pandemic may have changed the rules on what “fun” can look like right now. But there is still fun to be had. With or without a budget, there are ways you can start to bring it back into your workplace.
I recently ran a series of Listening Sessions for a client striving to understand what their employees want as far as fun in ‘21 and I learned some pretty great stuff I’m passing along today.

1. Fun means we’re all OK

When the pandemic began, many companies started trying to mandate fun by instituting weekly Zoom happy hours, awkward virtual team building events, and more.
But the truth is, it’s hard to lean into the pleasure of a happy hour when your brain is swimming in anxiety and overwhelm. It’s like putting lipstick on a pig—with all due respect to the pig.
These listening sessions taught me that teams are tired of feeling forced to laugh when they still feel like crying.
True fun begins with a foundation of everyone just being OK–having what they need as far as tools, resources, support, access to key benefits, etc.
Whether or not you’re in a position of leadership, if you’re looking to reinfuse a sense of fun back into your team, start by just checking in with people one-on-one. And maybe experiment with questions that invoke something deeper than “How are you?”
Here are some I’ve personally been asked and that I’ve appreciated:
  • Are you looking for some thought partnership on anything right now?
  • I’ve been working on X and I know you’ve been working on Y…wondering if we might compare notes and see if these projects might be complementary?
  • Is there anything that’s been slowing you down at work that I might help troubleshoot or problem-solve?
  • How well are your daily activities supporting your key priorities right now? Is there anything you’re considering setting to the side for now?
The point is to ask open questions that invite someone to really think about whether they have what they need, while also extending an invitation to ask for your input, help, or support.
This helps build a baseline of safety, without which fun cannot exist.

2. Fun can just be levity

Another big "aha" emerging from these Listening Sessions is that infusing fun into the work can be more impactful than a standalone hour of forced fun.
These teams were asking not for event-based fun, but just for more levity, lightness, and humor during meetings, conversations, and check-ins.

Infusing fun into the work can be more impactful than a standalone hour of forced fun.

So, if you’re sitting on a team that is all business until the mandatory fun-hour begins, here are some things you might experiment with:
  • Celebrate National [whatever] day. It’s literally always a day–be it National Hot Dog, Unicycle, or Great Uncle Day. Sometimes just the ridiculousness of “seriously–THAT needs a day???” can get people smiling. Invite people to choose a Zoom background or bring a prop into meetings to recognize the thing being celebrated.
  • Start each meeting with someone sharing a quick anecdote from their childhood. Make it voluntary (of course), but intentional. Invite someone to share a short story that offers a glimpse into who they were, and maybe even has a connection to the conversation at hand.
  • Laugh at a harmless mistake–instead of panicking or immediately problem-solving. Let humanity in just for a moment.
  • Share a book recommendation. Fiction is just fine here, or a new favorite restaurant or recipe–just remind people that non-work lives deserve a place at the table.
Model the behavior you’d like to see. And then call it out so your colleagues understand what you’re doing and why. They may even start to follow your lead.

3. Fun can have purpose

Fun doesn’t have to be defined by a hat or a beverage. Fun is fun if it leaves you feeling good. And while we may not all find the same things funny or joyful, there’s something universal about infusing some goodness into the world.
Whether in-person or virtual, organize a purposeful activity your team can do together. If your company allocates a budget for this (and many do–so go ask your leader or someone in Human Resources or Corporate Social Responsibility!) there are charities out there that will provide you with supplies and will even facilitate an activity with your team as you package kits for refugees or Hurricane victims or students in underprivileged areas.
If no budget is available, then bring everyone together and write letters to veterans or children in local hospitals. Or plan a fundraising event and choose a cause that resonates with everyone.
The takeaway here is that fun doesn’t have to be frivolous. Don’t be afraid to get real and bring meaning to the table.

4. Fun leverages individual strengths

Sharing our hobbies, interests, and secret talents is an incredible–and accessible–way to bring fun back to work.
Set aside a time–maybe an hour a week or month (make it during the workday to avoid adding to burnout) when one team member leads the rest in an activity or discussion that matches their own interest or expertise.
One person may choose to teach a virtual cooking class. Another may lead the group in a karaoke session (sorry not sorry for that one). You may learn some phrases in a foreign language or the basics of coding. You might delight in a brief history lesson of someone’s culture, or indulge in some not-so-bad amateur standup comedy!
Sometimes the most fun we can have is sharing in a colleague’s passion, knowledge, and expertise–and their willingness to share it with the rest of the team.

5. Fun can be singular.

The comment that hit me the hardest during my listening sessions was “One person’s fun is another person’s trigger.” A recovering alcoholic doesn’t take pleasure in Zoom happy hours. A person riddled with anxiety may not love an escape room.
Sometimes the best way to infuse fun into the workplace is to grant people permission to choose their own adventures.
Start by setting the example. Instead of pulling your team together for a one-size-fits-all event, scour your workplace for opportunities that catch your interest. There may be a speaker series happening, or an employee resource group you might join, or a lunch-and-learn being hosted by another team, or a company book club you can join.
Go find your fun, and without any pressure, just let your team know what you did and why you enjoyed it. Maybe a colleague will follow your lead.

Sometimes the best way to infuse fun into the workplace is to grant people permission to choose their own adventures.

Whether something I’ve covered has struck your fancy, or you’re imagining something entirely different, do make the time and space to bring fun back into the workplace. And if you’ve got an idea I’ve missed, please pop onto the Modern Mentor Podcast page on LinkedIn and let me know! There’s nothing more fun for me than learning from you!

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.