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Fun Makes It Fresh
When people work as long and as hard as they do in today’s competitive companies, when the line between huge financial success and total economic failure looks as thin as it does today, there’s only one thing that can keep the energy in a workplace flowing: fun. Very simply, if work isn’t fun, it won’t attract the best talent. The lesson is so obvious that it’s easily forgotten: Friendship and camaraderie are basic adhesives of the human spirit.
When David Stewart made the decision to abandon his legal career, one of the things that attracted him to Tripod was its convivial atmosphere. “We’re in this little town,” Stewart says, referring to quaint Williamstown. “We have a really cool office space on the top floor of a big mill, with a lot of people who wear shorts and T-shirts all the time. It’s very relaxed.”
Look at other high-tech upstarts, and you’re likely to see the same thing: hard work harnessed to shared enjoyment. And you don’t need to be in high-tech for this glue to work. Nancy Deibler, 50, manages Sprint’s small-business-sales division in Kansas City, Missouri. There, more than 150 people sell telecommunications services to smaller businesses. It can be tedious work: The salespeople work eight-hour shifts, making cold calls—the kind of job that can turn into a grind, resulting in high employee turnover and a lot of customer dissatisfaction.
But Deibler and her crew have found a way to counteract the tedium. They’ve created a strong rapport within the team by building fun into their work—and as a result, Deibler has been able to attract and keep top performers. “Many of us really look forward to going to work because of the other people on the team,” Deibler
says. “We relate to and get along with each other as friends.”
Making fun a legitimate part of work isn’t all that difficult, Deibler says. For example, Deibler’s team might leave work at 3 P.M. to go bowling. “After doing something like that,” she says, “the difference that it makes is measurable and it lasts for weeks.” Add baseball games, cookouts, goofy hats, evenings of karaoke, mock casinos, zany sports, dressing up staffers in costumes to deliver morning coffee to salespeople—a host of ways to introduce positive energy and a spirit of playfulness into the all-too-often all-too-serious work world. Deibler knows that all of this may seem hokey to some people—and she doesn’t care. “It lifts productivity,” she says.
But if you want to see what fun looks like both as a way of working and as a business, visit Playfair Inc., a Berkeley, California-based international consulting firm that devises innovative team-building and stress-reduc-tion programs. Its distinctive business model: Celebrate wackiness, incorporate zaniness into the work process— and in short, have fun. Playfair’s clients include FedEx, Dupont, AT&T, Charles Schwab, and the Young Presidents’ Organization—not exactly the kinds of places where you’d expect to find a lot of blue jeans-wearing, pizza-eating, fun-loving business types playing a game for laughs. Yet since its founding in 1975, Playfair has proven that there’s real bottom-line value in putting fun into the workplace: Fun attracts talent, and it improves productivity.
Terry Sand is Playfair’s “senior vice empress”—an intentionally irreverent title for an exceptionally talented woman. Sand, who is in her forties, has a master’s degree in modern dance and theater from UCLA, and began her career performing in films and commercials. A founding member of several improv-comedy groups, she won San Francisco’s All-Pro Comedy Award in 1984 and went on to become a popular local-TV personality.
Then, in 1986, Sand was diagnosed with systemic lupus, a painful arthritic condition. “TV is very stressful,” Sand says. “I love it, and I still do it for fun sometimes, but having it be your career—basing your life on ratings—is extremly high-stress. I couldn’t do that and also do the healing I needed to do.” Still, Sand noticed that whenever she had the opportunity to conduct a comedy class or workshop, her condition would improve. “To stay alive, I had to figure out how to make a living and have fun,” she says.
Playfair provided the answer. Sand joined the firm’s small roster of keynote speakers and trainers in 1989, and now she uses comedy and performance to convey Playfair’s insights about the power of fun to improve teamwork and productivity. Meanwhile, the opportunity
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to perform and practice her comedy has served as important therapy for Sand: Her disease is in remission, and she’s had no significant relapse in seven years. “My relationship with Playfair lets me be more of who I can be,” Sand says.
Playfulness is almost always purposeful, the people at Playfair argue. A great company will harness people’s natural spirit of fun and focus that spirit where it can do the most good. “Like children, adults play to learn —and learn through play,” says Sand. “There’s a profound purpose to it.”