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Research has shown for years already that fun at work CAN increase employee engagement. 

There are dozens if not thousands of lists online such as “20 Easy Employee Engagement Ideas” at sites like Quantum Workplace that promote fun activities as a way to get people engaged at work. They span the gamut from being lively and witty in onboarding, to going-away parties for employees who are leaving.

Even academic and scientific studies have highlighted that fun can help companies engage their employees. These have looked at areas spanning “fun activities”, “co-worker socialization,” and “management support for fun.” 

But is fun on its own really enough?

Is the engagement that results from having fun together actually significant? Or is something more than just fun needed?

Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant, two of our recent podcast guests, are definitive that the only lasting and effective engagement comes from work success. Nothing else, to them, has a lasting or meaningful impact.

Notter points out that what most people see as engagement is really just the result of engagement. Things like “an emotional connection to the organization” don’t really matter in the end. Nor do assessments that tell you “I love working here.” Rather:

“Engagement is that energy you get when you work at a place where you can be deeply successful personally in your role, as part of an organization that’s successful. It’s success that defines when engagement’s going to be present.”

– Jamie Notter

OK, so engagement is not about fun.

But can fun at least contribute to productive engagement even where it does not lead to other results?

Yes. Yes it can.

Here are five significant ways to make sure you can provide the kind of fun that gets people engaged. AND make the fun meaningful for both the employees and the organization.

1. Instead of Looking for New “Fun Activities”, Make Needed Activities Fun

Look, everyone likes to take time out to enjoy themselves.

At the same time, work is a serious business. And with the exception of a very few lucky job roles, work is usually not about play. We’ve got to get the job done. And much of the time, taking time out to have fun together is more of a diversion than useful team-building.

The hybrid workplace makes it easier in principle to do extra activities, since employees can join from wherever they are and don’t have to gather or travel somewhere external to connect. But this extra easiness doesn’t help enough.

In fact, that’s because team-building as most companies do it is about the wrong stuff. Stuff that has nothing to do with the job itself. As Jamie Notter pointed out, that kind of “engagement” is arguably not engagement at all. At least, it’s not effective engagement.

Because engagement added onto existing work still leaves managers feeling that “having fun together” is a distraction from the goals we need to achieve. Even employees can resent these fun activities as just another task they don’t actually need to deal with. To be honest, they would rather have fun with their friends and families.

Yes, if we’re not careful, “having fun” can create a negative impact that might drown the benefits. But fun doesn’t need to be useless. Instead of making “fun” something added to our jobs, we can focus instead on making the tasks we already have to do more fun and engaging.

How do we do that? There are many ways. Here’s one: do what Jamie said, and make sure you’re winning the game.

Success is the cake. Fun is the icing. Eating a bowl of pure icing will make most people sick. But also, who wants cake with no icing?

2. Connect Fun to Success – Leading to Real Results

Professional athletes earn a lot of money to have fun. But they have a lot more fun when they win the games they’re playing in.

As an organizational leader, you get to set the metrics for winning. Or at least you get to oversee them getting set.

So set goals that you can see there are fun ways to achieve.

Here’s one, for instance.

Learning and improving is fun. We know that. Many sources you can access online right now can show you how to ensure it.

Also we know that collaboration and communication are two of the most important – and under-delivered – drivers of success at work today.

The fact is that employees can benefit both themselves and the organization by learning to work together better. Even where this doesn’t lead to direct, quick wins, it inarguably strengthens teams and builds long-term success.

So, one way to connect fun to success is to include practicing working together on real needs that contribute to individual and collective KPIs and OKRs, and praising and rewarding people for improving their collaboration skills. Even when the results aren’t clear yet.

3. Make Sure It’s Clear Management Supports Enjoying Work

Another problem is that in a lot of companies, employees have the impression that having fun is a bad, bad thing. They won’t show it even when they’re enjoying themselves, because that will upset management.

Make it obvious that fun is a good thing at your company. Communicate this clearly and regularly. Find ways to include fun in your goals and measures – in a meaningful way of course.

4. Let Employees Help Drive Recognition Metrics

Sure, recognition is critical. But most companies practice recognition top-down, almost entirely. As in, managers set up employee-of-the-month awards that they alone decide on. Much of the time, they also make the measures for these awards opaque and invisible.

Today, that simply isn’t good enough. You need to find ways to let peers recognize peers. Even better, make it possible for them to recognize their peers anonymously. Because sometimes office politics can get in the way of reality. 

Make recognition something that everyone participates in, so everyone feels part of it. And make it very clear what the measures are for winning recognition.

The people you recognize will feel truly seen and heard not just by their “boss” but by the whole company. In this way, you make engagement something everyone actually desires and admires.

5. Put Employees in the Driver’s Seat

The other top-down mistake most organizations make is declaring what recognition leads to. A bonus, a gift card, a plaque on the wall.

Which is maybe why almost half of employees surveyed feel the recognition they get is not thoughtful or inspiring.

Today, knowing what motivates and engages your employees is part of your job as a leader. Unfortunately, there’s no one answer. Remember – every employee is a human being. We can no longer conveniently forget this.

Some prefer public recognition. Others would rather keep it private. 

Some want you to empower them better in their work. Others want personal perks they can share with their family. 

Some want you to reward them with big accolades at the end of a major project. Others enjoy daily pats on the back, even if it’s very small.

Some want to be the hero. Others would rather you reward their whole team.

Leadership is so complicated!

So, how do you find out how employees want to be recognized? 

Well, here’s a suggestion. Just ask them.

“When, where, and how would you like us to recognize you for your successes?”

Sounds crazy, right?

Nope. Just smart. 

Nothing works better to create understanding than authentic, clear and honest communication.

Summing Up

  • Make real goals fun.
  • Make fun goals successful.
  • Clarify that management supports having fun at work.
  • Help employees drive recognition themselves
  • Empower employees to choose how they want you to recognize them

So how can you manage all these five things?

Isn’t it an awful lot to add to YOUR plate as a leader or manager?

The truth is there are a lot more than five tips we could offer here – but we’ll get into those on another day.

But yes, even these five are a lot to handle.

The solution is simple.

You need to automate it.

Automate This!

Our AT THE EDGE Hybrid Work Success Solution at Innovation Minds is one easy way to do all these five things and much more to help you make fun successful, and success fun.

Other companies offer other solutions, and we invite you to try them out and compare. We’ve found that most focus on engagement for engagement’s sake, which we don’t recommend. We’ve already explained that.

But whichever way you slice this cake, the important thing is to ensure you maximize the impact that fun can have in the success of your organization. Don’t waste the opportunity to create value while making people feel good.

See you next week.

Michael Lee, SVP of Strategy and Marketing, Innovation Minds