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Welcome to the house of fun?

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Dennis Bakke, one of the founders of the electricity powerhouse AES, once said he believed the company should be founded on four principles: fairness, integrity, social responsibility, and fun.

Fun? That’s no laughing matter for Leslie Yerkes, president of Catalyst Consulting in Cleveland, Ohio, and author of Fun Works: Creating Places Where People Love To Work (Berrett-Koehler, 2001). Says Yerkes: “We are starved for fun at work!”

Now, should you take this management thinker seriously? FTdynamo talked to her about her different approach to profits and productivity.


FTd: Fun? At work? You’re kidding?

LY: Fun at work is not a joke. Because people spend more time at work than in any other activity, we have begun to expect that our work experience should be positive, should be fun. We are demanding more from work than a pay check. We expect to enjoy what we do and we will search and change jobs until we are satisfied with the work experience. If companies and organizations are to be sustainable, then the work they provide should be satisfying, rewarding, and fun.

FTd: Don’t most people, when they think of going to work, think of having a bad time? Or, at least, not having fun?

LY: We live with biases embedded into our work ethic that prevent us from integrating our whole selves into our work life. Some of those biases are: “Work is bad, fun is good”; “If we have too much fun, the work will not get done”; “It takes too much time to incorporate fun into the fabric of work”; “Fun, joy, and passion are soft and have no relationship to effective work cultures”; “Working hard and long are the prime requirements for creating and living a successful life”.

These biases are symptoms of our Type-A behavior; we glorify it. As a culture, we don’t value preparation with anywhere near the amount of reverence we hold for “rolling up our sleeves and getting right to work”.

Since we choose our biases, there must be a reason we choose to make work sterile –that is fear. We are afraid that if there is fun, there cannot be work. A large number of us view work as bad –if we have fun, the outside world will think less of us. However, companies that faced this fear conquered it, by creating work environments that place a value on fun and productivity and which attract people who don’t think that going to work must mean having a bad time.

FTd: Aren’t managers trained to think of workers having fun as being unproductive?

LY: Much of the context for our management style has evolved from a fear-based, power-over, low-trust attitude toward driving performance. These attitudes are not taught so much as they are learned. As abused children tend to become child abusers, so workers governed under fear tactics tend to use fear tactics when it’s their turn to govern. Companies that display these management styles typically are experts at task orientation – they are makers of lists, studiers of time management, and rewarders of what gets done, not how it gets done. Task orientation requires control; control limits fun.

Over the last 30 years, however, we evolved to an enlightened empowering style that allows individuals to be trusted to perform. Companies with these management styles are experts at process orientation, which requires trust and trust often encourages fun. People are the backbone of process orientation and trusting them is key to its success. Managers who work in these environments make work fun and their employees are more productive.

FTd: You visited many “fun” companies. Which one impressed you the most?

LY: In the course of researching Fun Works, I visited companies and chose the 11 which best represented one of the fun/work fusion principles. These companies have purposely learned to integrate fun into the daily work experience and demonstrate best-in-class performance. They are: Pike Place Fish; Harvard University Dining Services; Southwest Airlines; Employease; Blackboard Inc; Process Creative Studios; Isle of Capri Casinos; Lee Hecht Harrison; One Prudential Exchange; Will Vinton Studios; and American Skandia.

The one that best fits my personal set of interests is Employease, a web-based application service provider that manages human resources benefits. I have spent years guiding companies and individuals along paths that value diversity, and encourage trust. Imagine how it feels for me to walk into a living laboratory like Employease where all the concepts I have been seeking to instill in companies are alive and well, and the basis for its success.

Something that co-founder John Alberg told me bears repeating because I think it’s a good summation of the kind of company Employease is, and what kind of a company all companies could be if they’d follow its example: “Successful management requires a lack of ego. Surround yourself with good people because it has a snowball effect. Good people give off more energy than they consume”.

FTd: There are many, many workplaces in which the labor is not fun. Do your principles apply to any business? Any type of work?

LY: Decidedly, yes! Fun has no boundaries. It is not limited to certain types of work. Since fun is defined individually, it is not exclusive to any kind of business.The distinction lies in “being” fun versus “doing” fun.

To do fun is momentary; to be fun is forever. “Doing” feels like something that is outside you – and that can be checked off a list. “Being” comes from the inside – it is a deep reservoir that fills you up and is released like a breath, to be felt again with your next breath. Regardless of the workplace, doing your life is tiring; being your life is revitalizing. Doing takes energy; being creates it. Imagine how effective we would be in our workplaces if we chose to shift from a culture that says “Just Do It!” to a culture that says “Just Be It!”

FTd: Will this catch on with the academics? Might we – should we – have professors of fun? Is there enough in your initial research to indicate that fun could someday be a discipline?

LY: I have two answers: yes; and I hope not. While there is a lot of information and at least 11 principles to be applied, the last thing I hope to see is fun treated in a faddish way or as a course of study.

Fun is not a science. It is an art fundamental to human nature, and easy to incorporate without a course of “serious” study. But we can learn about it.

One important aspect is that fun was once a part of our life and is now a missing element from our work culture. Initially we may have to conscientiously choose to integrate it but eventually we need to learn to “be fun”.

When we learn to achieve balance in our lives, then fun will be integrated automatically. We shouldn’t make too much work out of finding our full and fun selves. I can’t imagine receiving a grade, someone else’s opinion, on how well I have integrated fun into my life and into my life’s work.

FTd: One would guess that you work a lot. How do you have fun while working and while not working?

LY: I do work a lot but not necessarily more than many entrepreneurs. I discovered at an early age my “right” work, which is satisfying and fun. My work is a natural extension of my life. My work attracts like-minded individuals who enrich my work and my life. I don’t think it would be possible for me to be a more engaged and energized human being. There is fun to be found in each activity I do, in each travel experience, and in each accomplishment. And because this is my right work, I find the fun wherever it is.

When I am not working, I enjoy reading, dining with friends, and going on adventures. I have walked about the desert in Australia and regularly travel to Sweden. My list of potential adventures, includes scuba diving, climbing in Nepal, and walking the Great Wall of China.


FTdynamo features writings and opinions by leading people in the the world of work and business.

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