Should Work Be Fun?

Posted by: Nigel Girling Post Date: 18th August 2016

Whether or not work should be fun is a complex question, and how you react to it probably reveals a great deal about your attitudes to your place of work, to your colleagues, and to your role as a current or potential leader.

I’ve looked previously at the impact being happy can have on your resilience, engagement and performance (see Shawn Achor’s very funny and rather profound TED talk on the subject for more about that), and it stands to reason that fun at work has a significant influence on these things.

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Most of us have come to believe that work, and even the concept of having a job, is meant to be hard; that it’s meant to be a source of pressure and stress, and something we must endure to fund our lifestyle or existence. But does it have to be like this?

Where do our beliefs originate?

My colleague and renowned management writer Philip Whiteley explored this topic deftly in his book ‘Meet the New Boss’, intrigued by the way work has been portrayed in popular culture. The idea that being ‘working class’ puts you at the bottom of the food chain is entrenched in our societies and belief systems, and represented in songs, films, plays, and TV shows.

Many of these stereotypes originate from times where a highly-stratified class system prevailed, designed to keep the ‘working man’ in his place, and in thrall to the rich and powerful. While some vestiges of this still undoubtedly exist, things have changed a great deal. While I am ancient enough to remember growing up in a family with no car, a rented house with no telephone, no central heating, stone floors, no TV, and electricity via a coin meter, the chances are that anyone under 40 probably grew up in a comfortable house with modern conveniences. Today, even those on low salaries expect to live comfortably, and to enjoy regular leisure activities.

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Social change and the workplace

So why hasn’t our popular view of work kept pace with all this social change? Perhaps, in part, it’s because our workplaces haven’t either. Suggest to many senior managers that work should be fun, and they’ll look at you as though you have a cuckoo on a spring erupting from your forehead.

A little test for you: how many workplaces do you know that have comfortable and inviting social areas where people can meet to chat whenever they want to? How many have good cafeterias or food areas that encourage colleagues to break bread together and build relationships? How many have social clubs or activities where colleagues can meet after work, and ven involve their families? It’s ironic, perhaps, that many of these things were standard in most larger organisations in the 1950s and 60s, yet rarer than rocking horse droppings in the 21st century.

It seems we used to recognise how much these things mattered, yet in this century too often view them as unnecessary distractions that provide an opportunity to cut costs as part of our mad surge to increase productivity and efficiency. Profits matter. Shareholders matter. But don’t employees matter too? And isn’t employee engagement intrinsic to success with the first two?

It seems even more ironic to me that, in an age when everything belonged to the rich and privileged, Victorian business owners actually did far more to promote happiness and wellbeing, and more to look after their people, than the majority of organisations in our supposedly enlightened era of HR and employee protection. If you don’t believe me, check out the histories of Colman’s of Norwich, Crittall Windows, Lever Brothers, Cadbury’s, and Boots.

Fun and trust

Much of this attitude seems to me to be about trust. Concepts like Theory X and Y, and Tannenbaum and Schmidt’s Continuum, show how trust is so integral to a leader’s choices.

We seem to have decided, in many a modern workplace, that our people can’t be trusted to be productive and conscientious, so we must remove distractions and keep them at their desks, ideally facing a wall or desk divider, so that they don’t slack off or chat. And they can eat a sandwich at their desk while getting on with their work. A 1930s cotton mill or factory had many of the same attitudes, yet even they had a social club and lunch rooms.

If it seems far-fetched to say that today’s workplace is like a 1930s factory, consider this: How many workplaces do you know that have radio playing in the office? How many have blocked Facebook or other social media? How many provide hot food for staff? How many have social spaces or rest facilities?

Take a look at contemporary organisations like Innocent, Ella’s Kitchen, Pixar, or Virgin. Check out almost any business in the ‘creative’ industries. They show what it takes to attract talent, unleash discretionary effort, and generate a culture of creativity and innovation.

Then look at the organisations you know. If it’s the same: good on you. If not, try asking your managers whether they think people should have fun at work and see how they react. If you’re a leader yourself, consider this: How will you make it more fun for people to work in your team?

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