Mandatory fun at work: Creating bonding opportunities employees won’t hate

After six hours of attending an out-of-town conference, all Sandy wanted to do was sit in a fluffy bathrobe and watch an old movie in her hotel room. Instead, she found herself in a karaoke bar with four of her colleagues and their manager.

Her boss had suggested the outing. Maria and Sam readily agreed. Sandy and Matt exchanged hesitant looks and mentioned they were tired. The manager called them “party poopers” and insisted they would be fine after a quick nap. Sandy got the feeling that she had little choice in the matter, especially because she already felt self-conscious about being the oldest member of the team.

She nervously watched Sam finish up his performance to Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” She blushed a bit, thinking it a tacky choice with such raunchy lyrics. With her turn moments away, she settled on “Happy” by Pharrell Williams, though the song did not in the least represent her mood.

“See, wasn’t that fun?!” her boss exclaimed when she got off the stage.

Sandy gritted her teeth and affirmed with a nod of the head. What she really wanted to scream was, “No, you idiot. I felt like a total fool. What is so fun about roping me into something I did not want to do?”

MGR Handbook D

The rise of mandatory fun

Many modern organizations spend a great deal of time thinking about company culture, and rightly so. Especially in times of low unemployment, employers need every edge they can muster. A strong workplace culture helps lure top talent and encourages current workers to remain.

Reasoning that people like to enjoy themselves, leaders often search for ways to create more fun. Popular stories about workplaces with ping-pong tables, cereal bars, and four-legged friends roaming the hallways further encourage the quest. And since rumor has it that landing a job at Zappos is harder than getting into Harvard, some execs reason that installing a giant ball pit for employees like that company did will magically improve the number of resumes received.

Certainly, there is nothing wrong with learning about how other organizations boost morale and then thinking about how such activities would or would not work at your workplace. Realize, though, that the heart of developing a company culture is figuring out your own mission statement, your own core values, your own ways of doing things, and what your employees consider enjoyable. Besides fun, building a strong work culture involves other initiatives. Make sure things such as open communication, transparency, and building trust receive equal attention.

Ways to promote genuine fun

As the case of Sandy in the opening showed, mandatory fun can feel like the direct opposite of enjoyment. In the workplace or out of it, people generally dislike being told what to do. The word “mandatory” brings to mind activities such as paying taxes, needing to attend a long meeting, or visiting a relative you’d rather not see after your mother’s lecture on family obligations. Not that pleasant, huh?

So what can well-intentioned leaders who truly want to create a happier environment do? Consider the following strategies:

Make activities optional (for real)

Forget pressure. Remove any subtle (or not-so-subtle) messages that employees are expected to participate or suffer possible consequences. Refrain from telling them they are anti-social, and never mark their “teamwork” score down on a performance review because of it.

Think of it this way: Many modern companies go to great lengths to promote their dedication to diversity, inclusion, and psychological safety in the workplace. What type of message are you sending about respecting differences if you don’t value individual decisions about what someone does or does not find fun?

For the record, people often have “good” reasons why they avoid something, even if they do not advertise their rationale. A former alcoholic, for instance, makes a wise decision to pass on drinks after work rather than face temptation. But even if the reason is simply preference, it should be respected. There is nothing wrong with people just wanting to do their job and then go home!

Seek input

Forget imitation. What do the people in your office consider fun? Gathering their thoughts promotes employee engagement and increases the odds of participation. Take surveys, hold brainstorming sessions, or perhaps create a social committee. Whatever method you choose, do your best to ensure all voices get heard. While it’s great that a group of video game enthusiasts loves to hold tournaments, make room for variety.

Hold events during business hours

Given the choice between working at one’s desk or gathering with co-workers to watch a comedy film for the last two hours of Friday afternoon, much of the staff will pick the latter. While that is not to say that activities outside of work are off-limits, expect better attendance when done on company time. Not only does this seem more like a treat, it also eliminates problems such as parents finding childcare.

Watch the cost

Just like fun on company time increases enjoyment, so does doing so on the company dime. Footing the bill removes barriers to people on a budget hesitating to join in. Remember, too, that plenty of free or low-cost options exist — volunteer together, host a lunchtime potluck, devote a Slack channel to pet pictures, or dress up for Halloween, for instance.

Support organic fun

When a member of the San Diego Padres hits a home run, teammates crown him with a multi-colored sombrero after he rounds the bases. Likely, nobody in management came up with that idea; it just somehow developed out of “the guys talking.” The same type of thing can happen in an office environment. Encourage staff members to run with their “that would be so cool” ideas for bonding and entertainment. Support with resources such as space, time, and money. Why buy a foosball table that clutters the break room when your coffee-loving team would rather have a quality machine and some comfy chairs to sit on and chat?

Show a purpose

Got a group that groans at the mere mention of team-building activities? This type of mandatory fun often irritates workers because they view it as wasting time they could better use to get “real” projects done. To squash some of their reservations, try providing the reasons behind your chosen activity. What do you hope to get out of it? Attitudes may change when they see how it will strengthen teamwork, make them better problem-solvers, or boost creativity.

Mandatory fun on the road

Bosses often see work-related trips as the ideal time to promote team bonding. Without family around or personal obligations to attend to, they reason, why not spend the time together? Indeed, some workers think the same way. They like exploring a new town with colleagues after a conference or dining with others instead of alone.

Just as with other “fun” work-related activities, provide choice. Some employees may be physically exhausted after running to meetings all day. Introverts may have mustered all the social energy they could just to get through networking at a conference and need alone time. Parents may want to catch up on how things are going at home. Or, like Sandy, they simply may relish the notion of a little “me” time over watching colleagues belt out songs by Imagine Dragons.

One final note on business travel and fun: Avoid forcing colleagues to share hotel rooms. You may have people on staff who genuinely like rooming with someone else, and it is fine if they truly wish to lodge together. However, many folks find the situation very uncomfortable. Fun memories are not made by listening to an officemate snore like a hibernating bear or seeing your roomie’s face contort after you come out of the bathroom in the morning.