A little levity lightens the workload

Breaking into song at a budget presentation.

Taping candy bars to the middle of long memos.

Providing treats for your customer's dogs during a sales pitch.

Sound silly?

Maybe, but these are just a few examples of how corporate America is attempting to lighten up the workplace.

With companies in a dog fight to attract and retain top talent, a growing number of firms are banking on a little play at work as a way to boost morale, reduce stress, and lower turnover.

The idea: A happy worker is a loyal worker.

Some companies are even going as far as to include "having fun" as part of their mission statement.

"Companies say, 'My best people could work anywhere. How do I hold on to them?' It's giving them a stake in the company," says Matt Weinstein, a humor consultant based in Berkeley, Calif. "The language of play is such a universal language and it speaks to us in a way that words don't. It says we share the same values and that joy is one of our values."

Who doesn't like to laugh - and especially at work?

Most companies, however, still stand by the motto that all work and no play is still the best way to manage. And the humor that does creep into office cubicles is often more sarcastic than funny.

"A lot of what passes in the business world for humor is veiled hostility," says Mr. Weinstein, co-author of a new book titled "Work Like Your Dog: Fifty Ways to Work Less, Play More, and Earn More" (Villard).

Yet times are changing and more businesses have begun to realize that a joke here or a little laugh there can go a long way toward improving morale.

A survey earlier this year by management-consultant firm William M. Mercer of 286 employers found that 29 percent encourage humor at work and 8 percent actually have a stated policy encouraging fun in the workplace.

Consider:

*Workers at Mastercard International in St. Louis recently sponsored "Dress Up Your Supervisor Day." Some 150 employees dressed up nine supervisors in such get-ups as Elvis, a nun, a used-car salesman, and a wise man.

*Southwest Airlines, renowned for having fun on the job, holds an annual Halloween contest where each department decorates its area with a theme to be judged by the company CEO.

*Information technology company EDS Corp. recently held its second annual "Have Fun at Work Day." Activities included everything from "a day in Hawaii" complete with a luau lunch and grass-skirt lottery to a special auction where employees bid on items with play money they'd earned over the past several months.

So why do it?

Companies contend that play and pranks on the job help boost moral and productivity, reduce stress and absenteeism, and even increase retention.

"We do get a return on it," says Sandy Condellire, operations manager at Mastercard's call center in St. Louis, which handles emergency services for cardholders. When employees are happy, they provide better customer service.

"I liken it to a car," adds Ben LeVan, manager of leadership development at EDS in Rochester, N.Y. "We expect employees to do a lot in these days of corporate downsizing. If we don't stop to take time to have fun and oil the mechanisms, [employees] will break down."

Employees seem to agree.

At a recent Bank of America conference here in Los Angeles, Weinstein had some 1,200 employees letting loose. Throughout the meeting, for example, employees took turns jumping to their feet and shouting, "I'd like a standing ovation." The entire ballroom of workers quickly jumped to their feet and applauded for their co-worker.

Most here agreed that humor should have a place in the office.

"It's absolutely important," says Timothy Ambrose, a market manager at Bank of America investment services in Bethesda, Md. "You get so busy that you forget to appreciate everyone around you."

Still, some argue that playing at work is not all it's cracked up to be. Companies, for one, concede that they can't quantify their results. And few studies exist that actually show what effect humor has productivity.

A recent study by Allan Filipowicz of the Harvard Business School in Boston found that while humor helped men perform better on the job, it had little impact on women's performance.

And plenty of managers worry that employees will spend too much time plotting their next prank rather than working.

Yet most of the humor and fun in the workplace is spontaneous. "Studies show that approximately 80 percent of all humor, fun, and laughter is unplanned," says Gail Samuelson, a communications consultant at William M. Mercer in Orange, Calif. And that means employers should create an environment that gives employees freedom to have fun.

What if you're not a natural jokester. Or even a quiet type who'd rather save "letting loose" for after hours?

"Find your own style," Weinstein says. "This is not about dumping a bag of tricks on the people you work with."

"If you have a company that promotes humor it doesn't necessarily mean that you will get to keep all of your employees," Ms. Samuelson says. "There are many other factors, but humor is an added bonus. Personally, I think we all need it."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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