Pranks and Pet Photos Prove Good for Corporate Morale

Advocates say a little spontaneous fun can do a lot for productivity

Is there room in the workplace for both hard work and humor?

Today more companies think so and are using fun as a way to keep chins, and productivity, up.


*In 1995, long-distance carrier Sprint started a campaign to have fun in its five small-business sales centers. The nationwide centers try to do something fun every day - from going on photo safaris to wearing funny hats.

*Every April Fools' Day, engineers at Sun Microsystems Inc., a computer company, pull pranks on senior management. Past mischief includes building a workstation at the bottom of a shark tank and assembling a car in an office.

*At Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, fun activities are common both on its planes - singing the in-flight announcements, for example - and off. Prospective employees are often asked: "Tell how you recently used humor in the work environment."

Fun has been part of some companies for years, but today's changing business environment - with increased competition, downsizing, and reengineering - has more organizations looking for ways to boost morale.

"Companies, in the main, are discovering that morale has much more of an impact [on performance] than was assumed before," says Kateri Schmerler, a Minneapolis-area consultant.

A relaxed atmosphere, experts say, can help businesses improve attitudes and teamwork, foster tolerance, and reduce stress. And it doesn't have to cost a lot.

Fun can be as simple as posting pet photos or baby pictures of workers and letting people guess who they belong to, writes Matt Weinstein in his book "Managing to Have Fun" (Simon & Schuster). Mr. Weinstein, the founder of a team-building consultancy called Playfair Inc., also suggests praising someone's work unexpectedly or anonymously.

"The idea of fun in the workplace is not about an end in itself. It's just a way to make the workplace more human," he says in an interview.

"This is not about goofing off. This is about bringing fun into the natural course of work," says Diane Decker, a management consultant in Mt. Prospect, Ill.

Skeptics may wonder if fun activities are too distracting and disruptive. Weinstein says he sees a "direct correlation between playfulness and productivity."

That's the case at Sprint, where "morale is up, employee retention is up, and productivity is up," says Margery Tippen, Sprint's vice president in charge of sales to small businesses. She says that her division is trying to make fun a permanent fixture. "This is our new culture. This is not something you can do once a year."

Ms. Decker suggests that efforts at levity can start small, especially if top managers are not on board. She suggests brown-bag lunches where employees watch videos or ice-breakers at meetings - such as telling about an embarrassing moment.

For Weinstein, based in Berkeley, Calif., two vital points are to tailor the fun to the specific people involved, and to lead by example. Chief executives at both Sun and Southwest, for example, embrace the culture of fun.

Managers who use humor often get good results, according to an academic study presented in April. The study, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Bottom Line," assessed several management styles and found that the best-performing divisions at a major Canadian financial institution were those where managers used humor as a part of their overall leadership style.

Humor is part of the intellectual stimulation that some managers provide, says study co-author John Sosik, an assistant management professor at Pennsylvania State University's Great Valley branch. He says humor and creativity are closely linked.

"A sense of humor, a sense of play, willingness to experiment with even wild ideas are all part of a culture of innovation," says Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor at the Harvard Business School.

She says that at high-tech, entrepreneurial, and fast-growth companies "where there is a lot of spirit and energy, there is also a lot of play and celebration."

Take Sun Microsystems. The April Fools' Day pranks started almost a decade ago as a way for employees to demonstrate their engineering prowess, explains Ken Alvares, human-resources head at the Mountain View, Calif., company. He says such light-hearted activities don't hurt productivity. "If anything, we gain."

At Southwest, "There's probably a celebration going on somewhere in our system every single day," says Libby Sartain, the company's vice president of people, Southwest's version of a human resources director. "It's not just one big joke here. We have a lot of challenges to face and a lot of work to get done." But she says "a sense of humor gets you through. It bonds us together."

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