Pool tables and productivity: what fun at work really means

Put away your pool tables. Scrap the office slide. Forget playing table football.

The pool table in the office is not having fun at work. It is a distraction from work.

Whilst turning the office into an amusement park may have some benefits, making work fun is not one of them. Pool tables, slides and foosball merely add fun activities to the place where we work; they do not improve jobs. These games help people enjoy time away from their work tasks, they do not make work fun.

What is fun?

To have fun at work we need to understand what fun actually means. The dictionary defines fun as frivolous amusement, but as philosopher and game designer Ian Bogost points out, this is not what we mean when we commonly use the word. To find an activity, game, or social event fun, we need to experience something new. Some novelty that teaches us something.

Fun is an improvement in our understanding of a system and learning how to manipulate it to meet our goals. Whether this is the sensation of acceleration on a rollercoaster, beating a level on a computer game, mastering a stroke in tennis or creating new shared memories with friends - the fun comes when exploration leads to a discovery that improves our chance of success.

Jokes are the same. The fun comes from understanding the setup in a new and surprising way. The punchline shows our assumptions were false, and we experience delight in the expansion of our perspective.

When the slide is fun no longer

Fun is what happens when you explore different methods and learn better ways of achieving your aims.

This is why employees will soon get bored of slides. How many ways are there to slip down quickly, and how does this relate to their goals? We should focus on making work fun, not just workplaces.

Finding fun in work

Fun isn’t something you can force. Let me try to illustrate the point: Right now, clap your hands and shout “yeah!” No? Thought not. Forced fun is an oxymoron. Fun emerges from the freedom to explore. To enable fun at work, we need to remove the barriers that are preventing it, and create the conditions that allow it to occur.

Make a safe space

There is no fun in fear. Sure, some enjoy the thrill of a slight scare, but theme parks and horror movies would not be enjoyable if they really were dangerous. In the work environment, this means reducing stress and fear. There is no time to explore new ideas when we’re overworked, and expecting to lose our job, status or reputation causes a fear that stifles creativity.

Challenge people to improve

Whilst too much stress can prevent fun, so can too little. People need to be challenged to improve their game. Playing against an opponent much less capable than we are offers little reward. The fun is in pushing ourselves to be better.

Motivate with desire

Give them a clear reward for improvement, one that obviously benefits them beyond “keeping their job”. A positive reward challenges people to try things and improve, whilst a negative cost for failure often encourages people to fall back on known and trusted methods. Perhaps challenge them to finish a report early and take the rest of the day off. Ask them if they can make savings to get a share of the money. Align personal and company goals for a win-win.

Provide support

It’s hard to complete a task without resources (though this can be a fun challenge if that’s the aim). People need time to focus on the task, and may need tools or training to improve their performance. They also need to know the rules. Clear goals and boundaries are empowering. People need to know what success looks like, and what will be considered cheating. If the challenge is to save money, don’t be surprised when employees reduce their quality of service - this is an obvious solution unless it’s specified beforehand that this does not count as victory.

Trust them with freedom

Now that you’ve given them a goal they want, a safe space and the support they need, allow them to experiment. Micromanagement doesn’t work here. People will often travel down a path with no obvious benefit and be unable to explain every step of their journey. You have to allow them to explore to find the best path.

Sure, get a slide for the office

Okay, you can have a slide if you really want to. If the task is to get downstairs quickly, slides can make the descent a lot more fun. Pool tables are a great spot to socialize, take a break and allow problems to incubate in our subconscious.

But know that the real benefits of these fun distractions in the workplace is that they show the staff they are trusted. Having a slide in the office is a sign of freedom. Employees in these workplaces know they are trusted to spend their time as they wish. And the people who installed the slides know that most people will find exploring how to be better at their job more fun than quickly traveling downstairs.

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