All work and no play can make Jack a very dull boy — and it can also lead to stress, absenteeism, and burnout. Even the most confident manager can find it difficult to motivate a diverse team of individuals who are so under pressure, they've forgotten how to enjoy their job.

Most managers and HR professionals are convinced that making work fun boosts an employee's ability to perform at optimum levels and deliver a better-quality service, even under the toughest of working conditions. But how do you go about lightening up your work setting?

Great things happen in fun workplaces

Research has established a direct link between the extent to which team members have fun at work and various aspects of workplace productivity. In particular, teams that adopt a fun-oriented culture have been shown to:

  • Deliver better customer service
  • Show more creativity
  • Work more consistently with significantly less downtime and absenteeism
  • Innovate within their job role
  • Trust and respect other team members
  • Resolve conflict more easily
  • Display greater levels of loyalty to their organization.

In fact, embracing the mindset of fun in the workplace may be the simplest, most cost-effective way to manage and improve the emotional well-being of the team. Convincing numbers come from the Great Place to Work Institute, which produces the annual Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For list. Invariably, employees in the companies that are designated as "great" report having the most fun — more than 80 percent of employees in each top 100 organization say that they are working in a "fun" environment, compared to around 60 percent of those who work at "good" companies falling just outside the top 100.

What is fun, anyway?

In a workplace context, the concept of "fun" is often conceptualized using terms such as playfulness, humor, team-bondedness, creativity, and good-hearted enjoyment. However, different people approach these concepts through different lenses — what may be fun for one team member may strike fear into the heart of another. If an activity creates added stress for employees, it is not likely to be viewed as fun.

Introverts, for example, may struggle with stimulation-filled activity days that require them to be "on" for longer than they can handle. Lunchtime X-box sessions and ping pong tournaments may provoke eye-rolling, especially among goal-oriented Sensors who see such silly playthings as an invitation to give goofing off greater precedence than actually doing the work. And for teams in which responsibilities are increasing and resources are diminishing, extending an already stressful workday to include a pizza party would likely evoke cynicism rather than gratitude from employees.

For managers and HR professionals, this presents a problem. Each organization, and each team within that organization, will have its own unique mix of individual personalities, as well as a prevailing group personality, both of which influence what will and will not work as a fun initiative. Put simply, there's no "one best way" to have fun, as every team member will have a different opinion of what fun is.

As a manager, the better you know your employees, the more effective you can be in picking out the activities that suit your people and proactively build camaraderie within the team.

Tips for establishing a fun working environment

If you are working with a diverse range of personalities, implementing a variety of low-cost initiatives is likely to work better than going all-out on a single fun-building strategy that might alienate some people. Fun works best when it is organic, so consider putting out a few feelers to determine which way the team leans on the fun scale. Talking with staff one-on-one can shed some light on the initiatives that are likely to make (and keep) employees happy, versus those that may be regarded as stressful or burdensome.

The key is to keep it simple and avoid putting people in a situation where they may feel uncomfortable or pressured to perform. Ideas that go down well in most organizations include:

  • Recognizing major life events such as birthdays, weddings, graduations and so on
  • Taking the time to celebrate team achievements such as new business won, new products developed and other areas of progress
  • Casual Fridays
  • Catering the occasional lunch, beverage hour or ice cream social
  • Friendly competitions with prizes e.g. ugly tie/scarf contests, cheesiest joke contests, sport and reality TV sweepstakes
  • Creating fun-oriented break rooms containing joke books, comedy tapes, board games, decks of cards, hula hoops and anything else that may serve as stress relief
  • Emailing out a daily joke, fun quote, trivia, funny picture, brain teaser, or puzzle
  • Charity fundraising and volunteering initiatives
  • An office pet.

Some of these initiatives may be positively received in your organization; others may seem disingenuous. Trial and error is recommended — just because a decorate-a-gingerbread-house initiative flops, it does not mean that your team is disinterested in having fun. It really depends on the culture of your organization and the personalities of the people involved. For that reason, it is important to involve your employees, soliciting their feedback on what does and doesn't work and adjusting the program accordingly.

Top-down support is crucial to the success of a fun philosophy. Some skeptical personality types (INTJ, INFJ, ISTJ) might assume that humor and fun on the job are another piece of corporate trickery; they need clear evidence that this is not the case. So make sure the CEO or department head joins in the pizza Fridays.

Final thoughts

Playing on the job boosts employee productivity, reduces stress, and increases motivation, but the value of workplace fun depends heavily on an employee's personality and the mix of personalities within the team. Introducing a fun philosophy has to be a team-led initiative — one that is precipitated by the needs and motivations of the team — otherwise, it risks becoming mandatory and, therefore, not fun at all.

It is important to give some thought to your particular team makeup and the kinds of fun things, which would and would not work for the personalities involved. Brainstorm some ideas, involve the team members and above all, keep it flexible. What is fun for one employee is not necessarily fun for another. Acknowledge this fact, and strive to create a variety of fun, performance-boosting styles.

Molly Owens
Molly Owens is the founder and CEO of Truity. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and holds a master's degree in counseling psychology. She began working with personality assessments in 2006, and in 2012 founded Truity with the goal of making robust, scientifically validated assessments more accessible and user-friendly. Molly is an ENTP and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she enjoys elaborate cooking projects, murder mysteries, and exploring with her husband and son.