3 Research-Backed Ways To Create Fun at Work

What does it mean to have fun at work? Is it an oxymoron? Or is it the key to a better future of work

Most leaders don’t have a good pulse on how to create fun work environments for their employees. Staples of the traditional workplace–from blouses and briefcases to bland and sterile cubicles–seem far cries from our ideas of “fun.” On the flip side, while modern-day fixtures of Silicon Valley startup darlings–like ping pong tables and beer-on-tap–might be considered fun at first blush, are they really? 

In a world where only 20 percent of workers are engaged at work, unpacking the science of how to have fun at work is now a business imperative. Intuitively, many leaders recognize the importance of creating fun environments at work but they struggle with execution. The common knee-jerk efforts to host happy hours and install foosball tables in the workplace don’t cut it. 

At Asana Labs, where I work, one of our research areas focuses on better understanding the science behind how to have fun at work. Our first study, which I led with my collaborator Joshua Zerkel, was intended to be a launchpad for future reasearch. It involved asking members of two of our internal teams, “What does having fun at work look like for you?” In analyzing these responses, we found that there’s a surprising science behind having fun at work. 

Employees want deep fun, not shallow fun. 

The first key takeaway that emerged from our research is that employees see “fun” as intimately linked with working on difficult problems. Employees said that, for them, fun looked like:

  • Diverse panels and roundtable discussions with hard-to-swallow topics. 
  • Work-related, organized, and productive brainstorming sessions. 
  • Carving out for creative thinking in pairs or as a group. 

To better understand this relationship between fun and solving difficult problems, it’s useful to delineate between two different kinds of fun: deep fun and shallow fun. As Adam Grant has explained, “shallow fun” involves playing games at work (like ping-pong and foosball). In contrast, deep fun involves “working with people who stretch your thinking to solve problems that are novel, hard, and important.” 

Confirming our research, Grant says that deep fun is what you want. As a leader, if your definition of fun at work doesn’t involve your employees working on difficult problems that stretch their thinking, it’s time to revise your definition. 

Surprise, surprise.

The second key takeaway from our research is a bit meta. It turns out that the surprising science of having fun at work involves surprise. Multiple employees associated having fun at work with surprise, such as: 

  • Surprises and delights.
  • Going on random adventures with coworkers during the work day. 
  • Random brainstorming sessions. 

How can we explain the relationship between fun and surprise? We can gain some insight from research that has looked at the relationship between surprise and pleasure. Research shows that surprise triggers dopamine–a neurotransmitter often referred to as the “pleasure chemical”–to release in the brain. 

A fascinating study by Emory University researchers involved squirting fruit juice into the mouths of study participants. Some participants received juice squirts at predictable intervals, while others received squirts at random intervals. When the researchers reviewed MRI scans of participants’ brains, they found that the unpredictable, surprise squirts evoked more dopamine release.  

The next time you’re designing a “fun” activity for your employees, consider infusing an element of surprise. No when2meet polls, no RSVPs–just a dopamine-releasing element of surprise. 

The gift of time. 

The final takeaway from our research was perhaps the most surprising. We found that some employees associated having fun at work with the gift of time. They associated having fun with efficiency, effortlessness, and even having fewer meetings. They said that, for them, fun at work looked like: 

  • Working on campaigns or projects that are run efficiently. 

  • A work environment where employees work more effortlessly. 

  • Workdays without back-to-back meetings. 

This link between fun and the gift of time may be unexpected, but it speaks to the rampant time famine that employed workers have faced for decades. Research by Gallup has found that 61 percent of working Americans say they do not have enough time to do all they want to do each day.

Our research suggests that, even with great intentions, it may be challenging to create fun workplaces when employees are swimming in meetings, workplace inefficiencies, and overwhelm. Bob Sutton and Leidy Klotz’s brilliant research on friction and the value of subtraction in the workplace may help you lay the foundations to be able to infuse fun into your workplace. 

Oxymoronic no more. 

“Fun” and “work” don’t need to be oxymoronic. Quite the opposite, having fun at work is key to boosting employee engagement, which, in turn, can positively impact your bottom line. It’s time to embrace the secret science of having fun at work. 

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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